long live the Lizard King

>> 7.03.2009

Frequently, when I’m at work, I forgo going out for lunch; instead I walk down to the corner store and pick up a pop, a banana, and maybe a sandwich. The other day, I was at said store, waiting in line to use the ATM, and I saw a dude wearing a black Ernie Sims jersey—just like the one I'd started saving up for in the middle of his rookie season.  At first, I felt a pang of regret--I never did sock away enough cash to pick up that jersey.  Then, I was alarmed: this guy was in a beat-up pair of denim shorts and work boots, and the jersey wasn’t in great shape either.  Being a weekday, this guy had almost certainly been working outdoors, and was just stopping in for a pop.  Was this guy wearing his Sims jersey . . . as a work shirt?

Of course, the Lions have changed their uniforms--the more recent jerseys are neither new enough to be cool, nor old enough to be throwbacks.  Further, they’ve done away with the black jerseys entirely—wearing a black jersey is both dating yourself, and repping the very darkest days of the franchise.  Then, of course, there’s the final piece of the puzzle: Ernie Sims has not exactly been the linebacking terror he promised us he’d be with his monster rookie season.

Coming out of high school, native Ernie Sims was rated the #1 overall recruit by Rivals, and the #1 LB by Scout.  After the native Tallahasseean terrorized people at Florida State for three years, the Lions drafted “Cinnabon” #8 overall.  Garnering 125 tackles in his rookie year, Sims immediately made an impression on his teammates—and left his impression on opponents.  This is about when I started saving my pennies.  A young, fire-breathing, game-changing linebacker?  Yes sir, jersey please!

However, his second season was kind of a mixed bag.  His statistical production went up, but he was clearly freelancing more and staying within the system less.  In the Tampa 2, that’s not just a problem, that’s a liability.  The T2 run defense absolutely depends on every single player being exactly where they’re supposed to be; if someone freelances, the potential to give up a huge play is . . . well, huge.  In the midst of the disastrous 0-16 season, it was painfully obvious that he’d tuned out the coaching staff.  Neither playing within the system, nor exploding to the ball on his own, it looked like Sims had officially checked out—and not buying a jersey looked like a mistake avoided (and in a house currently stocked with Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Mike Furry, Kevin Jones, and Charlie Batch jerseys, I need to avoid mistakes as much as possible!).

However, this season promises to be different for Ernie Sims.  The Tampa 2 is long gone, replaced by Gunther Cunningham’s highly anticipated blitz-heavy hybrid defense.  The linebackers will be asked to blitz constantly, both to disrupt the pass and defend the run.  The operative word will be “downhill”.  Running downhill, attacking attacking attacking.  Running to the ball with maximum speed and maximum explosion; laying lumber to whomever’s unfortunate enough to be in the way.  This, it should be obvious, dovetails nicely with Ernie’s strengths.

It’s been repeated throughout the offseason, though most fans haven’t paid much attention: Ernie Sims is primed to be an incredible force in 2009.

  • Back in May, Gunther Cunningham tried to tell us.
  • Shortly thereafter, Ernie himself tried to tell us.
  • Just recently, Tom Kowalski penned an article trying to tell us.

You know it occurs to me . . . all offseason long, we’ve been so obsessed with the Lions acquiring new talent, “filling” all of the “holes”, replacing all the 2008 starters with different players.  Here, Killer says that in Cunningham’s system, Sims will be a different player—and it really makes sense.  During the minicamp sessions, The Grandmaster said that in the 14-week offseason lifting program—which changed from an emphasis on strength without mass to an Olympic-style explosion- and mass-building program—team upper body strength increased 21%, and lower body explosion increased 14%.  Given the 95% participation rate, that means that some of the players have undergone serious transformations.  Now, Cinnabon is unlikely to be one of them, given his current physique.  However, a lot of players we think we know “the book” on might yet surprise us—players like Ikaika Alama-Francis, who’s been getting a lot of reps at DT, or Stephen Peterman, whose power hasn’t always matched his big frame.  I’m not saying that the team that went 0-16 is suddenly going to be stocked with Pro Bowlers . . . but don’t be surprised if guys you’d written off suddenly look somebody you’d never seen before.

Ernie, however, might look like the guy we all saw in 2006—and that guy I saw last week might want to take better care of that jersey.


Pacer,  July 4, 2009 at 12:12 AM  

Ty-interesting as always. I would love your comments on this supposition-relates to Sims as well as others on the Lions.

I believe the Lions drafted extremely well for the 2008 draft and pretty good for the 2007 draft-especially on defense. I also think the new regime knows that. The problem was the Tampa 2-it was not a fad but it was certainly falling out of favor throughtout the NFL. It relies on quickness and discipline. The discipline part is exemplified by the saga of Ernie Sims. The problem with the Tampa 2 is that players today can run right through defensive players who, even if they are in the right position, can't handle a receiver or running back going "downhill" at full speed, simply because the defensive player was not strong enough of big enough to make the tackle.

