sixteen hundred pounds of beef

>> 5.30.2009

Sixteen years ago, right around this time of year, the Detroit Lions squad that had been a game away from the Super Bowl just two season before was scouring free agency for offensive line help.  After the freak on-field paralysis of Mike Utley, and the grotesquely untimely death of 25-year old All-Pro guard Eric Andolsek, the Lions were floundering to rebuild the interior of their line.  I remember the headline in the Detroit Free Press: "Lions Add Nine Hundred Pounds of Beef".  With the addition of free agent guards David Lutz, Bill Fralic, and Dave Richards, the Lions hoped that merely filling the holes with huge veteran dudes (this was '93, a three-hundred-pound offensive guard was still rare) would do the trick.

With the announcement of the signing of veteran OT--and former U of M standout--Jon Jansen, I couldn't help but be reminded of that time in 1993.  The Lions, whose much-maligned offensive line is "anchored" by small-and-slow but tough-and-smart Jeff Backus at LT, and small-and-fast-and-smart-and-tough but small-and-weak Dominic Raiola, have in the past 13 months:

* drafted 6'-7", 319-pound RT Gosder Cherilus
* re-signed 6'-5", 338-pound RT George Foster
* signed 6'-6", 320-pound T/G Daniel Loper
* signed 6'-7", 310-pound T Ephraim Salaam
* signed 6'-6", 306-pound RT Jon Jansen

Of course, the first thing that jumps out at you about that list is how completely enormous these five men are; Jansen's weight is down from his usual playing weight because he was trying to fit into Redskins HC Jim Zorn's West Coast Offense.  All five of them are naturally huge men with big frames.  The second thing that jumps out at you is my listing of Gosder Cherilus, George Foster, and Jon Jansen all as right tackles.  The fact is that all three were primarily (or exclusively) right tackles in college, all three were drafted to play right tackle, and all three are strong, tough, mean run blockers who are somewhere between "raw" and "horrible" in pass protection.  All three of these men are natural right tackles--all in different stages of development, and all with different upsides and downside, but all right tackles.  Complicating matters is the addition of Ephraim Salaam, who has played both right and left tackle extensively in his 12-year career.  However, he most recently was replaced (by a rookie) as the starting LT on a subpar offensive line in Houston.  Salaam, in his prime, had the agility to play left tackle, but at this point he is almost certainly more useful as an RT, or perhaps as a swing backup.  Then there's Daniel Loper, who has the big frame to play either tackle spot, but the strength and agility to play guard as well.  Loper was signed as the presumed new starter at LG, but at 6'-6" he's got a natural tackle's frame.  Finally, there's Gosder the Gozerian--the biggest of them all.  The Lions' 2008 first-rounder, Gosder started off slowly last season, but really started to show flashes of serious talent towards the end of his rookie season.

None of these men represent an upgrade over Jeff Backus at left tackle, and--a bizarre minicamp experiment by the Redskins notwithstanding--none have ever played center.  Moreover, veteran RG Stephen Peterman was just re-signed to a long-term deal, so the five giants are really fighting for two starting spots: RT and LG.  From my perspective, it seems like lunacy to bench a 1-year veteran whose floor is no lower than any of the veterans, and whose upside is arguably much higher.  The only advantage I could see in a Salaam or Jansen at RT is having a cool veteran head out there in situations where an untimely penalty could cost the game.  Also, of course, there's the possibility of these veterans being able to provide leadership, both verbal and by example, to the young Gozerian.  I believe that Loper still has the inside track on the starting left guard position, if for no other reason than he's a young veteran with extensive guard experience.  Foster, is the least likely to land a starting job--he will have to make his first career switch inside to guard, and then beat out either Peterman or Loper to land a starting gig.  In fact, since he's no less mental-mistake prone than Gosder, and unable to play LT like Salaam can, I'm inclined to believe that Foster's only hope of making the roster at all is to switch to guard.

It remains to be seen how effective these men, these giants who probably can't ride the elevators at Ford Field all at the same time, can be for the Lions in 2009 and beyond.  It's my hope that even if the holes aren't "filled" for good, and the problem isn't "solved", these veterans will still be able to bridge the gap between the line's present and its future.  To bring out the best in talented projects like Cherilus, Lydon Murtha, and Manny Ramirez.  To lift, run, practice, and perform like true NFL veterans.  To set the table for the next huge portions of beef.


meet the cubs: louis delmas

>> 5.27.2009

When Tom Kowalski told the world that he thought the Lions might draft a safety, USC's Taylor Mays, with the #1 overall pick, I laughed. When he suggested that the Lions might draft a local boy, Western Michigan's Louis Delmas, with the #33 overall pick, I pooh-poohed it. When he insisted that what the Lions defense--statistically, one of the worst ever assembled--needed was a playmaking two-way safety, I scoffed. Given how the Lions' front four were shredded to tatters by every running back they faced, given how awful the Lions' corners were at containing wideouts, and given how impotent the Lions' defense was on third down, how could they invest so much in a player lined up too deep to solve any of those problems?

