throwing down the gauntlet

>> 8.08.2009

Maybe it’s a generational thing.  There are a lot of football fans I know—especially those over 40--who won’t buy or wear jerseys.  The typical line goes something like, “What kind of limp-wristed pansy wears a jersey with another man’s name on the back?”  Others simply don’t like the look, or won’t spend the money.  No matter your age, most put off buying a jersey because they're deathly afraid of being That Guy:sadly mothballing the jersey of the bust/flameout/druggie/woman abuser who looked so good a season or two before.  Or worse, being THAT That Guy, walking around repping the loser anyway, maybe even getting enshrined on Straight Cash Homey.

Fans my age, 27, were growing up when wearing the jersey of your favorite player became legitimately fashionable. The “throwback” craze hit just as my generation was discovering the wonders of summer jobs and disposable income.  It’s only natural that when I, a rabid Lions fan, reached college in 1999, I began my unintentional quest to be The King Of That Guy.

It started with a home Charlie Batch replica--right before Millen came in and changed the jerseys.  Shortly thereafter, I added a Duce Staley (Eagles) home replica.  After both players flamed out and went to the Steelers, I was desperately in need of a new jersey—both to rep a current player, and to get one of the new jersey style.  My fellow Spartan, and acquaintance, Chuck Rogers happened to go #2 overall in the draft to the Lions--the question of who to rep had been answered.  My then-girlfriend (now wife) surprised me on my birthday with an away “C. Rogers” #80 replica.  It's still one of the best gifts I've ever recieved, even if it didn't turn out so hot.  After we married, I picked up a home replica of her favorite Lion, Roy Williams, and a kids-size Kevin Jones home replica for our first daughter.  When my son was born, we picked up a youth Mike Furrey home replica for my daughter, and my son inherited the Jones.

At this point, I desperately needed a new jersey, but wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge on a current Lion.  I’d been planning on going big-time with an Ernie Sims authentic, but it was a pretty big investment on a player who took a pretty big step back after his rookie season.  After winning a fantasy championship partially on the back of Chad Johnson, I went to a Reebok outlet sale and snagged a Bengals “Johnson” #85 home replica on the cheap.  So, to review: as of Friday morning, I myself had four jerseys, my wife had one, and my kids had two.  Of all of these jerseys, only one player has not left their depicted team in disgrace—and that guy HAS SINCE CHANGED HIS LAST NAME.

At the open practice tomorrow, the new-look Lions take their home field for the first time--all decked out with their new uniforms and new logo; I knew I couldn’t trot out the Chuck Rogers, or the peeling-numbered Batch “throwback”.  As the Flamekeeper, the torchbearer, the self-appointed philosopher king of all true diehard Lions fans, I knew there was only one player I could in good conscience come bearing the livery of: Matthew Stafford. As much as I like Megatron, Kevin Smith, Julian Peterson, Cliff Avril, all those guys, Stafford is the franchise.  He’s the quarterback, the field general, the spokesman, and the lynchpin of the entire organization.

Sure, there are a lot of naysayers, a lot of doubters, and a lot of obstacles to his success.  But forget that. I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I’m investing my fandom—and my hard-earned jack--in this wunderkind.  I said before the draft that if he’s the pick, we fans have  got to support him the way we never supported Joey—and I’m not only going to support him, I’m picking up the banner and running.  I hope that people see me, hand-in-hand with my wife and three kids, rocking the authentic Stafford, and think, “Wow, that guy must really believe.”  And, maybe, possibly, then think “maybe I should, too.”

When I had this epiphany, I first obtained the blessing of my incredible (and incredibly understanding, and incredibly forgiving) wife.  Then, I went to a Michigan-based collectibles chain called Legends Sports & Games, calling first to reserve one in my size.  The employee working behind the counter, by appearances in his mid-40s, seemed almost bemused by my eagerness to score this shirt.  He asked if I was a Lions fan, or just thought maybe they’d turn it around this year.  My reply kicked off a nice little conversation about being a Lions fan, my blog, and the proper sizing of an authentic (the shoulders are cut to accept pads; going too big will have an effect not dissimilar to “princess sleeves”).

