the lions congregation: week six

>> 4.03.2009

It's that time again over at the Church of Schwartz.  The clergymen over there have submitted three more questions to the flock:

* If Matthew Stafford is our pick at 1.1, how many games does Daunte Culpepper start next season?

* If Jason Smith/Eugene Monroe is the pick at 1.1, where does Jeff Backus play next year?

* If you could bring back any former Lion (not named Barry Sanders) to be a part of this team, who and why?

I think the third question, and the answers to it, have been my favorite so far of the series.  Anyone reading this site who doesn't go scope this piece is missing out!


chapter IV: a new hope

Obviously, everyone's long since heard: Cutler was on his way here to become a Lion, but the plane ran out of gas and had to land in Chicago.  Jerry D'Angelo hopped the fence at O'Hare and commandeered one of those luggage-hauling golf carts.  He swooped past the airplane stairs, snatched Cutler off his feet, and together they drove for seven hours to the airport bar.  D'Angelo called up the Broncos leadership (by the way, are there any employees other than the owner and coach?  Where was the GM in this whole mess?) and offered them the moon and the stars, and the deal was done.

I'm kind of confused about where this puts the Lions.  They've successfully convinced everyone that they're taking Matt Stafford #1 overall.  It might be a brilliant ploy to hoodwink everyone, but let's face it folks: they might well be taking Matt Stafford #1 overall.  It's in their interest to create a trade market for the #1 pick, sure, but putting out the word that you're going to take the guy nobody else wants doesn't really accomplish that.  It's been suggested that the Broncos could package their #12 pick and new #18 pick and get the #1 overall from the Lions, but if that's what they wanted to do they could have just done that with Cutler to begin with, and they'd have kept their #12 to boot.  It doesn't look like a setup or a smokescreen or anything like that; it looks like the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one: the Lions really need a QB, and they have the #1 overall pick, and there's a half-decent QB prospect available, and that's that.

 The Lions' situation at quarterback hasn't changed.  They still have Duante Culpepper, who is wretched but can be propped up to the media and fans as a quasi-legitimate starter, and Drew Stanton, who's a very talented quarterback, outstanding young man, and local favorite, but is also in the doghouse for reasons no one understands.  They still have the #1 pick, and there's still Matt Stafford right there.  The question is, do the Lions believe in Matt Stafford?  Can a private workout answer all ot the many questions surrounding Stafford and his game?  Unfortunately the only people who know the answer to that aren't telling.

This brings me to an important point: we are now in the "BS Zone" for the draft: anything we hear from this point out is almost certainly leaked misinformation.  With yesterday's USC Pro Day concluding the circus of private workouts, teams are now going back to their bunkers to hash out and finalize their draft boards.  Once the scouts and coaches and GMs and player personnel folks have all had their say, and every team has their final grades done, and the draft board is set, nothing else can happen between then and the draft, except gamesmanship .  Most of the time, the "late risers" and "late fallers" and "trade rumors" we hear about in the media are mularkey.  Sometimes, yes, real info slips out, like the Vikings having Troy Williamson about a full round higher up on their draft board than most other teams.  In a lot of cases, the dramatic rise and fall of certain players's stock is just that real info correcting the speculation of the fans and media.  However, with the amount of disinformation, speculation, and fan hysteria going on, trying to pick out what is "real" and what is noise is so difficult that it's almost not worth trying.


It's disappointing to lose out on Cutler, of course, but the reality is that the Lions are better off with our 1.20, 3.1, 2010 1st, and whatever other value we would have had to part with to get that deal done.  This team has so many holes, so many needs, and so many chances to fill them; it would be foolhardy to deal off all that value and all of that potential for just one player--one who may or may not be any more talented than the guy the Lions will probably acquire for just the 1.1 all by itself: Matt Stafford.  We may yet see a dramatic move from the Lions, possibly a trade down from 1.1, or possibly a trade up or down from 1.20.  But, by far, the most likely scenario is that the Lions will to the obvious thing, the boring thing, the lame thing, the thing we all don't want them to do: take a QB number one overall.  Get your credit cards ready, folks, for your brand-new Stafford #7 jersey, on sale at less than ten seconds after the pick is announced.  A new hope, a new savior, another Skywalker.  Let's hope this one is more Luke Stafford and less Anakin Harrington . . . 


