Tom Kowalski is Gone.

>> 8.31.2011

It was raining a little bit. The old shovel’s point skidded on the wet grass of my backyard; I’d barely made a dent. I stood up again, re-gripping the worn wooden handle. I stared at the little patch of lawn I’d chosen. There was no easy way to do this, no fast-forward button, no graceful glossing over it. My wife and tiny children were waiting to come outside and say farewell to our cat, dead almost before we knew he was sick.

“Nobody told me,” I muttered, as I lodged the spade in the dirt. Nobody prepared me for the inescapable reality. Our cat—my cat, whom I’d adopted as a kitten from a shelter—had to be buried. Someone had to grab a shovel and dig and dig and dig and feel their muscles burn and the skin of their hands rubbed raw and their tears mix with the rain on their face, and that somebody had to be me; no amount of shock or grief or heartache could change it.

As a child, I’d lived alone with my mother. We had an old cat which passed away when I was very young, perhaps four. Mom wanted to protect me from the grief, so . . . she simply didn’t tell me. That cat was a bit of a recluse anyway, so I’d go days or even weeks without seeing it. as my mom went on filling (then surreptitiously emptying) the food bowl, I didn’t suspect a thing. It was literally years before I forced her to admit the cat was gone.

Looking back, I was incredibly blessed to go through my childhood and young adulthood without suffering a close or unexpected loss. As a grownup with a job and a wife and kids, losing my cat was the first time I had to experience grief without being able to grind my life to a halt and deal with it.

Last night, Phil Zaroo posted a beautiful tribute to Tom Kowalski. While I can’t begin to imagine the magnified degree of his emotions, writing it next to Killer’s empty chair, I felt I recognized the feeling in kind:

The media room at Detroit Lions headquarters is empty.

Everyone is covering head coach Jim Schwartz's daily post-practice presser, then heading straight to the locker room to speak with individual players.

Here I am, sitting in Tom Kowalski's cubicle without him next to me. Everything around me goes on while I'm wondering what's real and what isn't.

I say "Tom Kowalski's cubicle" because that's whose it is. It always will be. It certainly isn't mine.

I never met Tom Kowalski in person, or even communicated with him directly. I read his work for years strictly as a fan. When I started this blog, though,  I became a regular commenter on MLive, to fight the good fight and help raise my visibility. Like most regulars, I have a personal favorite “Killer gave me props” moment: I helped substantiate his pet Derek-Anderson-to-the-Lions theory by noting in the comments that DA’s college coordinator was the Lions’ new Tight Ends coach:

fellas ... --- lionsinwintr ... now THAT'S why i love having you guys around ... nice catch about lappano ...

I beamed with pride all afternoon. If I recall correctly, Killer even mentioned on his WDFN gig that “someone” pointed that fact out on MLive. I can’t explain how thrilled I was that Tom Kowalski would take time out to give me props like that. Of course, we all know that’s what Tom Kowalski did; nearly every one of what must be hundreds of tribute and memorial posts talked about how he worked for the fans, got it right for the fans, looked to serve the fans at all times without ever crossing the line of decorum himself.

Back then, most of this blog’s traffic came from people clicking on the link I’d append to every MLive comment. Eventually, Phil started linking my blog in the daily Lions Links posts. This summer, Phil invited me to help write the daily Lions Links posts. I can’t tell you what a thrill and a privilege it’s been to see my little posts queuing up right next to Killer’s stories on the Mlive.com Lions page.

On Monday, though, shortly after publishing the links post, I noticed a typo and went back into the system to edit it. An unfamiliar username, that of Grand Rapids Press editor Meegan Holland, was writing a story in the Lions stream. I watched as the story went live with the title, “Tom Kowalski, longtime Detroit Lions reporter, dies.”

I simply couldn’t believe it. I refreshed the page. I logged out and refreshed the page. I Googled for news; nothing. I switched browsers, still there. I Tweeted, “I hope someone is pulling an awful prank.” Phil Zaroo RT’d me and prepended, “I wish it was, man. I wish it was.” Of course you know the rest: an incredible outpouring of shock and grief and memories and goodwill from around the entire football world, which will culminate this Friday at his Celebration of Life at Cheli’s Chili.

But of course, time doesn’t stop. Life doesn’t stop. As we fondly remember Tom Kowalski, we must begin keenly missing his life’s work. Lions news keeps happening, even as his fiancĂ© and family and co-workers at MLive and every Lions player, coach, staff member, executive and owner grieve for the loss of the man who chronicled it for all of us.

I am certainly the least of these. I never so much as exchanged an email with Tom Kowalski. I never interacted with him beyond my primary role as admirer of, and commenter upon, his work. But today, I have my small task that must be done, despite the loss. Somebody has to write today’s Mlive.com Detroit Lions Links post, and that somebody has to be me.

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Tom Kowalski, RIP.