I asked him if he was a fan too, and he replied that he was--but after all the years of frustration, he was finding it hard to even try anymore.  He looked at me and said, “Just give me something.  Please, tell me these guys are going to do something worth watching this year.”  I didn’t hesitate to reply in the affirmative, specifically that the defense will be incredibly aggressive.  He smiled, said he hoped I was right, and proceeded to cut me a great deal on the jersey.  That put a smile on my face, and—I hope—stoked the little blue flame in his heart.

I likely won’t be posting again this weekend, but I do plan to be Tweeting updates from Ford Field all day long.  So, if you aren’t coming, stay tuned to @lionsinwinter for live firsthand reports.  If you are planning to be there, email me at, and maybe I’ll see you there.


The Lions Congregation, Preseason Style!

>> 8.07.2009

It's time again for The Lions Congregation over at the Church of Schwartz; the first, best, and only roundtable of the best of the best of the Lions blogosphere . . . and me.  This week, the flock ponders the following ineffable questions:

1. Which offseason addition will have the biggest impact on the team in 2009?

2. Aside from the big offseason signings (Foote, Bryant J, Grady Jackson, Buchanon, Loper) what under the radar signing will have the biggest impact?

3. What is the one position where we can least afford an injury?


forget the past; we’ll be blessed to repeat it

A couple nights ago, I was down in the basement, hunting for an old CD.  While I was rooting around in a box of such stuff, I found a small treasure: my 1995 Sports Illustrated Detroit Lions Video Yearbook.  The old-school VHS tape—still in its shrinkwrap—chronicles the last great campaign of the Detroit Lions.  No, you read right; I’ve never watched it.  When I was younger, it was merely the recent past.  I figured, “Eh, what’s the point?  I’ve just seen it live!”  To top it off, the hideous, embarrassing, wasn’t-as-close-as the-scoreboard-suggested 58-37 dismantling of the Lions by the Eagles was such a disastrous finale; it poisoned my feelings of the entire season.  Tragic, because it was the kind of fairy tale we annually wish for--but these days, are never granted.

It started off as a typical Lions season: three straight losses to the Steelers, Vikings, and Cardinals, all by a total of just 16 points.  Then, a thrilling 27-24 win over the defending Super Bowl 49ers was followed by a bye week of basking in the glory.  A rout of the Browns got the Lions almost back to .500.  But then came a 31-20 loss in Lambeau, followed by an OT heartbreaker on the road--against Martin Mayhew and the Redskins.  The Lions did get the Packers back at home, 24-16, but then dropped the next one in Atlanta, 34-22.

The Lions sat at 3-6, all but eliminated from the playoffs.  The calls for head coach Wayne Fontes’s head roared from all corners of Lions Nation: “Now, finally, please, Mr. Ford!  Isn’t this enough?  3-6, doubtlessly heading for another 5-11 or 6-10 season?  Surely, even you can admit that it’s finally time to bag the Big Buck.”

No, of course not.  Nothing doing.  Amazingly, Fontes and the Lions weren’t having any of it either.  After coming out and beating the Buccaneers, the Lions tore through the Bears, Vikings, and Bears again to make four straight division wins.  After beating the Oilers, they routed the hapless Jaguars (in their inaugural season) 44-0.  Needing a win to, incredibly, secure a Wild Card berth, they waltzed into Tampa Bay and waltzed back out with a 37-10 victory.

It bears going over just how incredible this season was from a statistical perspective.  Scott Mitchell had, by far, his best season as a pro.  He threw for 4,338 yards, threw 32 TDs to only 12 INTs, rushed for another 4 scores (!), and achieved a passer efficiency rating of 92.3%.  Herman Moore set the all-time single-season receptions record with 123 (the record stood until 2002).  Brett Perriman, the Lions’ stalwart #2 wideout, hauled in 108 catches, too—the first time in NFL history that two receivers from the same team both caught over 100 balls in the same season.  Barry Sanders toted it 318 times for 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns; it was his 7th consecutive 1,000-yard season.  He also had 48 catches for 398 yards and another score.  Sanders, Moore, LT Lomas Brown, and C Kevin Glover all made the Pro Bowl.  Interestingly, Scott Mitchell set a Thanksgiving Day record with 410 passing yards.

