completely useless waste of time, part I

>> 7.09.2009

The complete and total lack of football activity this time of year—this is the off-est part of the offseason—is maddening.  No free agency, no contract situations, no draft prospects, no nothing.  Not only is nothing happening now, there’s nothing to anticipate either.  No rumors to monger, no tidbits to share, no quotes to dissect, absolutely nothing to uselessly speculate on.  The coaching staff?  In place.  The schemes?  Drawn up.  The roster?  Set, for the most part, for this season.  The schedule?  Posted online for the world to see.

Hmm . . . are you pondering what I’m pondering?

Week 1: at New Orleans

The season opener feels uncomfortably like ritual sacrifice.  The Lions have gone an absolutely appalling 8-50 on the road since the dawn of the Millen era, and—just like last year—they’re traveling into the Deep South to take on an offensive powerhouse of a team.  Last season, quarterback Drew Brees shredded NFL defenses for 5,069 yards and 34 touchdowns.  Completing 65 percent of his passes, and throwing only 17 interceptions, Brees elevated his usual effectiveness to historic levels, falling just 15 yards shy of Dan Marino’s single season passing record.  While WRs David Patten and Terrence Copper left via free agency, the Saints return Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, and managed to retain Lance Moore and Devery Henderson.  The Saints also took great steps to bolster their long-floundering secondary, drafting CB Malcom Jenkins with their first-round pick, and signing CB Jabari Greer, S Darren Sharper, and S Pierson Prioleau.

This is a nightmare matchup for the Lions.  Their rebuilt secondary is one of the biggest concerns going into the season, and they’ll open the season in a snakepit against the most prolific passing offense in football.  Brees is too good, and has too many options, to be rattled by the Lions’ blitz.  The Saints’ biggest weakness, the secondary, figures to be much improved.  The only window of hope is, as usual, Megatron.  Jabari Greer and Randall Gay are solid NFL cornerbacks, but neither cracks 6 feet or 200 pounds.  The only corner they have who can match up physically is Jenkins, but this will be his first game in the NFL. 

A season-opening victory would be a huge, huge moment for the team and the fans.  It could provide the fuel for a run to respectability, much like last year’s shellacking by Atlanta unraveled everything.  Ultimately, though, the Lions will make it respectable--but I don’t see them winning. 

L, 21-34

Week 2: vs. Minnesota

The Lions will open their home schedule against the Super Bowl-bound Vikings.  They’ll be the Super Bowl-bound Vikings because they are always the Super Bowl-bound Vikings, every single year for the past fifteen years, no matter how many years they play about .500 football.  With the Lions boasting a new coach, new quarterback, new logo, new uniforms, and once again welcoming Brett Favre to Ford Field, the atmosphere for this game is going to be unbelievable.  If the Lions can get anything going in the first quarter, the crowd will lift them the rest of the way.

A win here couldn’t possibly be overhyped.  Breaking the losing streak would be like winning the Super Bowl.  If it happened in the first home game, it would mean a statewide celebration for days.  It would really, truly usher in a new era for the franchise.

Now, the Lions can’t run against the Williams Wall, because nobody can run against the Williams Wall.  The Lions can’t stop All Day, because nobody can stop All Day.  Jared Allen will eat Jeff Backus’s lunch.  Bernard Berrien and Percy Harvin are both way too fast for Anthony Henry.  Brett Favre is Brett Favre.

W, 17-14

Week 3: vs. Washington

Buoyed by the incredible thrill of winning their first game since December 23rd, 2007—The Day of Destiny for Washington, DC!—the Lions will host the Washington Redskins.  The Freemasons, Illuminati, numerology, and Mayan calendar aside, the Lions will take on Martin Mayhew’s old team for the first time since he ascended to the GM position.  Mayhew wasn’t much help the last time the Lions played the ‘Skins, though—Washington administered a 34-3 euthanization.  The Lions were completely dominated in every phase of the game by that Redskins team.  Now, both teams have changed coaches since then, but the Skins’ roster is superficially the same: QB Jason Campbell, RB Clinton Portis, MLB London Fletcher, etc. 