>> 8.29.2011

Just days before I was born, the Lions opened their 1981 campaign with a win over the San Francisco 49ers. That January, Kowalski covered the Niners' Super Bowl victory at the Pontiac Silverdome. Now, less than two weeks before my 30th birthday, I sit stunned: for the first time in my life, Killer won't be working the Lions beat.

Detroit Lions Team President Tom Lewand:

"“The entire Lions organization, the Ford family, and me, personally, were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Tom Kowalski this morning. Tom was a true professional, the consummate beat writer, somebody who brought a lot of tremendous information to our fans — even in times of disagreement; we always had the utmost respect for his professionalism."

Kowalski did what very few beat writers could: he made a seamless transition from old-school deadline writing to new-school “hyperconnectedness.” Not only did he engage commenters on his articles, he frequently hosted live chats, solicited input and feedback, wrote entire articles in direct response to commenters, chopped it up with over 12,000 followers on Twitter—even video blogged from training camp, owner's meetings, and the NFL Combine. That kind of two-way reporting simply didn’t exist when he broke into the industry, yet he does it as well as any twentysomething.

One extraordinary instance of Kowalski's reportage comes to mind: when the Lions drafted Joey Harrington, Killer got a tip that Marty Mornhinweg was "furious" with the pick. Kowalski confirmed the tip, and went live on the radio with the story. Minutes afterward, the Lions PR staff brought Kowalski in for a face-to-face meeting with Mornhinweg, who spent 30 minutes trying to convince Killer his sources were wrong—while other teams were on the clock in the first round! Mornhinweg later admitted it was all bluster.

This is something many fail to see about the blogging game; I’ve had many well-meaning but wrong-headed people tell me things like, “I love your stuff! It’s so much better than the crap on [fill in the blank mainstream media site]!” But that’s so, so wrong. Bloggers like me stand on the shoulders of giants like Tom. His relentless reporting, constant availability, and impeccable connections provide armchair journalists like me with the grist for my mill. Without the 24-hour grind of Tom Kowalski and his colleagues, I’d just be telling you folks every week whether watching the game made me happy or sad.

It’s only fitting that as news of his passing spread, "Tom Kowalski" became a Trending Topic on Twitter. Not just in Detroit, or in the United States, but Worldwide. Said Gregg Rosenthal of Pro Football Talk:

"We always considered Kowalski one of the very best beat writers in the country."

It must be said: throughout his long tenure, Kowalski had one of the bleakest assignments in the NFL. He covered only 8 winning seasons and 8 playoff games from 1978 to today, including the NFL's only 0-16 season. Yet, his coverage remained objective and fair throughout; he strove to put both losses and wins in perspective for beleaguered, yet desperately passionate Lions fan base.

ESPN.com  NFC North blogger Kevin Siefert said on Twitter:

"What's amazing is that he enjoyed it EVERY year. Even '08."

His love of what he did always shone through; his work will be deeply missed by fans and colleagues in what promises to be a banner year for Kowalski's subject. The timing of his passing from this world seems unjust; Killer won't be around to cover his hapless subject finally turning the corner.

I choose to believe he'll watch this season from an even better seat: one from which cheering is perfectly allowed.

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Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Patriots

I went down to Detroit to see the Lions play the Patriots, everyone’s pick to win the Super Bowl, Saturday night. The offensive line was a sieve, and the quarterback got physically abused. The QB looked rattled from the opening gun, and in short order he was hearing footsteps and turfing screen passes. The defense was victimized, surrendering yards in chunks and points in bunches. Once the game was in hand, the other team put in their backups—but even that didn’t slow the bleeding. One big play made the final score look closer than it really was, but in the end there was no question who the better team was.

The Lions.

What the Lions did to a franchise that’s spent a decade as the class of the NFL—and, lest you forget, returned every significant piece of a team that went 14-2 last season—was astonishing. It wasn’t quite the thrashing that the Bengals game was, but the Lions simply outclassed the Patriots in every phase of the game, coaching not the least of it.

After all the caterwauling about the Lions’ run game, they simply didn’t run. The Lions took the field in a hurry-up shotgun spread, and confused and abused the Patriots’ back seven. There were a few token draws to Aaron Brown, but Matthew Stafford’s perfect quarterback play was simply unstoppable.

Matthew Stafford is playing as well as a quarterback can play. He has a Yoda-like understanding off the offense, and a an arm that can make any throw. His confidence is incredible; it’s neither false bravado nor stoic “lead-by-example,” it’s lining up in four-wide on 3rd and 2 and lasering it 40 yards down the field to where only a toe-dragging Nate Burleson can catch it.

As I said on the Fireside Chat, it’s not just that Stafford made that throw. He had to decide to make that throw. Moreover, that route had to be an option for Nate Burleson to run, and that play (out of that formation) had to be called. The Lions coaches had to have supreme confidence in Stafford to send even that play into the huddle.

