Lions’ 2010 Offseason: Offense or Defense?

>> 2.12.2010

A hot topic of debate these days is whether the Lions should “go offense” or “go defense” in the draft.  Many say the Lions have had the worst defense in the NFL for the past two seasons, and they won’t be competitive until it’s addressed.  Others have argued that the Lions should “complete” the offense—if one unit is very good, the Lions may be more competitive than if both units were merely less bad.

I say it’s all missing the point.

This is the way the typical fan would approach an offseason, were they given the reigns to their team.  Keep the starters who played well last year, and any first- and second-year players.  Declare the remaining, unfilled starting positions “holes”, and add those positions to the “shopping list”. Then, rank the positions on the shopping list in your perceived order of need.

In free agency, go after the names you best recognize who play positions at the top of your shopping list.  As free agents are acquired, scratch their positions off the list.  Then, in each round, note your highest-ranked remaining need, and take the best player available at that position.  If, at the end of the draft, all of the “holes” have been “filled”, your team had a "good offseason".

Unfortunately, that’s not how you build a team.

Last year, the Lions churned the roster like crazy, trying to cycle in any amount of talent they could.  They used and abused their #1 waiver priority, bringing recent cuts from all over the league in for tryouts.  They also added some quality “name” veterans, guys like Larry Foote, Grady Jackson, Philip Buchanon . . . at the time, we called these guys “stopgaps”, players who could play at a decent level for a year or two while the Lions rebuilt the talent base of the team.

The funny thing is, it's now a year later; many of these one- or two-year players now only have one (or no) years left here in Detroit.  We as fans have to get over the idea that when Larry Foote was signed last year to a one-year deal, that the Lions were “set” at middle linebacker.  They were never any such thing; they aren’t now, either.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take at least this draft, and the next one, before Lions fans can look at the “starters” the way normal NFL teams do: as solid pieces that will be in place for several years.  Outside of Calvin Johnson, and most of the players from the 2009 draft class, every single position on the roster is a “hole”.

The Lions simply can’t afford to shackle themselves to perceived need, be it immediate or medium-term.  Practically every position on the field is still in play for practically every round in the draft; about the only thing that the Lions couldn’t use is a quarterback or tight end in the top few rounds.  The Lions can—and should—take the best player on the board, regardless of what position, or side of the field, they play on. 


Donte Stallworth to the Lions?

>> 2.10.2010

Those of you who have paid attention to my Twitter feed over the past year are well acquainted with my views on Michael Vick: he spent years as the architect, orchestrator, and Don of an empire of animal cruelty, animal murder, and illicit gambling.  After a six-year career filled with inconsistency, poor attitude, and bad decisions, in my mind he’d lost his privilege to play professional football.

Imagine my surprise when, upon Vick’s release, I heard the phrase “Vick deserves a second chance” about four hundred and seventy-two million times in the span of a few weeks.  On what planet?

Besides being a serial perpetrator of disgusting, torturous, brutal, soulless federal felonies, and patron of the attendant gambling rings, Vick flatly denied responsibility for his crimes, telling bald-faced lies to police and federal agents.  In fact, he only admitted guilt when multiple co-conspirators flipped on him.  As if his contempt for our justice system was in doubt, he made it plain by testing positive for marijuana while out on bond between his plea and sentencing.

Until he actually did time in Leavenworth, he never “got it”.  Even then, his first attempt to satisfy his creditors through bankruptcy court was essentially “I get to keep everything, and once I get back in the NFL I’ll pay you all back”. 

Meanwhile, Donte Stallworth, a wide receiver drafted in the first round by the Saints, recently of the Browns and currently a free agent, killed a man while driving drunk.  While Vick served 19 months in federal prison, Stallworth served only 24 days in jail.  The outcry over this disparity became the most tired ‘take’ since . . . well, since “Mike Vick deserves a second chance”. 

It's true, Stallworth was driving after having had one or two too many.  It’s also true that he hit someone with his Bentley, and that person died.  However, surveillance video that captured the accident apparently showed the victim jaywalking directly into Stallworth’s path, and Stallworth’s car simply unable to avoid him.

Florida law states that in order to convict a person of DUI manslaughter, the prosecution has to prove that the alcohol was a factor—i.e., that the accident wouldn’t have happened if the accused was stone cold sober.  However, the existence of the video tape prevented such a conviction; apparently the video makes it plain that there was little Stallworth could have done.

Moreover, everyone on-scene agrees that Stallworth stopped immediately after the accident, called 911, cooperated fully, accepted full responsibility, apologized to the family, and has since shown nothing but regret, remorse, and sorrow for what he did.  He made a mistake; he is not a monster.  THAT is a man who “deserves” a second chance.

Though I usually have a N.I.M.B.Y attitude towards players with attitude problems, and Stallworth’s career has so far not justified his first-round draft status, I feel a perverse sense of pride that it’ll be the Lions to give Stallworth his first crack at a second chance.

In pure football terms, the signing makes excellent sense.  The Lions desperately need a field-stretcher to pair with Megatron; a second fiddle with deep speed.  Of course, Stallworth has never possessed reliable hands, nor exceptional route-running ability—but they don’t need him to possess either of those traits.

All the Lions really need is a WR who presents a physical mismatch for a #2 corner, and Stallworth can fit that bill.  He should come cheaply—and even if he can’t beat out Bryant Johnson for the #2 role, he’s an unquestionable talent upgrade over Dennis Northcutt, Derrick Williams, or any of 2009’s slot receivers.