However, the ‘Skins made some big waves this offseason.  They signed monster DT Albert Haynesworth to a vault-busting megacontract, and picked up OG help with OGs Jeremy Bridges and, to the Lions’ chagrin, Derrick Dockery.  They overhauled their special teams, picking up P Hunter Smith and K Shaun Suisham.  They also drafted OLB Brian Orakpo with their first-round pick.

The ‘Skins are a much better team than you might think—playing in one of the most brutal divisions in recent memory, they managed to win as many games as they lost last year, yet still finished last in the NFC East.  Undoubtedly improved on-paper, and with a rare season of continuity in the coaching staff benefitting both the coaches and the players, the Skins will be a tough test.  Still, Campbell and second-year head coach Jim Zorn are both feeling the pressure; the Redskins reportedly made offseason overtures both to former Broncos QB Jay Cutler—and his former coach, Mike Shanahan.

The Lions’ best hope will be to contain RB Clinton Portis.  The rift between him and Zorn has made national headlines, and while he says their working relationship is fine, there’s no doubt that Portis is no longer the apple of his coach’s eye, as was the case with Gibbs.  If Portis struggles out of the gate, the Skins may abandon the run—and if Kevin Smith can get around Albert Haynesworth--the Lions could end up controlling the clock.  However, I just went against on-paper reality to hand us a win over Minny; I can’t do it back-to-back.

L, 10-20

Week 4: at Chicago

The Bears ended up with what might have been the Lions’ biggest offseason prize: former Broncos QB Jay Cutler.  For the first time, practically ever, the Bears have a legitimate top-flite quarterback under center.   His arm has given teams fits, and combined with the excellent young running back Matt Forte, the Bears’ offense is probably going to brutalize the Lions’ defense, especially late in the game. 

Now, since the Bears traded away practically their entire draft to get Cutler, they didn’t add much youth to their roster.  With nearly no high picks available to shore up their offensive line, the Bears signed free agent OT Orlando Pace.  No,w Pace isn’t what he once was, but I have to believe he’s still better than many tackles in the NFL, at least for this season.  They also did a “free agency trade”, where former Bears OT John St. Clair signed with the Browns, and the Browns’ old OT, Kevin Shaffer, signed with the Bears.  Finally, they picked up OT Frank Omiyale, from Carolina.  On the defensive side of the ball, added another former Ram, OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, and S Josh Bullocks—twin brother of Lion Daniel Bullocks—to replace the departed Mike Brown.

Matching them up, again, things look tough.  Cutler’s great at going deep to the outside, and I just don’t like the Lions corners in deep man coverage.  Then again, the Bears wideouts don’t scare anybody either—Marty Booker is gone, and the only WRs on the roster who caught a pass in the NFL last year are Devin Hester and Rashied Davis.  Hester is the #1 WR, though he has yet to prove he belongs anywhere on the field besides behind a return wedge.  If the Lions' corners can blanket the Bears' receivers, and the blitz can beat the Bears’ rotisseried veteran OTs, AND Forte doesn’t beat the Lions by himself, the Lions do have a chance.  Megatron is Megatron, of course, and the Lions’ increased bulk up front could give them an opportunity to control the ball. The Bears’ defense simply isn’t what it once was, and adding Tinoisamoa won’t address the Bears’ uninspired performances as of late.

On the other hand, I hear they have a hot new DL coach who can really whip his guys into shape.

L, 14-17

Week 5: vs. Pittsburgh

Yeah, this’ll leave a mark.

L, 12-42

Week 6: at Green Bay

The Packers are an interesting team.  As usual, GM Ted Thompson made no major moves in free agency—the Packers lost no one of significance, and added no one of significance (except perhaps C Duke Preston).  The Pack merely retained S Atari Bigby, then continued to build through the draft.  They selected DT B.J. Raji with the 9th overall pick, and followed that up with OLB Clay Matthews with the 26th pick.  These two picks will assist in the Pack’s transition to a 3-4 defense, in what is no doubt the biggest upheaval in Green Bay since . . . let me see . . . hmm, when was the last time the Pack faced a major transition?