Kowalski explained it like this:

"I understand that a great safety on a horse crap defense isn't going to get you very far, But that's one of the pieces of the puzzle: if you can get that guy who can blitz, who can play the run, who can play short zones, who can play centerfield."

Okay, I thought at the time, a Reed or a Polamalu is one of the pieces of the puzzle--but shouldn't that be one of the last pieces of the puzzle put in place? It seems to make no sense; the Lions are supposed to be building a defense from the trenches out, right? Why start with the last line of defense?

And yet, when the first pick in the second round was called, the Lions owned the rights to Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas. At just a hair over 5'-11", and just a hair under 200 pounds, Delmas possesses typical--not prototypical, typical--NFL safety size, combined with prototypical speed (4.53), and extraordinary playmaking instincts.

Hailing from North Miami Beach, in high school Delmas played all defensive back positions, wide receiver, kick returner, and long snapper (!). His senior year, there was an 8-game stretch where he never left the field. Still, neither Scout nor Rivals ranked him with any stars, and Western was the only DI scholarship offer Delmas had. Why? Well, Delmas has an extraordinary past I won't retell here. Simply read this jaw-dropping article by, and return here. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Speechless, eh? Yeah, so am I.

So once in Kalamazoo (official bio), Delmas immediately made an impact. As a true freshman, Delmas started all 11 games, earning him second-team Freshman All-America honors. He racked up 82 tackles (54 solo), 4 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions, eight pass breakups, and 11 passes defended. Let me begin that sentence again: "As a true freshman,". WMU's official site is a little hazy on individual season totals after that, but suffice to say his production only increased from there, becoming captain, handling kick returns, and making play after play after play. Let's go to the tape:

Sports Videos, News, Blogs
What we see here is exactly as Killer described: a two-way, playmaking safety.  He flies upfield and lights up ballcarriers, he can man up on a receiver (he played a little corner at Western, too), he can play centerfield and haul in interceptions.   In these clips, we see him take down a ballcarrier almost every conceivable way.  He hits them high, he hits them low, he wraps them up and brings them down.  He's sudden and explosive, and frequently looks like the best athlete on the field.  Of course, this is the MAC--he won't be the best athlete on the field in the NFL.  Still, this footage "pops".
In the controversial ESPN TV series "Playmakers", there was a scene where the veteran running back is watching as a rookie RB--a first-round pick--during a scrimmage.  Over a montage of runs by the young tailback, we hear the voice of the veteran.  He says something close to (sorry, don't have the video to reference): "You can see it.  It's not a movement--it's a way of moving.  Greatness."  That's the exact vibe I get when I see these clips of Delmas.  It's not any one thing that I see--its seeing him cover ground in a breath, fly right to the ball like it has its own gravity, slice right past his own teammates to stop ball carriers in their tracks.
It's funny, because I've always thought of a safety as a guy who cleans up messes; the last line of defense.  Sure, guys like Brian Dawkins and Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu can come up with big open-field hits or key interceptions, but isn't that really just the cherry on top?  I'm starting to wonder if I had it all wrong.  In watching these Western clips, you can see how Delmas would blow past his own men to come up and stuff the run.  You can see how he'd read the quarterbacks eyes, cut in front of an opposing receiver--currently being covered by another Bronco--and make the interception.  Then of course, there's the classic tale of Bob Sanders and the 2006 Colts: when he was healthy, their defense allowed less than 75 yards rushing per game--and without him, they allowed over 100 yards rushing every single game.  That's right, the Colts were by far the worst rushing defense in the NFL during the 2006 regular season--when Sanders only played the first four games--yet were the second-best rushing defense in the playoffs, when he was healthy.  One player, a safety, a 5'-8"-on-a-tall-day-safety, singlehandedly turned one of the worst rushing defenses into one of the best.
What do you think, Lions fans--should we add a similar player to our defense?
Heh, it's okay.  The boos will become cheers soon enough.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and there has already been some eating going on down in Allen Park.  Jim Schwartz on whether or not Delmas stood out at the rookie-only minicamp:
"Yeah, he stood out. I think that's obvious to you, me and the American people," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.
If you click on and read that excellent article (thanks to Tom Kowalski at, you'll see how Delmas is already taking the reigns, standing out, chattering, leading, involving his teammates, and winning them over.  One of several college team captains the Lions drafted, I believe Delmas is the most gifted natural leader.  If Foote and Peterson and Jackson are the veteran leadership Band-Aids, then Delmas is the guy who will be the leader of this defense for the next ten years.  Morever, if he's even 3/4ths of the players he's been compared to (Reed, Polamalu, Sanders, Sean Taylor), he'll be the greatest Lions safety since Bennie Blades--and a far more complete player than Blades was.  I really, truly believe the Lions hit a home run with this pick, and I think we'll know right away if I'm right.


the rites of succession

>> 5.26.2009

Michael Rosenberg's latest article really stirred up somethoughts.  He examined the Chicago Blackhawks, and their long slumber under their late owner Bill Wirtz--and their dramatic resurgence under his son, Rocky.  Rosenberg then wonders if the same thing is in the cards for the Lions when Bill Jr. takes the reigns from Big Willie Style.