aaron curry, we hardly knew ye

>> 4.02.2009

I don't normally post straight links to other places without any other content involved, but please, everyone, if you haven't already, take a look at Pride of Detroit's interview with New Era Scouting's David Syvertsen.  It's really eye-opening, and chock full of all the "football guy" stuff that's missing from a lot of fan analysis (like mine), and doesn't have any of the fannish manlove (like mine for Curry), or fannish NEVER!s (like mine for Stafford).  Bottom line, it's just good stuff.


the grandmaster, rampant

>> 3.31.2009


In chess, you say "check" when one of your pieces has moved in position to attack the opposing king--when your next move, if not thwarted, would result in your victory. Throughout the length of a chess match, each king may be in check many times, or few; as quickly as within a handful of moves, or perhaps not until the endgame draws to a close. Often, check is a mere formality, easily escaped or blocked. The opponent might merely push a pawn, slide over a square, or capture the piece making the threat. Still, putting the opponent's king in check is always significant. The opponent must react to the move in some way, or the match is over. Occasionally, putting the king in check provides a time advantage, gaining what players call a tempo
; getting literally and figuratively one step ahead of the game. Even better, sometimes putting an opponent in check derails their strategy: forces a change in pawn structure, forces a trade of pieces, or otherwise weakens the opponents position. "Check" is most often heard in the middle and endgame, as the players' strategies develop, as the webs are woven across the board, as the snares are drawn, made taut, and set.

The Cutler situation has been brewing in Denver for weeks and weeks. Reportedly furious when his trusted QB coach was broomed with Shanahan and rest of the Broncos coaching staff (after Cutler was promised he'd be retained). Cutler reportedly asked to be traded right then. They temporariliy mollified him by saying the new offense would be markedly similar to the old one. The situation then deteriorated further when it came out that one of Cutler's favored targets, TE Tony Scheffler, was being shopped. Then began a curious case of "He Said, He Said" that may never be truly untangled . . . word came out that the Patriots were in the process of dealing Matt Cassel to the Chiefs--this was surprising, because all signs had pointed to the Patriots simply paying Cassel to stick around for one more year. When new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels realized that Cassel was available--his quarterback, the quarterback he'd groomed from a late-round nobody into a surprisingly effective starter, the quarterback who'd run his very offense at a playoff-caliber level just weeks beforehand . . . well, he was intrigued.

Martin Mayhew and the Lions sensed an opportunity, and immediately he began working the phones, devising a Flip This QB scenario that would send a pick (or picks) to New England, Cassel to Denver, and Jay Cutler to Detroit. This, I believe, was a "check" moment for Martin Mayhew's attempt to rebuild this franchise. For a second, us Lions fans got a taste of glory: positive headlines. Our beloved franchise's leadership making waves amongst the national media for competence and not buffonery! Finding out we were agonizingly close to acquiring a 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback in his prime! Even though the trade was not consummated at the time, there was no question that Martin Mayhew had seized the bull by the horns. He had played at the highest-stakes tables with some of the titans of the NFL landscape, and acquitted himself well. We saw we had a GM with vision, reflexes, and an opportunistic approach. It wasn't the end of the match, but a significant turning point? Absolutely.

Cutler took the news of he trade talks . . . poorly. As anyone reading this should know, he began a monthlong campaign to get himself traded. Not content to work for a head coach who'd rather have a less-tested, less-experienced, less-talented quarterback, he asked to be traded. The way the Broncos organization handled this couldn't have been worse, and after a month of bluster and gamesmanship by both sides, the Brocons have announced they are trading him as soon as possible, and have already removed him from the team website.