After the Lions had completed the feat—run the table from Week 11 in—the national media really turned their heads.  I remember relishing the Sports Reporters on ESPN the following Sunday; Mitch Albom barely containing his glee when Mike Lupica interjected, “I’m sorry, but does anyone want to play the Detroit Lions right now?  No!”  Of course, there was a little talk about how the Lions didn’t beat any other playoff teams during that seven-game streak--but in the NFL, closing out a season like that is practically unheard of.  Lomas Brown went so far as to assure the media in Detroit that they would go on to handle the Eagles in the first round.  It didn’t quite happen that way.

After the Eagles intercepted Mitchell on the opening drive, they ran it in to draw first blood.  Mitchell recovered with a beautiful 32-yard bomb to tight end David Sloan.  Somewhere in Holt, MI, a 14-year-old geek jumped, hollered, and fist-pumped his way around his living room.  It was a very short dance.  Former Lions quarterback Rodney Peete lead the Eagles to 44 consecutive points to make it 51-7.  The attic door slammed shut on Cinderella, and Drizella rolled out in the Prince’s carriage.

Mitchell was pulled after his fourth filthy INT.  Backup QB Don Majikowski did some good things in relief—like hit Herman Moore for a 68-yard TD strike—and made the final score look almost respectable: 58-37.  It remains the highest total points scored in any NFL playoff game; it made for the Lions’ third straight first-round playoff loss.  We Lions fans thought it was the bitterest agony: to be so close to glory, but fall flat time after time after time.  However, in the next thirteen seasons, we would taste that exquisite agony but once.

Tomorrow is the annual extravaganza down at Ford Field; thousands of fans—including Clan TLIW—will commence with the pilgrimage to Ford Field for autographs, face painting, hot dogs, pop, beer—and, oh yes, Detroit Lions football.  That’s right, the new Lions in the new uniforms in Ford Field with full contact, full drills, and a full 11-on-11 scrimmage.  Do you understand?!  NEW!  FULL!  LIONS!  I can scarcely believe it!

My eldest child, who turns 5 next month, is old enough that she’ll definitely remember this.  She’ll meet some Lions, and get some stuff signed, see some football, hear the crowd--and maybe she’ll fall in love with this team the way I did.  My son’s appetite for sports is already insatiable—but he roots for the teams I root for, because I tell him about them and we watch them on TV.  For all the HDTV and Internet and CrackBerry and Twitter and all that junk—and hey, I’m a blogger, I’m all about “all that junk”—I remain convinced that the soul of sports is young fans, in the stands, in awe of the wonder and the spectacle.  The imposing size and complexity of the stadium structure, the seemingly infinite swath of green field and white stripes.  There’s nothing like it; thousands and thousands of fans, all wearing the team colors, all cheering the cheers.  Watching teams play live; that’s where kids become fans, and fans become kids.

Will I show my kids that tape?  Should I show them the Lions I grew up rooting for?  The last time the Lions could hang their hat on their wins and losses?  Do I want to show them what it was like the last time the Lions tore through the NFL?  The last time the Lions could strike fear into the hearts of opponents?  The last time Lions fans could truly roar with pride?  Eh, what’s the point?  They’re just about to see it live.


defense wins . . . training camp?

>> 8.05.2009

“Defense wins championships”.  It was nice bit of sports wisdom, which became a saying.  Then it became a truism, and then trite, and then a cliché.    It’s been said so often, it’s not even a cliché anymore; it’s seared into the mind of every sports fan.  Listen to NFL analysis long enough, and you’ll start to hear it in your dreams.  Follow football blogs and forums long enough, and you’ll read it so often you’ll see it with your eyes closed.  I wouldn’t be surprised if “defense wins championships” is encoded somewhere in our DNA.