ESPN rated the 2008 draft for the Lions as A- second best. Why did they then have an 0-16 season-coaching. It's not that the Lions had all bad coaches. They simply did not have coaches-head coach and co-ordinators who were in tune with where the NFL was headed for the future. Example, Marinelli, head coach of the Lions had at least 4 teams lined up to have him on their coaching staff. He turned down a defensive co-ordinator offer and accepted the defensive line coach at Chicago-Why? Because that is what he is-a highly respected defensive line coach. Certainly not a head coach.

The Lions have made a ton of moves to re stock the roster-except on the defensive line and in some cases the interior line backers. Why??-is it possible that the new head coach, a really good defensive co-ordinator for a number of years, knows he has talent at that position-coach them up, get them to get bigger, God knows they are already fast, and bring them together as a team. I thought that before the new regime took shape-I think it now. It's not like there are a lot of good defensive linemen available in any year but clearly that was not the Lions number 1 priority.

Let's watch what happens with Dizon-a bust-maybe, but I don't think so. There will also be others who play better than we think they can but I will focus on Dizon-another 2cd round pick. Check out his college stats-the guy could make plays-big time. Can the new coaching staff get him to do it at the next level?

We'll see.

Baxtersbuzz,  July 6, 2009 at 11:07 AM  

Ty, great piece. Pacer, you made some really good points. Maybe those young D-Linemen look better on tape and the coaches have high hopes for them. And maybe they are targeting some veterans to fill in temporary while the youngins get a solid year of good coaching, ready to be impact players the season after this upcoming one.

I don't know if those maybes are likely, but I hope they're true!

Speaking of Sims, those linemen have a lot to say about what the LBs do. They also have a lot to say about the DBs success too.

Sometimes a system is so rigid that players are not allowed to act on the instincts they have. Hopefully, with Ernie being able to read and react more, he'll look like that kid we drafted in 2006.

Ty,  July 6, 2009 at 4:07 PM  


Wow, a lot of great stuff to respond to! First, I really don't like to blame the Tampa 2 for being "out of fashion" with fans. The Steelers' 3-4 was "out of fashion" five years ago, and now everybody wishes their team was running it. It's a copycat league, and the reason teams started running the T2 was because Tampa was killing people with it. Don't forget, it was only three years ago that two T2 teams met in the Super Bowl. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Tampa 2--other than the fact that you need a couple truly special pass rushing DEs, an SLB that can do it all, and an MLB that can cover centerfield like a safety . . .

. . . but then, EVERY defensive system requires a few special players, or player archetypes, to be effective. Every football scheme, be it offensive or defensive, can be either effective or ineffective, depending on the talent and the coaching. A crappy blitzing 3-4 is still crappy. A sweet cover T2 is still sweet. Schemes have virtue in and of themselves in only two ways: A) the scheme is something new, and therefore opposing coaches don't know how to handle it, and B) the scheme effectively maximizes the available talent.

That's it. Case in point, the Dolphins' Wildcat packages was effective--in spots--because A) it was new and B) Ronnie Brown was good at it. When there are 10 teams running some flavor of the Wildcat in the fall, it will be much less devastating because it won't be new--and chances are, most of the teams really won't have the chance to run it.

In the case of the Lions' defense, the problem wasn't that all the players were undersized, it's that they were crappy. If Kalimba Edwards had been as effective Dwight Freeney or Simeon Rice, the Lions's Tampa Two would have been much better--despite not being any bigger. The Lions' problem BECAME the fact that the players were crappy AND undersized! There were a lot of players on the 2008 roster who were serviceable in the T2, but not so in the new system.

As far as some of the young players go, I'd also caution you to remember that draft grades are usually based in context of what the grader thought the team needed for the upcoming season--as in, 'The Lions need an MLB and got one in round 2 with Jordon Dizon; great pick'. This assumes that the grader knows what the team's needs really are, and often disregards the real quality of the prospect.

That said, there is indeed a lot of young, raw talent on this roster. As Gunther said to Dizon when Dizon confessed he thought he'd been drafted too highly, "The Lions took you in the second. We [Kansas City] had you graded at the top of the third. Does that mean we're stupid, too?" The problem wasn't that Dizon "sucks", it's that he was a natural SAM who needed a year or two to get bigger and adjust to the NFL, being thrust into the starting MLB's role. Now they're using him as the #2 SAM and the nickel Mike . . . and guess what? He's playing much better!

So again, yes, there is some talent here; it's up to the Lions' new staff to devise a new scheme that will maximize that talent, and acquire the rest of the talent that will make that system work. So far, so good--on both counts.


Ty,  July 6, 2009 at 4:08 PM  

correction: "chances are, the teams won't really have the TALENT to run it"


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