This couldn't possibly have come with better timing for the Lions: they just worked out a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer today. I immediately posted that this is either genuine, and an extraordinary quarterbacking talent has fallen into the Lions' lap--or, this is part of an elaborate smokescreen, the point of which I wasn't quite sure. There's currently no demand for Stafford; if the Lions do not take him he could fall all the way out of the top ten. Convincing the rest of the league that you are absolutely overjoyed to reach for Stafford seems to serve no purpose whatsoever . . . now all the teams beneath you can solidify their boards knowing that the Lions are no threat to take anyone they covet.

Unless the Broncos put a giant "FOR SALE" sign on Cutler, and open up the bidding.

Now, the Lions have leaked that Matt Stafford showed them much more than he'd shown anyone else to this point. Now, they have opened up the possibility that Stafford may indeed be a quarterback worthy of building a team around. Now, they are entering a bidding war with, by far, the most expansive cache of ammunition. Let us not kid ourselves: though the Jets, Buccaneers, Bears, 49ers, and Browns have called the Broncos to make their bid, none of these teams have nearly the picks that the Lions have, nor do they have any way to replace what the Broncos would be giving away: a great young quarterback. Those about to protest that the Browns have Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn would do well to understand that if either of those quarterbacks were even nearly Cutler's equal, the Browns would not be trying to acquire Cutler. No, the Lions have positioned themselves as the only interested team that can provide a quarterback that might possibly replace Cutler: Matt Stafford. And the Broncos, by publicly severing ties with Cutler and announcing that he will be traded, have removed a significant amount of their leverage. Now, instead of a few teams bidding against each other, trying to make the Broncos part with the cornerstone of their franchise, there is one team who can give Denver what they so desperately need: a new quarterback.

It remains to be seen how this all will play out. But we are much further into the match than we were before. This may yet be another "check", a momentary derailing of the greater strategy in a battle that yet will rage for months or years. Or . . . it could be the beginning of the endgame. The crucial turning point in a war for respectability, for pride. The moment when the trap is sprung, and the snare draws fast upon its prey. The day before the day when the Lion can once again lift his head with pride.


just put him in canton right now

I should have predicted this.

"Sources described Stafford's workout as flawless, stating it was significantly better than his March 19 pro-day workout, also held at Georgia."

Uh-huh . . . like they'd describe it any other way.  The only people that should have been there are Lions staff and Georgia staff and Stafford people, which of course means that everyone there had a vested interest in making sure the reports of the report were "flawless".  If the Lions are going to put up a front that they really want Stafford, then at the 11th hour announce they're going a different direction, that's the only way they can create a trade market for a pick that, currently, nobody wants.

Of course, maybe it's for real.  Maybe they went down there with a game plan to rattle Stafford, and instead he completely blew them away.  If that's the case, then we as Lions fans should be thrilled . . . if he really is the complete package, then get that kid in Honolulu Blue and get him up on a podium!  I'm still intensely conflicted about this, because you could build the best defense of all time with the studs the Lions have passed on in the past five years.  However, it's indisputable by anyone who understands the game of football: the guy who holds the ball on every snap is the guy who can make the most difference to a franchise.  You can
 hide a bad QB with a phenomenal team, but a great QB can cure a lot of ills.  We might just follow the Indy model: draft a stud wideout, be atrocious, draft a stud QB to go with your WR, win a few games, add one more piece of the puzzle with a top-ten pick, and then dominate for a decade.

Deep breaths, folks.  Deep breaths.  We might have a football team come September, yet.


it's q-day

I believe that today is the day the Lions decide on Matt Stafford. Today, Schwartz, Linehan, Scott Linehan, and QB coach Jeff Horton will put Stafford through his paces.  John Niyo, and Nick Cotsonika have put up nice little pieces on it from two different angles.  

They'll be testing him in every way they can, shaking him out of his comfort zone and seeing how he reacts. Testing not just how much mustard he can put on a pass, but if he can accurately place a ball on a reciever, lead a reciever, throw it only where his reciever can catch it. Touch, spiral, catchability. Fades, screens, outs, slants . . .