That Linehan and Schwartz and Stafford all looked at 3rd-and-2 from their own end of the field as a great place to take a shot deep speaks volumes about their confidence in their ability to execute—and that they were right?  Incredible. The Lions are dictating the game to the opponent. They’re telling the other team what they’re going to do and then doing it. The last time we saw anything like this was Scott Mitchell’s glory year, 1995.

On the defensive side, it’s the same story. The front four—minus Kyle Vanden Bosch—wreaked havoc. Corey Williams and Cliff Avril played flat-out incredible games, and Suh and Lo-Jack and Sammie Hill and Willie Young all made noise too. Brady might be the coolest cucumber in the pocket we’ve seen in recent history, and he looked no less shaken than Andy Dalton.

Don’t get hung up on labels. Don’t get starstruck by names on the back of jerseys or logos on the sides of helmets. Don’t get caught up in reputations. Don’t sit down to work out who you think the Lions can beat and who you think they can’t. If there’s one thing we can all learn from Saturday night, it’s this: if these Lions are firing on all cylinders, there’s nobody they can’t beat.

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Fireside Chat: preseason Week 3, Lions vs. Patriots

>> 8.28.2011

Here's this week's Fireside Chat. SPOILER ALERT: I am happy.

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Ty Schalter, Bleacher Report Featured Columnist

>> 8.26.2011

Six months after founding this blog—over two years ago—I received an e-mail from a Bleacher Report editor (long since gone). Said editor shared a link to a B/R article about Calvin Johnson, and suggested I write a post highlighting its awesomeness.

It wasn’t awesome.

I asked the editor about its lack of awesomeness, and indeed if he’d edited it. Further, I noted that with a few exceptions (like Greg Eno’s work), very little of the writing on B/R seemed to be awesome. He said the editorial staff was working ‘round the clock to buff out the scratches, and maybe if I was so keen on improving the quality of Lions coverage on B/R I should sign up and start writing—after all, anyone could.

I asked many of my bloggy friends (and bloggy role models) about Bleacher Report. I was vaguely aware that B/R had a less-than-stellar reputation, but didn’t know the particulars. I got an earful of the particulars. I decided not to start writing at Bleacher Report, but created a writer profile there . . . just in case.

Somewhere amidst all the Lions-y areas of the Internet, I befriended (e-friended?) Michael Schottey. Schottey was (and is) a card-carrying member of the PFWA, and as such had real pro writing and radio experience under his belt. He wrote about the Lions at B/R (and elsewhere) with both insight and skill, and pretty much was the antithesis of everything all the sports blog cool kids thought about Bleacher Report.

I found myself playing both sides of the fence: decrying B/R’s oceans of subpar content and lucrative syndication deals, while fiercely defending the quality of the work their best writers were doing. While the battle for blogger street cred raged on comment sections and Twitter accounts everywhere, B/R continually raised the bar for themselves.

Bleacher Report instituted an application process—no longer could anyone sign up for a free email, sign up for a B/R account, and see whatever they wrote syndicated to major websites within hours. As B/R became increasingly selective in adding writers, they also instituted policies against plagiarism, and instituted content and style standards—taking down substandard posts and banning the worst offenders. As the bottom rungs of the quality ladder were eliminated, Bleacher Report hired King Kaufman away from Salon.com to add a bunch of new rungs on top.

More and more excellent writers were coming to do great work on Bleacher Report, and the rest were being aggressively developed with amazing tools and training.  Finally, this week kicked off with what  newly-minted SI College Football blogger Holly Anderson called “Get That Paper Internet Monday”: Bleacher Report hired four of the very coolest Sports Blog Cool Kids, as well as their own Matt Miller, to be their national Lead Writers.

It’s a Murderer’s Row of OG sports bloggers: Bethlehem Shoals, best known for Free Darko; Josh Zerkle, best known for Kissing Suzy Kolber, Dan Rubenstein, best known for The Solid Verbal, and Dan Levy, best known for On The DL with Dan Levy. The sharper-eyed of you might recall that Dan kindly allowed me to guest-post on his blog, Press Coverage sometimes; I was (and am) a huge fan of his work. Dan’s intro post put it best:

In two months' time I went from feeling like I was doing Bleacher Report a favor by spending 30 minutes on the phone talking about their new program to sitting in their offices wondering how in the world I'm going to keep up my end of the bargain for a company I genuinely believe is going to be the next place everyone in our industry is going to want to work.

The only real problem with the way Bleacher Report has built their brand—something that has always been my point of contention—was that the back-end genius was always leaps and bounds ahead of the front-end product. To become the fourth-largest sports site in the country with no high-profile names writing for you, all while fighting a less-than-favorable (and perhaps a bit unfair) perception from certain media types, is beyond incredible.

The thing is, that back-end genius? It really is genius. And that commitment to improve? They went all-out to hire their harshest, smartest critics. They also promoted their own best and brightest; besides making Matt Miller a Lead Writer, they also bumped Michael Schottey up to NFL Associate Editor. He reached out to me—and in short order, I was trying to remember my old Bleacher Report password.