We certainly found out what happens when you have no defense: the 2008 Lions were one of the worst defenses ever to take the field, and, well, 0-16.  I’ve often said that last season, the Lions fielded a 6- or 7-win offense, and a -10 win defense.  It makes sense; the Lions had the most physically dominant wide receiver in football, and a workhorse rookie running back.  With some credible coaching and a similar defense, the Lions well might have had six or seven wins.  Over the offseason, though, the Lions have drastically improved that offense.  They’ve drafted a franchise quarterback, added veteran #2 and #3 wideouts, drafted the most impressive 2-way tight end prospect in years, and added a veteran third-down back to take pressure off the second-year running back.  They’ve added, almost literally, a ton of veteran size and depth along the offensive line.  This 6- or 7-win offense should be more like a 9- or 10-win offense now.  So how come the defense looks better?

That’s right; the early word from training camp is that the defense looks better than the offense.  Early Monday morning,’s Alex Marvez tweeted that the defense “dominated the offense in pass drills”.  Tom Kowalski confirmed this with an article that went a little bit more in-depth.  On Tuesday, the story was no different—again, Killer provided us with a first-hand account of the defense having the upper hand in red zone 7-on-7 work.  In the same breath, though, Kowalski cautions us not to read to much into this; the defense is attacking and blitzing as they plan to do during the season, and the offense is still being put together.  It takes a lot fewer reps to for a defense to successfully blitz a linebacker than it does for an offense to seamlessly pick him up.

However, I do think there’s significance to this.  The offense is going to be the strength of the team this year—there’s too much more talent and youth for it not to be true.  That offense is going to go up against some very stout, aggressive defenses right away: Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago.  Don’t forget New Orleans, with new DC Gregg Williams, and the Packers under new DC Dom Capers.  This offense needs to get used to feeling the heat from all spots on the field.  They’ll see overloads, jailbreaks, zone blitzes, safety blitzes, 3-4s, and 4-3s.  The earlier, and oftener, the offense is tested with these aggressive looks, the more quickly they’ll adapt and grow.

Most folks’ objection to the Lions starting Matthew Stafford from day one stems from concerns about the offensive line.  Why?  If the line can’t protect Stafford, he’ll spend more time running for his life than running the offense.  Nobody wants to see Matt Stafford become the next David Carr; a can’t-miss prospect who can’t drink water, because it just drains out of all the cleat holes in his torso.  But part of avoiding the blitz is on the quarterback—there’s only so much an offensive line can do! 

Matt Stafford has to learn to protect himself with quick reads, quick decisions, and a willingness to throw the ball away if the play’s not there.  We saw Ben Roethlisberger do that in Pittsburgh last season;  the Steelers’ offensive line was regarded as below average at best--yet Big Ben stayed upright and made plays all year.  How?  He made great reads, made great decisions, and had great pocket awareness.  The only way the game will slow down for Matt Stafford like that is if he gets a lot of reps under pressure from day one.


Morning view

>> 8.04.2009

I've decided to continue with the Three Cups Deep-style quick hits throughout training camp; there's so much info coming out now that I've gotta hustle to skim off the cream of the crop and dollop it in your morning joe.  Monday’s practice sessions didn’t see a lot of new storylines break; rather, we saw a lot of the same storylines develop:

  • DT Landon Cohen continued to impress.  According to Tom Kowalski over at, Cohen followed up his jaw-dropping 50-rep performance in the bench press this weekend by making play after play on Monday.  Some folks are already calling him “Cohen the Barbarian”, which I find hilarious—those doing so are likely unaware of the literary allusion they make.  Cohen celebrated his 23rd birthday yesterday, and as he says this is indicative of his “grown-man strength kicking in”.  I should emphasize that there are plenty of rookies drafted in April whose 23rd birthday was a lot further back in time than yesterday.  Cohen, if he can continue to develop like this, could be the surprise gem that saves the Lions’ defense—in a year or two.  Unfortunately, there’s no mention of who these reps came against—and if it was linemen like Damion Cook and Dylan Gandy, we can’t start toasting Cohen’s breakout just yet.  Don’t forget, recent Lions past is full of traning camp rags-to-riches stories that never panned out.  Greg Blue, “Blue” Adams, David Kircus, Scotty Anderson . . .