. . . all the stuff Stafford hasn't proven he can do.  It is my belief that if Stafford can pass this test, that he can break out of his groove, be more than he's been, and show at least the tools to be a complete quarterback, he will be the first overall pick.  However, it's also my belief that Stafford has shined mostly by doing what he does, which is groove the ball downfield on deep go routes and skinny posts.  I think he's been rattled easily, or at the least has not been consistently calm and creative under pressure.  I have not seen him, in any of his games, show the kind of finesse, capability and versatility that a franchise QB must have.  

That all having been said, Scott Linehan knows exactly what he's doing with quarterbacks, and whoever he makes his starter of the future, he's going to be work hand-in-glove with.  When Linehan was hired, Schwartz said this about the QB-OC relationship:

"I think that the quarterbacks need one voice -- they need the offensive coordinator's voice,'' Schwartz said. "We still may have a quarterback coach, but the quarterbacks coach is going to be responsible for fundamentals and drill work.

"The only voice to the quarterback is going to be the offensive coordinator."

I said in my last post that Mayhew wouldn't pull the trigger on Stafford unless Schwartz knew that Linehan was comfortable with him.  Well, today is the day when Linehan finds out if he'll be comfortable with him.  They'll run him throught the gauntlet and see if he comes out the other side.  I guess we'll find out if he passed the test in late April . . . 

Non-sequitur: I recommend you all read this week's Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.  The last page has several great little nuggets on Schwartz, the Lions, the draft, etc., all very good stuff.


giving up the ghost, to keep the spirit alive

>> 3.29.2009

Winter is teasing us now; toying with us.  We get a little tickle of warmth, a flicker of sunshine.  A morning where walking out of the house into the early light makes your coat feel like a straitjacket.  An afternoon where the greenhouse effect in our car makes us seriously contemplate engaging the A/C.  Then, just the next day, we're out in the driveway with the scraper again: defroster blasting, jacket buttoned up tight, hands in our sleeves, and wondering what happened to the spring that had seemed to arrive.  This afternoon, snow falls gently falls outside my windows--and despite what the calendar says ought to be happening, it's accumulating on my previously greening lawn.

In the case of the Lions, there are plenty of parallels.  We've gotten glimspes of hope; blue flickers and silver sparks.  Most reasonable fans seem to agree: Lewand and Mayhew have displayed an undeniable level  of competence.  The holes in the roster have been clearly identified--and, for the most part, sensibly filled with inexpensive-yet-respectable veterans.  There are quality draft prospects at the remaining need positions, and the Lions have almost enough picks in the first three rounds to "fill" all of those needs.  The Lions's front office has, on paper, returned the franchise to, at least, competitiveness.  With these coaches, these players, and the schemes we understand will be installed, the expectation has to be that this team will--if I may be so bold--win multiple games.

Still, it isn't spring quite yet.  The nights are still bitterly cold and dark, freezing and killing anything green that might have been duped into optimism.  Whenever the wind picks up, jackets are zippered, hoods are put up, hats are drawn tight, and hands are shoved into pockets to ward off the biting chill.  The winds are blowing around me as I listen for news, for information.  It's getting harder and harder to not admit what's rapidly becoming obvious:

They're going to draft Matt Stafford.

It absolutely kills me to say it, but it's getting harder and harder to pretend like that isn't the salient move.  The notion of following in Bill Parcells' footsteps, playing agent off each other and signing the most signable guy, got deflated this week with Dave Birkett's observation that most of the candidates are represented by one of two agencies.  If Jason Smith and Matt Stafford are represented by Dogra and Condon--the two biggest agents at one of the biggest agencies--it's not like the Lions are going to be able to negotiate in secret, and leverage their positions against each other: the agents will surely keep each other appraised of how negotations are going.  Another undeniable fact is that this IS "the year" to take a quarterback; expectations couldn't be lower.  Simply winning a game would be a literally infinite improvment over last season.  Having practically nothing but an elite young reciever is exactly the situation Peyton Manning walked into, and the Colts went 3-13 his rookie season.