I shouted it out on Twitter already, but here it is, all dusted-off, updated, and officially official: my Bleacher Report Sportswriter Profile. You can check out my first post, there, too: “Jim Schwartz’s Detroit Lions Look to Stun Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots.”

Now this is the part I'm sure you're wondering about: the impact this will have on The Lions in Winter. I’m glad to say there won’t be one. TLiW was and is my very own; I write it because I need it. I didn’t chop wood and brew cider for three years just to let the little blue flame fade to embers.

B/R serves a different audience differently. It will still be me writing over there; you’ll see similar opinions expressed in both places. Occasionally, you might see differently-edited versions of the same article in both places. But, I’ll be writing about more than the Lions on Bleacher Report; I’ll also be covering the NFL as a whole. There will be lots of pieces there that wouldn’t fit here, and there will be lots of pieces here that wouldn’t fit anywhere else.

I've said and thought many critical things about Bleacher Report over the years, but today I sit blown away. These folks’ commitment to quality is remarkable, and the resources they put at writers’ fingertips are just as impressive. They are dead serious about doing what they do as well as they can do it, and I’m proud to do whatever I can to help them get there.

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Jim Schwartz: Grandmaster, or Cable Guy?

>> 8.25.2011

Yesterday, the Lions released guard Greg Niland, and brought in former Spartan center Chris Morris. Morris, drafted by Oakland in 2006’s 7th round, had worked his way into the starting lineup by 2009, running with the ones for the first eight games. However, he lost his starting gig to Robert Gallery at the bye week, and made only two more spot starts after that. With Gallery having made him expendable, Morris was cut. He spent last season with the Panthers, but only dressed for four games.

Rotoworld on Morris:

Lions signed C Chris Morris, formerly of the Patriots.

Morris lasted just ten days in Patriots camp earlier this month. The journeyman 28-year-old made ten starts for a terrible Raiders offensive line in 2009.

Well gee, when you say it like that . . . Morris doesn’t sound like a sensible pickup. With Dylan Gandy and Rudy Niswanger already on the roster, why bring in another backup G/C? The operative word in that Rotoworld quote is “Patriots.” Morris had been camping with the Patriots, until a left leg injury forced them to release him.

As the Lions are—right now, today—gameplanning for their third preseason game, this suddenly makes sense. With a national television crew coming to witness the suddenly-buzzworthy Lions host the perennially title-contending Patriots, the stakes are high. Jim Schwartz signing a recent Pats cut to pick his brain is proof The Grandmaster is taking this matchup seriously. Very seriously. Maybe . . . too seriously?

Commenter @LineBusy made this analogy on Twitter, and it flat-out slayed me. Sure, this preseason game is a very real, very important measuring stick for the team and franchise. But there’s also doubt that Schwartz wants to prove himself to Belichick, his first NFL mentor. Don’t forget, Schwartz’s first job was an unpaid internship in the Browns' front office, under Belichick. Schwartz worked long hours, sleeping in a team-provided apartment and eating only Browns cafeteria food. Belichick even walked in on Schwartz sneaking the last of Belichick’s lunchmeat.

Last Thanksgiving, the Lions—thanks in large part to a brilliant coaching job by Schwartz & Co.—managed to hold the Patriots to a draw until the fourth quarter, when the dam finally burst. Obviously, Schwartz and the  Lions can’t “really” avenge that regular-season embarrassment with a preseason win. But taking the field and going toe-to-toe, starter-to-starter, with the league’s best? Even gaining the upper hand in the first half would be a huge momentum builder for this team.

The Lions need to convert the hype into reality; they need to back up all the talk. They need to wake up the people who are sleeping on them. They need to convert the faith of believers like me into truth. They need to prove it to themselves, and everyone else, that they’re ready to punch their ticket to the postseason. That’s why this preseason game—which doesn’t even really count—is vitally, crucially important. The Lions must seek out every conceivable advantage, no matter how small the edge or how great the cost.

Thanks for the boost, Chris.

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History Lessons: Aaron Curry & 3rd Preseason Games

>> 8.23.2011

I’ve rarely called out the leaders of the Detroit Lions. Neither the coaches nor executives receive much criticism on this blog. For starters, The Lions in Winter exists partly as a haven from brain-dead “fire the lousy bums” talk. For seconds, the Lions’ leadership hasn’t done much to deserve criticism. When they have, I’ve been quick to say so—publicly and privately.