  • The Detroit News’ John Niyo writes that DT Sammie Hill is getting a lot of special attention from defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz.  There’s a few great quotes from Schwartz in that story about how scouting Hill reminded him of scouting Leon Lett—and frankly, thoughts about the next Big Cat in Honolulu Blue get me all hot and bothered.  Here’s another difference between Schwartz and Marinelli: instead of the defensive line coach stopping defensive line drills to work with a guy like Hill—the head coach would stop team drills to work with a guy like Hill! Okay, that might be a sight exaggeration, but still—Schwartz is excited to see Hill in practice and watch the game film afterwards; NOT spending big chunks of practice working on fine points of technique with individual players.  Schwartz is coaching the coaches, and letting the coaches coach the players—exactly as it should be.

  • Killer also wrote a nice little piece on that exact point: Schwartz spending time with both the offense and the defense—and how his coaching to “situations” and mentally tying what they’re doing on the practice field to what they do in games so wildly varies from Marinelli’s.

  • Before the first all-roster minicamp, I wrote about ‘key performance indicators”, things that fans should watch for to see if real progress is being made.  One of those was the matchup of the receivers versus the corners; since we know for a fact that Megatron is an elite wideout, how the Lions’ corners fare against him will be a great measuring stick for how they’re doing in general.  So far, the results are looking good; according to the Free Press’s Nick Cotsonika, #1 CB Phillip Buchanon has been holding his own.  Killer reports that former EMU standout Chris Roberson got some reps with the ones when Eric King and Keith Smith both took the morning off with minor injuries—and did extremely well.

As always, stay tuned both here and at my Twitter feed for the latest!


three cups deep

>> 8.03.2009

I find myself waffling between waxing rhapsodic about the hedonistic pleasures of brewing coffee, and writing about the whole weekend’s worth of Detroit Lions training camp action.  I know what you folks have come here for, though, so I’ll get right to the good stuff:

  • Though many insist on 100% arabica beans in their espresso, I’ve found that a well-selected robusta bean can add a lot of bite and body to an otherwise . . . oh.  What?   . . . *sigh* . . . fine.

  • It’s no secret that the Lions’ new defensive scheme is going to rely heavily on the play of the tackles to stop the run.  With veteran run-stuffer Grady Jackson likely to miss the first few games of the season—and likely to be on a limited-snap leash after that--the Lions will desperately need at least a couple of the guys behind him on the depth chart to make a big impact.  Saturday’s conditioning tests saw two young defensive tackles make statements, indeed: Sammie Hill failed the conditioning test given to all players prior to the first practice.  We’re assured this doesn’t mean much; Hill passed the test later in the afternoon.  Hill himself blamed it on trying too hard to ‘wow’ with his long shuttle time, and running out of gas before he could finish.  However, this conditioning test was like homework—all of these players passed these tests at the conclusion of minicamp.  Seeing Hill on the sidelines for the first Saturday session because he failed the conditioning test was not a great sign.  Landon Cohen, however, blew everyone away by benching 225 pounds an incredible 50 times.  For perspective, B.J. Raji did 33 reps at the combine;  Sammie Hill did 27.  Cohen’s a very interesting case study.  When I reviewed the Lions’ 2008 defensive tackles in my Old Mother Hubbard series, this is what I said about him:
    “Cohen was a seventh-round draft pick last year from Ohio.  Not the Buckeyes, the Bobcats.  He was a destroyer up the middle, despite his relatively light 6'-4", 278 lb. physique.  Interestingly, Cohen was a 4-year letterman in track at his high school in Spartanburg, SC.  Track!  At Ohio, Cohen played the nose tackle position despite being a little undersized for that, even by MAC standards.  And yet, he was 2nd-team all-conference his senior year, with 59 tackles (27 solo), 12.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks, starting all twelve games.  Despite being a little taller, and notably thinner, than fellow rookie Andre Fluellen, Cohen is listed on the Lions depth chart as a nose tackle.  He saw time against several teams, setting his career high in tackles against the Colts (4).  I didn't get to see much of him, but from what I can find in scouting reports, he has excellent technique and leverage, helping him make up for his lack of beef.  He seems to excel in initial burst and shedding blocks with quick moves, but doesn' t have the range or athleticism to run around making plays on the edge or in space.  According to the info I can find, he's at his best as a one-gap upfield rusher.  Bottom line: Cohen is a true 4-3 one-gap nose tackle who was born a little too small.  If he could add a lot of bulk he could stay at NT--otherwise, he's another 4-3 UT/3-4 DE project.”
    It looks as though Cohen’s doing everything he can to add the bulk and strength he’ll need to stay at DT; this should be a very interesting position battle, indeed.