As I write this, it's all still up in the air.  The Lions could work Stallworth out tomorrow, he could cut a Chuck-Rogersesque 4.8, and this would all be moot.  Or, he could blow them away, get signed on the spot, go on to humiliate the all the #2 corners playing man-to-man ten yards off of him, and become the Alvin Harper to Calvin Johnson’s Michael Irvin.

Either of those scenarios, or anything in between, are entirely feasible.  All that’s left is to see today what Stallworth can make of his second chance.  For a variety of reasons, I hope he makes the most of it.


Winning “Like the Saints”

>> 2.09.2010

In 2008, the Miami Dolphins were in trouble.  They’d “cleaned house” in the offseason: added a new quarterback, broomed and replaced the coaching staff, sacked the entire front office, and even sold the team!  Yet, they’d lost their first two games, and their offense looked completely impotent.

The Dolphins needed an answer.  They couldn’t improve the personnel in the middle of the season, so they had maximize what they had: two great tailbacks, a WR corps long on speed but short on playmaking ability, and a QB with a quick trigger, but packing only a BB gun.

QB coach David Lee and OC Dan Henning came up with an answer: the “Wildcat”.  It's an offense with an unbalanced line, a jet motion on every play, plenty of deception, and a backfield where just about everyone is a threat to run or throw.  Lee ran it during his time as the OC at Arkansas, and the veteran Henning had seen plenty of the Wildcat's precursor, the single wing, when he played college ball in the Sixties.

The Wildcat would allow both tailbacks to be on the field at the same time, receiver Ted Ginn to touch the ball without actually having to catch it, and Chad Pennington to worry about leadership and decision-making instead of converting on third-and-long.

It was an immediate success, fueling a 38-13 win at New England that week, and ten more wins in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory.  Of course, many teams immediately tried to replicate that success . . . by installing the Wildcat.   

All summer long, every team was scouring the roster for a reserve runningback or wideout who’d played quarterback in high school.  Every beat reporter was floating rumors about who’d been spotted taking snaps behind center.  Every team’s fan base was rooting for their team to take a college option quarterback, who could bring this lightning in a bottle to their town.

Did every team have two outstanding, complementary tailbacks? No. Did every team have a tough, gutsy quarterback who was better at the intangibles than the tangibles?  No.  Yet, we’d get breathless reports that, say, Denver was trying out their own version of the Wildcat, with Knowshon Moreno taking direct snaps, and Kyle Orton split wide.

If I ever meet Josh McDaniels in person, I’m going to make him explain to me what in red Hell a defense is supposed to respect about Kyle Orton split out wide.  What’s he going to do, run a route?  Block for a sweep?  Run a reverse, and take the handoff?  Kyle Orton is completely useless on a football field, unless the ball in his hands. 

So, what do we take from this?  The way to replicate Miami’s success is not to install the Wildcat, or some other useless facsimile thereof.  The way to replicate Miami’s success is to have smart coaches who can think outside of the box, and maximize talent.

So, to every Lions fan, I tell you this:

The way to win a Super Bowl "like the Saints" is not to have Drew Brees, a committee of four almost-good running backs, a committee of four kind-of-good wide receivers, a terrible left tackle, a drunken tight end, a pass-first offense, or an offense-first team.  The way to win a Super Bowl “like the Saints” is to have talent, and smart coaches who can think outside of the box to maximize that talent.

Think about it. What did Drew Brees do so well at Purdue?  Pick defenses apart with short-range passes out of multi-WR sets.  As a conventional quarterback in San Diego, he was at best inconsistent and at worst a failure.   In New Orleans, Sean Payton asks him to do only what he’s excellent at; people think Brees is now “better” than Peyton Manning, which flatly isn’t true.

Sean Payton figured out that Reggie Bush is Kevin Faulk, not Marshall Faulk, and employs him in only in that role—to great success.  Payton figured out that Robert Meacham is a short-yardage monster, and employs him in that role—to great success.  Payton knew that with his fast-scoring, high-powered offense, he needed an aggressive, blitzing defense that could protect a lead.  He hired hyperaggressive DC Gregg Williams to install such a defense, even though he had to give up $250,000 of his own money to do so!

So, if Jim Schwartz wants to replicate Sean Payton’s success, he’ll need to let his quarterback do what he does best: throw it downfield.  He’ll need to give OC Scott Linehan the tools to run his system: a strong-armed quarterback, two great wideouts, a three-down feature back, a useful tight end, and a powerful offensive line.

He’ll need to match that run-first, play-action, air it out offense with a stop-the-run-first, smothering defense that prevents points and gets the ball back.  For that, he’s got the right DC, but he’ll need defensive linemen that can contain, linebackers that can blitz, and a secondary that can cover without a lot of linebacker help.

Finally, Schwartz’ll need to be smart.  He’ll need to be flexible.  He’ll need to be aggressive.  He’ll need to be able to think outside the box, make decisions based on real probabilities instead of old coaches’ tales, and balance new-school analysis with a hit-‘em-in-the-mouth mentality.  Fortunately for us, that’s exactly Schwartz approach.

I've played a little chess in my life. If you have a queen sacrifice, and get checkmate three moves later -- in a world championship matchup or whatever -- it's written about in chess manuals and people play the game and they talk about it. It can be the Schwartz Gambit, that it was an incredible move to sacrifice his queen and three plays later to force checkmate . . . Sports writers would write about that match and say, "Yeah, Schwartz won -- but he certainly didn't have to sacrifice his queen."

There's a reason I call the man The Grandmaster.

Read more... Highlight Reel: The Ghosts of 1991

>> 2.07.2010


My latest piece for the Highlight Reel: a harrowing, cautionary tale of specters come to life, dreams denied, and a couple of dudes who got plenty of Hair Action back in the day.  It also works a little Super Bowl in there.


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