The other reason is, the closer I get to the business of football and football media, the more I realize just how far removed fans are from the reality of the game. I have to be awfully sure that I, professional IT nerd, armed with nothing but my HDTV and DVR and iPhone and Mac Pro, know better than the men paid millions of dollars to run this team with every conceivable resource at their fingertips for me to speak out. Every once in a while, though, I’m convinced I’m right—and I do something silly like write an open letter to the Lions’ brass, demanding that they draft Aaron Curry:

Not long ago, the Lions' players were well known for being great leaders in the community, providers who put down roots in Detroit, and gave back to the city as much as the city had given them.  As you know, Robert Porcher won the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award multiple times; [Ed.- Actually, he didn't.] Aaron Curry will surely follow in his footsteps.  Look out the window, gentlemen; read the papers on days when they can afford to be printed.  On the heels of the news that Michigan again leads the nation in joblessness, it would speak volumes about the class, the character, and the priorities of the Detroit Lions organization to ignore the hype.  To ignore the pundits and the shellacked talking heads.  To ignore the common wisdom and the conventional thinking.  To forget value charts and stopwatches, "big boards" and salary slots.  To yoke your franchise to the shoulders of a bold young man who will help Lions fans to their feet, on the field and off, again and again and again.  To restore pride to the Lions.

To draft Aaron Curry.

Aaron Curry has just restructured his contract, lopping the last two years and five million guaranteed dollars off of it. Suddenly, this year becomes a make-or-break; if he doesn’t perform up to his incredible potential the ‘Hawks may trade or release him without a cap hit. Even if they don’t deal him in this next offseason, he’ll likely be playing in Seattle to audition for a contract elsewhere.

This doesn’t mean fans are always wrong and the professionals are always right; otherwise Rod Marinelli would still be using his bully pulpit to harangue Detroit media for their ignorance of the invisible. No, the lesson here is to use the past to gain perspective on the present. Not for the first time, we see that a combination of height, weight, and speed doesn’t necessarily translate into an impact player. Not for the first time, we see that 4-3 outside linebackers have to be truly incredible to have a significant impact. Not for the first time, we see that a player’s off-field personality doesn’t necessarily translate to on-field anything.

One of the hardest things to do is temper expectations for this weekend’s game. After a glorious trouncing of the Bengals, and an unpalatably sloppy win over the Browns, facing the Patriots on national TV with both coaching staffs gameplanning and all available starters going at least a half? It’s a legitimate, and very scary, measuring stick. It seems the Lions always a tough out for this matchup, and it almost never goes well.

In 2007, the Colts, fresh off a Super Bowl win, dismantled the Lions 37-10. In 2006 Rod Marinelli flew the Lions into Oakland the day they were supposed to play, to prove they could show up and beat anyone, anywhere, anytime. The about-to-go-2-14 Raiders beat the Lions 21-3. In 2005, the Rams came to town—with the Monday Night Football crew—and punked the Lions 37-13 (after a last-minute garbage time Lions TD). In 2004, the Lions played the Ravens in Baltimore and, predictably, lost.

In 2009, though, the Lions again took on a lesser Colts team and—with some late-game Drew Stanton heroics—won 18-17. Last season, the third game was the Great Lakes Classic, and Matthew Stafford’s excellent performance kickstarted a 35-27 win over the unimpressive Browns. Now, for the first time, Jim Schwartz has followed Mariucci and Marinelli’s precedent and set the preseason bar as high as it will go.

History tells us that preseason wins and losses are meaningless; we need look no further than the 2008 Lions for the most definitive possible proof. However, history also tells us that in the third preseason game, the “eye test” of starters versus starters, starters versus backups, and overall quality is perfectly valid.

Let’s take the lesson history gives us, then. Let’s wipe the slate of the first two games clean. Let’s see what the Lions can bring to bear, and how they handle the onslaught from Boston. Let’s see Matthew Stafford face the blitz, and Ndamukong Suh chase Tom Brady. I’m ready to see just what these Lions are made of. Are you?


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Three Cups Deep: Preseason Week 2, Lions at Browns

>> 8.22.2011

Let’s review my Great Lakes Classic preview:

How the Lions’ front seven looks against Joe Thomas & Co. will be telling; the Browns completely neutralized the Packers’ pass rush.

As I said in the Fireside Chat, the difference between the Bengals’ and Browns’ offensive lines was breathtaking. Instead of relentless dominance, the Lions’ starters were merely effective, and Colt McCoy had time to make good decisions and get rid of the ball. Sometimes, only by a split-second—but that can be the difference between a sack and a six-yard completion for a first down.

If Stephen Peterman, Dom Raiola, and Rob Sims can’t open up any space for Jahvid Best tonight, that will also spell trouble.

“Trouble” with a capital T. Browns were getting into the backfield on nearly every running play, and Raiola’s second-level blocking was uncharacteristically bad. It doesn’t matter how quickly you get to the second level if the a linebacker can blow you up once you get there. Best was swarmed until they knocked him out of the game with an apparent concussion.

I’m hoping to see another two-great-drives-and-out performance from Matthew Stafford, then big doses of Drew Stanton and Zac Robinson.