  • There was a lot of talk about the QB position coming into the weekend.  Though impressions of how each quarterback “looked” seemed to be heavily informed by the observer’s favored starter for the year, there was consensus on one issue: Matt Stafford is the real deal.’s Nate Caminata, the Detroit News’s Bob Wojnowski, and—astonishingly—the Grand Rapids Press’s Brian VanOchten all agreed: Stafford carried himself with a veteran’s poise and confidence--even motioning for a PI call after one threaded-needle pass fell incomplete!  He appeared completely comfortable with the playbook and the speed of the game, and has eye-popping physical tools.  All three agreed that while Duante Culpepper looked sharp, he might already be the 1b to Matt Stafford’s 1a.  Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press, however, appealed to caution, imploring the Lions to keep Matt Stafford on the pine, regardless of performance.  I enjoy Rosenberg’s work, but I couldn’t disagree more.  If Stafford’s relaxed, comfortable, confident, and executing better than anyone else, what possible reason could there be to hold him back?  Rod Marinelli held Drew Stanton back in 2008—reportedly, until they got off the schneid.  Stanton’s still waiting for his chance.

  • Speaking of DS, his performance on Saturday left a lot to be desired.  Rumor has it that he threw several ducks, looking far behind Stafford and Culpepper in execution, leading forumgoers to call for his head—or at least his roster spot.  However, I’ve been cautioning against having this knee-jerk reaction.  Stanton simply isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to blow you away in practice.  He’s not a shorts-and-T-shirt passer, he’s a gamer who makes it happen when it counts.  On Sunday, they ran through extremely harsh two-minute drills, and what do you know?  Tom Kowalski went out of his way to praise Stanton’s crisp execution.  Good on you, Drew.  Keep fighting--you deserve it.

  • Finally, Martin Mayhew had a nice little session with reporters, going over all the recent roster changes.  Mayhew said that he’s “happy” with the linebackers and running backs; there’s a good mix of talented, impact veterans, and talented, developing youngsters at both spots.  Beyond that, Mayhew said he was pleased with the amount of raw physical talent at quarterback. However, he refused to go any further than that, declining to say he was done working on any other unit.  Clearly, while he didn’t say a single negative thing about anyone on the roster, he sees holes at every other position group—which is good news, because I see them, too!  Mayhew said the Lions’ brass has “areas of concern”, and efforts to address them are ongoing.

Lots of good stuff from this weekend—and more is coming, because the Lions should be wrapping up the morning session as I write this!


A Public Service announcement

>> 8.02.2009

Thanks to everyone who’s been checking in and looking for the latest info!  Yesterday I was on an all-day road trip to Janesville, WI, to help my brother-in-law score a skee-ball table for his wife’s birthday.  I had my trusty BlackBerry at hand to pass along all the hot info—but unfortunately, the Lions have a ban on live sideline reporting.  So, even if I was down there, I wouldn’t be able to update this space as things happen.  Some of the guys who ARE down there are tweeting before and after practice.  I’ll be re-tweeting the best on my own twitter feed, @lionsinwinter.  If you’re not into the whole Twitter thing, be sure to check the sidebar on the right, it syndicates my last five tweets for your reading enjoyment.

Oh, and don’t forget, I (and some great other writers) are constantly updating over at’s Lions blog, the Blue Blog!  Stay tuned, folks, and thanks!


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