Yesterday, seven-year veteran tight end Casey FitzSimmons was forced to retire. A little Googling will bring up his semi-well-known tale: having played 8-man football in high school, FitzSimmons starred for the . . . wow, Fighting Saints of Carroll College. Yet, the Lions signed him as a free agent—according to Tom Lewand, strictly as a camp body—and he went on to capture the hearts of Lions fans everywhere with an eleven-start, 23-catch, 160-yard, 2-TD rookie season.
He started eleven games that year, and it looked like he was on his way to being a very viable receiving threat for the Lions. Somehow, thought, he was never quite able to build on that rookie magic—in fact, 2009 was as close as he came to even duplicating that initial effort.
You'll find a lot of people who'll tell you about how the Lions will miss his effort, his heart, his competitiveness, and his play on special teams. What you’re not going to hear a lot of is how much the Lions will miss him as an option in the base offense. Here’s an article I did breaking down Scott Linehan’s offense through the first few games. Note the bit on FitzSimmons:
Okay, this is a single-back, 2-TE set. Both TEs are lined up tight against the right side of the line. The Flanker, Megatron, is lined up tight to the outside of the TEs. This gives the look of a trips bunch, but the "trips" are 2/3rds tight ends. The furthest outside of the TEs, Fitzsimmons, motions out wide to that side. Now Fitzsimmons is the Z, Johnson is the X, and Megatron is the Y.
The defense now has a massive dilemma on their hands. They're going to blitz both outside linebackers, and leave the MLB to play shallow centerfield. The CB takes the bait, manning up on Casey Fitzsimmons. The middle linebacker is now the only one responsible for covering both Heller and Megatron. After the snap, you can almost hear him going "Uhm, uh, uhm, uh" as he tries to figure out what on Earth to do. He wisely gives chase to Megatron--and after Stafford hits Megatron in stride, he even gets close enough to tackling Megatron to be easily shrugged off by the great wideout.
I believe this was the exact same play that was called back by the "Phantom Chop Block" in the Vikings game. It worked just as well then, too.
Linehan loves to start with vanilla run formations, and add clever wrinkles and motions and layers until they’re fiendishly clever pass plays. Fitz, while he didn’t catch a lot of balls or score a lot of points, was nonetheless a very useful toy for Linehan to play with in those situations. Fitz could motion outside, forcing a cornerback to cover him instead of a receiver. Fitz could also beat many outside linebackers one-on-one, creating a mismatch that the defense would have to adjust for. Fitz wasn’t a load as a blocker, but he’d give it everything he had when asked.
Brandon Pettigrew, I’m convinced, is developing into a two-way force at tight end. Will Heller proved that he has softer hands than commonly thought. Dan Gronkowski’s a high-effort guy. But Casey FitzSimmons had a unique role in this offense, and his build, his athleticism, his length—and yes, his heart and grit and motor and effort and blue-collar Montana underdog white guy mojo—were a unique package, and it’s a shame that concussions forced him out.
On the other hand, good for Casey for making the right choice. Good for the doctors for having the temerity to give it to him straight. Good for the NFL for making this a point of emphasis. As difficult as it is to cope with a failing, broken body, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for me, and my family, if I suffered from severe mental illness in the prime of my life.
I'm sad, as a fan, that we didn't get to see Casey's underdog story reach its deserved conclusion. But I’m much sadder as a man. To see a strong, hardworking man my age lose his livelihood because of circumstances beyond his control? It’s heart-rending. You can just read it in his quotes, the frustration he feels at having his life derailed. I can only imagine what it would be like, and frankly I don’t want to.
So, here’s to you, Casey; best of luck in whatever you do from here. I know you’ll land on your feet.