Yes, this happened. Not quite as “great” as last week from Stafford, but no negatives and bountiful positives. It looks as though Stafford’s for real. Stanton, in my mind, clearly separated himself from Robinson (if he hadn’t by, you know, starting and winning real games for the Lions). He made some flat-out NFL throws Friday night, and looked dominant against the Browns’ threes—the clear mark of someone who belongs on the roster. We’ve yet to see any of those awful misfires he’s always had hidden in his ammunition, either; in my mind he’s making a solid bid for the long-term backup gig.

I want to see Jahvid Best run well inside and out, and then I’d like to see either Aaron Brown or Jerome Harrison make a resounding statement.

Eeeerrrgh. Best had no room inside, made a few nice plays in space, and went out with what looked like a mild concussion; the leopard has not changed his spots. Until he has holes to hit and hits them, this will remain a concern. Brown, Harrison, and Bell had a little more daylight to work with once it was two vs. twos or threes vs. threes, but still none look to challenge Maurice Morris for a backup spot. I’d like to see them replace Bell with someone else’s training camp cut.

The Lions can’t completely sell out contain on the running lanes to get to the passer.

Oops. 

I’ll be more concerned about the halftime score than the final tally. Word is the Browns will play their starters for most of, if not all of, the first half, and I want to see the Lions’ twos hold their own.

They didn’t. Now, it wasn’t awful and—as I said on the podcast—there were simply too many sloppy penalties, sloppy turnovers, and minor injuries to major players to get much worthwhile evaluation out of this game. For the most part, the stuff we knew was working (the quarterbacks, Burleson, the D-line) was working and the questions we had (run O, run D, pass coverage) remain questions.

The game was a mixed bag, with a mixed result. Going into an always-serious third preseason game against the Patriots . . . I’ve got mixed feelings.

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Fireside Chat Preseason Week 2: Lions at Browns

Thanks to my Internet connection bouncing in the middle of the intro, this week’s Fireside Chat has two parts. Part One:

and Part Two:

If you dig it, you can subscribe via iTunes for free, or click the “Podcast” tab up there between the content and the logo.

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Fireside Chat Reminder!

>> 8.21.2011

Don't forget, tonight at 10:00 pm Eastern, the Fireside Chat broadcasts LIVE via Ustream! Go to http://tinyurl.com/firesidechats and listen in--or sign in and interact! I'll be talking about the game, of course, and taking questions.

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2011 Great Lakes Classic Preview: Lions at Browns

>> 8.19.2011

great-lakes-classic-trophy-winner-of-browns-vs-lions-preseason-game

Tonight’s Great Lakes Classic—the winner of whom will take home the lovely Edmund Fitzgerald Trophy you see above—will be markedly different from last week’s game. It will be in Cleveland rather than in the welcoming confines of Ford Field. The opponent will be similar—an Ohio-based team with a new quarterback and new offense—but many ways, wholly opposite. How will the results differ from last week’s blowout?

The Bengals are in the last gasp of the Marvin Lewis era. Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and the rest of the crew that made Lewis look smart are gone, replaced with a lot of very young faces learning from first-time coordinators. The Lions’ defense made it clear that the Bengals far behind the eight-ball; this lockout-shortened offseason will have their rookie skill players and greenhorn coordinators playing catch-up all year long. It’s easy to see the Bengals’ yo-yo string breaking this year, and Cincy picking at the top of the draft in 2012—almost regardless of on-paper talent.

Yet, if the Bengals are like the 2008 Lions, primed for a breathtaking fall to Earth, the Browns more like the 2010 edition. They’re clearly moving in the right direction under a first-time head coach, Pat Shurmur. Under center will be a talented second-year quarterback in his first full season as the starter, Colt McCoy. Unlike the Bengals, the Browns (and especially McCoy) looked great in their first preseason game, beating the reigning World Champion Packers 27-17.

Curiously, the Browns and Bengals have opposite strengths. The Bengals’ defensive line looked like a scary matchup for what might be the Lions’ weakest unit right now. The Browns’ D-line isn’t nearly so scary, but their offensive line might be one of the best in the business. How the Lions’ front seven looks against Joe Thomas & Co. will be telling; the Browns completely neutralized the Packers’ pass rush. Likewise, if Stephen Peterman, Dom Raiola, and Rob Sims can’t open up any space for Jahvid Best tonight, that will also spell trouble. Leonard Davis just might get called in . . . .

At corner, Aaron Berry figures to get significant work; it’ll be a great chance for him to make his case for the nickel spot. Meanwhile, every Lion quarterback has to be drooling. The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn combined to go 17-of-26 for 200 yards, 2 TDs, and no picks. I’m hoping to see another two-great-drives-and-out performance from Matthew Stafford, then big doses of Drew Stanton and Zac Robinson. If Killer’s rumblings are on-target about Robinson pushing Stanton, the Lions should showcase both and trade one while the trading’s good.