This makes three critical assumptions:

1) the Lions' decades-long malaise is primarily the fault of William Clay Ford

2) when Big Willie Style passes on, Bill Ford, Jr. will grab the steering wheel and put the pedal to the metal

3) when Junior does step into the driver's seat, he will be a "better" owner than his father

The problem with 1) is that while it's impossible to deny the conicidence of Ford's ownership and the Lions' track record of futility, Ford meets all the criteria of a great owner: he has nearly infinite resources, he never hesitates reinvest them in his team, he built a gorgeous facility, downtown, with his own money, he's resolutely committed to Detroit, he hires football men to do the football stuff and gets out of their way, and he's loyal to a fault.  The only problem is that he's apparently not very good at hiring football men.

Brian VanOchten of the Grand Rapids Press has been amongst the most vocal and persistent Ford detractors; earlier this year he told Bill Simonson on The Huge Show that Ford is more concerned with hosting socialite cocktail parties in the secret rooms of Ford Field than winning football games.  Of course, being "committed to winning"--that is to say, making a show of being heavily involved in all aspects of the business--doesn't necessarily translate into actual wins.  Al Davis, Jerry Jones, and Daniel Snyder have wasted, literally, billions of dollars over the past decade trying franticallly to win Super Bowls--and, outside of the Gruden's Revenge Bowl, haven't even come close.  In fact, one could compellingly argue that these franchises would be much better off if their owners focussed more on fĂȘtes than football . . .

As for 2), it's widely assumed that Bill Ford, Jr. would relish the opportunity to take control of the Lions away from his father, "clean house", and run the team the right way.  Many point to his fateful statement to the media that he'd fire Matt Millen if he could as evidence of this.  However, when directly asked if he's anticipating taking over the Lions, he hasn't responded in the affirmative:

My first obligation is to Ford [Motor Company], and that's still the case. ... I love the team. I'm a huge fan and always will be. But I don't know at this point what I could really contribute at the team level." [Detroit Free Press, 4/2/2008]

Given everything that's been going on in the auto industry lately, even though Bill Ford holds the title of "Vice Chairman" of the Lions, he can't possibly have much spare time or energy to invest in the day-to-day operations of a football team.  I don't think that Bill could become a vocal, involved, hands-on, micromanaging NFL owner.  That's not his managerial style, and that's not where his priorities or passions lie--he's too busy getting FoMoCo back on top.

Finally, 3) just because Bill Ford Jr. is a better businessman than his father was (see: having the wisdom to step down as CEO in lieu of a more experienced turnaround man, Ford beating most of the rest of the industry in Q1 2009, etc.), doesn't mean his management style is going to vastly differ from his father.  It's true that he might hire better 'football men', or have a shorter leash on those that are clearly failing; who knows?  Maybe that will be the difference.  But the idea that the entire organization is somehow rotting from the top down because WCF is inherently evil, and once someone, anyone, else is in charge, the curse will be broken . . . well, it's simply not true.  Yes, the Steelers have a wonderful ownership family and have been consistently succesful.  However, they just faced off against the Cardinals in the Super Bowl--and the Bidwells have been consistently ranked among the worst owners in sports.  The Rams' Greatest Show on Turf era came under Georgia Frontiere, who was hardly a football maven or a businesswoman.  She inherited the team when her sixth husband died, and within a few years, moved the team to her hometown of St. Louis.  Even so, the Rams won one Super Bowl, reached another, and spent years terrorizing the NFL, all with her atop the organization.  If Bill Ford Jr. does nothing more than write the checks and watch the games, he'll be, on paper, no different than his father.  Finally, it's been reported that if Junior'd had his way, he'd have promoted Tom Lewand a long time ago--so no, I do not see any Rocky Wirtz-style house cleaning taking place.  

So what does this all mean?  I think it means that Bill's already at the helm.  Let's add up all the evidence: Junior says he'd fire Millen if he could; three days later Millen is fired.  The day after the season is over, Junior's favored candidates are given the keys to the franchise.  Last year in 2006, he stepped down as CEO of Ford in the prime of his career.  He's a self-proclaimed passionate fan of the team, and he knows that the franchise will be his as soon as his octogenerian father passes.  It only makes sense to put the "affairs in order" first.  Of course, I have no first- (or second-, or third-)hand knowledge of this, just my suspicions.  But when William Clay Ford drives off this mortal coil, I suspect that nothing will change except the signature on the checks.

So does this end all Lions fans' hope for a Blackhawks-style renaissance?  No--it means that renaissance, if it's coming, has already started.


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