Oh that’s right: after years of waiting for his rightful succession, QB Aaron Rodgers up and usurped Lord Favre’s throne.  Though Rodgers was mildly panned in 2008 for not carrying his team to more victories, those who watched the Pack closely saw that Rodgers looked like the real deal—it was the wet-tissue defense that let the Pack down, time after time.  Rodgers has been called the “human Juggs machine” by his recievers—and, oh yes, unlike the Bears, those recievers are really really good.  Between former Western Michigan standout Greg Jennings, and veteran stalwart Donald Driver, the Packers boast what might be the most underrated receiver combo in football.

If the Packers’ aging, depleted offensive line can hold off the Lions’ blitz, it’s going to be a long afternoon for the Lions’ defense.  Multidimensional RB Ryan Grant looks to bounce back after a disappointing 2008, and Rodgers is sure to have a little more of that carry-his-team mojo after a full distraction-free offseason as the unquestioned starter.  The least known quantity on the field will be the Packers' defense, which has searched for an identity for a long time.  The Pack have rotated defensive coordinators what seems like annually for what seems like a decade, but their latest is a doozy.  Dom Capers, a brilliant defensive coach with a resume a mile long, has taken over the Packers’ defensive roster—largely remarkable for its aging cornerbacks, passle of decent young linebackers, and pass rusher extraordinaire Aaron Kampman--and plugged it into his famed zone blitzing 3-4 scheme.  Oddly, that type of defense is suddenly all the rage again, after his Steelers (as DC) and Panthers (as HC) made it trendy the first time around.  Aaron Kampman has been publicly terse—and, it’s rumored, privately furious—about the switch from 4-3 DE to 3-4 ROLB.

At this point in the season, it will be pretty obvious if the switch is working—and, if it is, the Lions’ offensive line is going to struggle to protect Matt Stafford.  If Raji is as good as advertised, the Lions’ offensive line is going to struggle to open holes for Kevin Smith.  On the balance, there is plenty of wiggle room for a Lions victory—but most of it involves the Packers failing, something they rarely do much of in Lambeau.

L, 20-28

That brings us to the bye week, and the Lions have just one victory by my accounting—and that one was a total freebie!  Now to be fair, I think they’ll certainly take at least one of these home games--I put it on Minny just because A) it’d be an awesome story and 2) screw the Vikings.  I’m really going to have a hard time being talked into any more than 2 total wins by this point . . . I just don’t see it.  I think the Lions will do better on the back nine, but this is a brutal stretch.  I really, really, really hope Lions fans show the team some patience that it admittedly, has not deserved.


every dog has his day

>> 7.08.2009

Unlike when a new executive is brought in from another team, when Martin Mayhew was promoted to GM, he was already intimately familiar with his roster: a group of 53 players, plus a host of players on IR, plus practice-squadders, that had completed the NFL’s only 0-16 season just the day before.  He knew the strengths and weaknesses of all of them; he’d presumably argued either for or against the acquisition of almost every one.  Therefore, when he was handed that roster and told to make a winning football team, he knew he had a long, hard road in front of him.

First, of course, he had to establish a long-term vision for the kind of team they want to build—both with his front officemate, President Tom Lewand, and then his head coach, Jim Schwartz.  Then, he could go to work: subtracting players who didn’t fit that vision, and adding players who did.  Unfortunately, you can’t turn over an entire roster in one offseason; it’s just not possible.  Moreover, even between the draft and free agency, all of the players needed to fill the long-term vision almost certainly won’t be available the year you establish that vision.  That means that when Martin Mayhew went roster-building, he had to continually keep in mind that the point wasn’t to do whatever it took to maximize the Lions’ win total in 2009—it was to actually build the roster.

There’s been a bit of handwringing over how most of these changes have left the Lions--theoretically a youthful team starting from the ground up--actually quite old.  I’ve commented before that between Grady Jackson, (possibly) Kevin Carter, Larry Foote, Julian Peterson, Anthony Henry, and Philip Buchanon, the Lions’ defense would be the best in the league if it was 2004 now.   However, this is where you have to keep in mind the above.  The Lions were acquiring the kinds of players they need to win, because they couldn't possibly acquire all the specifc players they need to win in one spring.  However, pay close attention, because from here on out, the rookies that the Lions draft, and the young veterans they sign to long contracts, will fill those same roles.  DeAndre Levy could become quickly become young Larry Foote.  Sammie Lee Hill could develop into young Grady Jackson.  Louis Delmas could quickly become young Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu—and believe me, if Troy Polamalu had been past his prime and available as an affordable free agent, the Lions would have done everything they could to get him in here.