The two biggest questions marks are the Lions’ rushing offense and rushing defense. I want to see Jahvid Best run well inside and out, and then I’d like to see either Aaron Brown or Jerome Harrison make a resounding statement. On defense, the Lions can’t completely sell out contain on the running lanes to get to the passer—especially if Peyton Hillis and/or Montario Hardesty are ready to play (either might or might not be). Meanwhile, a linebacker other than Justin Durant has to get through the trash and get to the hole a lot more quickly.

I’ll be more concerned about the halftime score than the final tally. Word is the Browns will play their starters for most of, if not all of, the first half, and I want to see the Lions’ twos hold their own. That having been said, I’d be just fine with the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bronze effigy sailing back to Detroit, too. Most of all though: I want to see no injuries.



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Lions Kool-Aid? Make Mine A Double

>> 8.18.2011

Lions Kool-Aid

Lately, I’ve been catching some flak in the comments (and on Twitter) for drinking the Lions Kool-Aid. Baking the Lions cornbread. Being trapped in a bizarre delusion that the Lions are going to make the playoffs. Insisting all the injuries the Lions have suffered won’t affect the bottom line. Calling Matthew Stafford a top five quarterback. At some point, I have to face reality, right? If I’m not pulling my punches, I must be punch drunk—right?

At this point, Jim Schwartz’s tenure is cosmetically identical to Rod Marinelli’s. Both took over a listless team with no real identity, both made strong moves to radically change the scheme and roster; both guided their Lions to impressive winning tears in their second year. In Marinelli’s third year, though, the Lions went 0-16. How can I be certain—as I am—the Lions will be better this year than last?

Marinelli’s third offseason was full of turmoil and turnover. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz left, and the Lions did not replace him. Instead they let the OL coach and WR coach—neither with NFL coordinator experience—call the plays in “I’ll steer, you work the pedals” manner. The Lions traded disgruntled DT Shaun Rogers for soon-to-be-disgruntled CB Leigh Bodden, and found out Rogers was their entire run defense. The Lions were counting on “projects” like Kalimba Edwards to make great leaps forward. Altogether, there were more signs pointing toward the Lions taking a step back than improving.

Under Schwartz, the Lions have retained both coordinators for two second consecutive seasons. No Lion coach/coordinator triumvirate had all retained their jobs even once in the prior thirteen years! The entire starting offensive line has—presuming health—returned intact. The last time that happened was in 1990, when Lomas Brown, Eric Andolsek, Kevin Glover, Ken Dallafior, and Harvey Salem returned from the 1989 squad. If we count Amari Spievey as a holdover, this will be the first time the Lions haven’t brought in at least two new starters in the secondary since 2000, when Bryant Westbrook and Kurt Schultz got hurt.

The Lions have built a real team; the permanent foundation to a perennial winner. They’re building and building and building and nothing is falling down. In the ruthlessly entropic NFL, very few teams have any kind of staying power. Life in the NFL is dog eat dog, and many of the 32 dogs never get their day. That the Lions have built something this solid, this lasting, already puts them ahead of most teams in the NFL, especially with this crazy lockout-shortened offseason. Teams with significant turnover—like the Bengals—are going to be miles behind the Lions, purely on continuity. Consider the massive stock of talent the Lions boast (8/11 offensive starters are first- or second-round picks), and it’s easy to see why I’m certain the Lions will win more games than they lose.

Look, I'm the Flamekeeper. I'm the guy who chops the wood and brews the cider. If I weren’t inclined to look ahead to better days, this blog would be grim work. But I don’t just blow hot air—I work hard to keep the fire burning with real fuel.  Last season, when the Lions were 2-9, I didn’t ladle out weaksauce excuses. I examined statistical models of winning, losing, and variance in the NFL—and found out that the Lions were, objectively, a lot better than their record implied. Moreover, the numbers pointed toward a strong regression to the mean by the end of the season; sure enough the Lions closed out the year on a 4-game win streak.

Even at 6-10, the Lions won two fewer games than their scoring margin and strength of schedule would predict—and that’s without Matthew Stafford. For that matter, it’s without Nick Fairley, or Titus Young, or Eric Wright or Stephen Tulloch or Kevin Justin Durant, the lot of whom will be in position to make major impacts in roles of need.

If you call that Kool-Aid, fine. Make mine a double.


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Fantasy Football Makes Real Football Fans Stupid

>> 8.16.2011

I love fantasy football. It’s made me a better fan. It took the laser-focused light my mind shone on the Lions, and prismed it out across all 32 teams. I had to learn so much more about what’s happening in the NFL as a whole: the depth charts of every team, the movements of players from one franchise to another, and it helped me place in context the countless tiny triumphs and travails the Lions have gone through in the decade-plus I’ve been playing.

Right when I started playing FF seriously, the Internet fueled its national explosion. Once the exclusive territory of hardcore stat geeks, it’s now a multibillion-dollar industry; even the most casual of NFL fans are in a free league with their friends and family. As a result the “average” NFL fan is an order of magnitude more knowledgeable than in the 80s. However, all that football information sometimes makes us football stupid.