In fact, let's stop for a minute right there.  A lot of people, myself included, have derided Matt Stafford as being "no Peyton Manning".  People speak of Peyton as if he was an absolutely bulletproof prospect coming out of college.  However, this is revisionist history.  From Peter King's 1998 evaluation of him:

"He has done an excellent job of getting the most out of his abilities, but he is not quite as natural a player as Leaf. One question that some NFL scouts have is the question “will he get any better?”. At times he gives the appearance of being a self-made player, and sometimes those types of players don’t always go on to great NFL careers. In Manning’s case, he may be a solid and productive NFL QB, but he may not have Hall of Fame type skills, but it certainly won’t be for lack of effort. He has probably been the most scouted player in the draft in recent years, and because that NFL teams tend to look too much at potential flaws, instead of accepting him for what he is, a great college QB that is on his way to an outstanding NFL career."
[emphasis mine]

(Mr. King gets props for correctly predicting the Lions' first-rounder at #20, CB Terry Fair).  The whole "self-made player" thing doesn't really apply to Stafford, of course, but doesn't that last sentence ring true?  Of course, Stafford is not a completely finished prospect; he's a college underclassman, not a seasoned pro.  Peyton didn't come out of the gates a Hall of Famer--in fact, in his first season, he went 3-13.  I remember crowing at the time that the Lions' second-rounder, Charlie Batch, boasted passer rating over 90 in his rookie season, as if the Lions had pulled one over on the rest of the NFL.  Anyway, that 1998 season saw a confused and frustrated Peyton Manning lose more often in one season than he had in most of his life.  Ex-Lion, current (at the time) Patriot "Big Play" Willie Clay had this to say after beating Manning that season:

"He didn’t look like anything special," Clay said of Manning. "He didn’t do too much to impress. He threw some balls that were ill-advised. He looked like a rookie to me."

Don't forget that fact: no matter who the Lions draft, he'll be a rookie.  An extremely talented one, yes, but a rookie.  It will take time to learn the system.  It will take time for the coaches to be comfortable with him.  It will be time for his teammates to get comfortable with him.  It will take time for him to be comfortable, too.  Aaron Curry has repeatedly voiced his desire to be the leader of the defense, on the field and off, but that's a position that must be earned--if he just comes in and pops off, he might even undermine his teammate's confidence in him. None of these guys, no matter how great they look on tape, no matter how spectacular the measurables, are guarantees.

I'm not going to pretend that all surrounding Matt Stafford is rainbows and butterflies.  I still have grave concerns about his accuracy, decision-making, and football instincts.  I have doubts that he will be an effective leader.  But mostly, I worry about chaining the franchise to a rookie quarterback, like they did with Joey Ballgame.  But I look at what Linehan was able to accomplish with Duante Culpepper, and it got me thinking:  isn't Matt Stafford a similar QB?  Million-dollar arm, questionable head?  Can make every throw, but sometimes makes throws to the wrong guy?  Surrounded with talent but never won anything big?  Aren't these all the criticisms I've been excoriating Culpepper for all these years?  And yet Linehan built an offense around the big galoot that turned him into a 4700-yard, 39-TD, 110.0-passer-rating quarterback.  The one thing I can definitively say about Mayhew and Stafford is this: he will not draft Stafford if Schwartz is not on board, and Schwartz will not be on board if Linehan is not on board, and Linehan won't be on board if he doesn't feel he can mold Stafford into that kind of player.  Even if I blame Culpepper for the 'juggernaut' 90s Vikings never getting over the hump, staring up from the bottom of the 0-16 cesspool makes "not getting over the hump" seem like Paradise.

All I can do is make peace with it . . . and tend the fire.  Every day the blue flame spreads a little more, grows a little stronger.  Take a branch, folks, and pass it on.


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