The key here is remembering that the older stopgaps are just that—stopgaps.  They might work out beautifully, giving the Lions a couple of very productive years, like Dan Wilkinson did earlier this decade.  They might already be out of gas, and barely see the field.  The beautiful part is that none of these “graybeards” have been signed to extensive deals.  Beyond Julian Peterson and Philip Buchanon—both on the right side of 32—the veteran acquisitions are all on one- or two-year deals.  Mayhew and the Lions could easily wash their hands of any of them.

As oft as Matt Millen is excoriated for his awful drafting, I think that has more to do with the visibility that comes with being in the top ten every year—the Eagles have been just as prolific and putrid as the Lions in taking first-round wideouts.  I really think it’s his free agent signings that sunk the team.  Over and over again, he’d make a huge splash by giving all the money in the world to the best available guy who played the position he wanted to address.  As one example, he backed up the Brinks truck for Dre’ Bly—an undersized speed-and-coverage cornerback—while his defensive coordinator was Kurt Schottenheimer, who preferred very physical press coverage.  Why?  The Lions were desperate for cornerback help, and Bly was the best one available.  To Millen, it didn’t matter that Bly didn’t fit the vision, it didn’t matter that Bly’s mouth was even bigger than his sizable talent, and it didn’t matter that the enormous money would chain the Lions to Bly for the next several years--he just needed to fill that hole.

Come next spring, the veterans that didn’t work out—or were eclipsed by younger players—will be let go, and another big infusion of players who fit the vision will be brought in.  This time next season, I really believe that we will see a Detroit Lions roster that is very young, very talented, and very close to the kind of team that Mayhew, Lewand, and Schwartz have meant to build.

As for now . . . well, let these old dogs have their day.  We might be surprised.



>> 7.07.2009

One of the most difficult things about being a passionate fan of America’s most popular sport in the dawn of western society’s Information Age is . . . well, all of the information.  It skews our perspective.  It shrinks our worldview.  It reduces everything to hyperventilated, frayed-nerve instantaneism where every single utterance of anyone in the employ of our favorite team is writ large across the glass and copper webs draped across the civilized landmasses of Earth.  Every sound bite and interpretable gesture is broadcast to the masses, with thousands and thousands of ravenous fans salivating for the delivery of every bit and byte.  Especially now, in the hard offseason—where nothing of significance will happen for over a fortnight—all forms of media must participate in what amounts to building construction; troweling great significance onto the most meager pebbles of news.

Unfortunately, this micro-level obsession robs us of our ability to even perceive the macro level.  LaDanian Tomlinson has practically been handed the career rushing record, and it’s taken as a given that Adrian Peterson will stay healthy and productive long enough to wrest the crown from him.  Larry Fitzgerald had two great playoff games this past, and analysts were saying—without sarcasm—that he had eclipsed Jerry Rice.  Within minutes of the shocking news of Steve McNair’s senseless death, he was being eulogized in 140 characters or less all across the Twitterverse.

As a card-carrying member of said Twitterverse, blogosphere, forums, New Media, and what have you, I certainly am no less hungry to consume information (and have my information output be consumed) than anyone else.  However, this last example--the swift, stunning death of Steve McNair—has really given me pause.  Reaction, overreaction, and speculation blew all over everywhere, well in advance of any actual facts coming to light.  When it comes to shocking, tragic deaths, I’d much rather find out the real story later than a dozen different wrong stories RIGHT NOW.  Moreover, what does this do to the families of the victims?  Outside of the very, very next of kin, I’m sure there are relatives that found out first (and probably wrong) from the Internet . . . just awful.

Seemingly millions came out of the woodwork to eulogize McNair, often based entirely on their years of having him on their fantasy team.  To me, given the circumstances surrounding his death, internet denizens presuming anything about who he was off the field is laughable.  For those who didn’t know him personally, all we have to go on is who we saw in uniform on Sundays: a tenacious competitor, a poised and confident leader, a quality teammate, and a consummate professional who persevered through incredible physical adversity to achieve great things in football.  Please, let’s remember him for that, and spare his family any further grief.


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