One of my favorite examples is Daunte Culpepper. His ridiculous passing yardage, rushing yardage, and touchdown output in the mid-2000s led legions of thrilled fantasy owners to remember him as an amazing quarterback. What they don’t remember is the Vikings losing more games than they won with Culpepper as the starter (36-37), or him fumbling 80 times in those 73 games.

Another example is the way we mentally “rank” players in an linear, ordinal list. The National Football Post’s Jay Clemons just issued his initial rankings for 2011 NFL starting quarterbacks:

  • 11. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
  • 12. Eli Manning, Giants
  • 13. Joe Flacco, Ravens
  • 14. Matthew Stafford, Lions
  • 15. Jay Cutler, Bears
  • 16. Sam Bradford, Rams
  • 17. Mark Sanchez, Jets
  • Let me get this out of the way: Jay Clemons does awesome work, and the piece that contains this list is chock-full of excellent stuff. Let me also say, this isn’t intentionally geared toward fantasy football—it’s not his projection of how many points each quarterback will score. However, the fingerprints of fantasy football are all over this: what other value could an ordinal list of all starting quarterbacks have? Why else would anyone care what any given expert’s opinion is on who the 11th- through 17th-best starters are? Moreover, now that we have this list, what value does it have?

    Look at these seven quarterbacks: one veteran whose numbers are steadily mediocre, and six young players with high ceilings and low floors. Is the difference between Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez as great as the difference between #1 (Drew Brees) and #7 (Matt Schaub)? No, not anywhere close. The way players actually grade out is in tiers; up at the top there are little knots of 2-to-3 guys who have roughly similar odds of performing roughly as well. Below, there are great swaths of players whose differences are such fine shades of probability that say who’s “better” than who at any moment.

    So what’s the harm? This is just one guy’s opinion, right? Anyone who disagrees is free to make their own! Well, that’s the problem. Ranking all the quarterbacks like this is a great way to get people arguing over stuff that doesn’t matter (and people to click through to your site) and it’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to think about players in the NFL.

    Matthew Stafford has Top 5 tools, Top 5 talent around him, and when he’s been healthy his progression has been the progression of a Top 5’er. This season, he will either be a Top 5 quarterback or get hurt. There is very little middle ground; he will either throw for 4,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns or not anywhere close. The one outcome I can personally guarantee will not happen is Matthew Stafford staying healthy all season and being the 14th-best quarterback—so why does this list place him 14th? Because that’s where Jay Clemons thought the balance between Stafford’s upside and the chance of him hitting that upside slotted him on the cheatsheet. That’s what this is, regardless of the author’s intent: one guy’s fantasy football cheatsheet.

    Look, I’m not a Luddite when it comes to stats and analysis: I’m the guy who plots PFF grades on radar charts. But it’s counterproductive to think about the relative performance of NFL players in this way. I used to buy every magazine and subscribe to pay websites, and  amalgamate all of their rankings. I used to go on forums and have heated arguments with total strangers over who should be the 12th-ranked quarterback. I used to be terrible at fantasy football.

    Eventually, I learned to watch the games. I learned to trust my eyes. I learned I needed to feed my brain quality football information, not quantities of numbered lists and macro-laden spreadsheets. I learned to identify on-field talent, not statistical trends. I started picking players based on my educated “likes” and “dislikes” rather than standard deviations of average draft position, and I started winning fantasy football championships.

    I think the Greater Internet NFL Fan/Media Hivemind needs to follow this track: we need to find new ways to think about football performance; find new ways to quantify and assess what we see on the field. I think what Pro Football Focus is doing is a great first step: comparing relative quality, not slicing and dicing increasingly artificial statistics.

    For me, fantasy football has become what it’s supposed to be: building a team entirely out of players I like, and “guiding” them to victory. I have a lot more fun, I get a lot less stressed, and—get this—I do a lot better. In turn, I’ve focused my scattered light back down on the Lions. I look deeper and more meaningfully at what I really love about football, and I take much more joy in watching games on Sunday.

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    Fireside Chat: Preseason Week 1, Lions vs. Bengals

    >> 8.15.2011

    The first Fireside Chat with an actual game to discuss did exactly that: discuss the Bengals game. I hope listening to my headcold-affected voice captures 1/1000th of the joy it was to behold that game.

    As always, if you dig it, you can subscribe via iTunes for free, or click the “Podcast” tab up there between the content and the logo.

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    Three Cups Deep: Preseason, Lions vs. Bengals

    Coffee, by Martin Gommel

    Coffee, by Martin Gommel

    It smells so good. It tastes so good. It feels so good. After what feels like an eight-month-long slumber, I wake with my morning coffee; we have our first Three Cups Deep of the season. There is Lions football to talk about.

    I went with my son, and it was an awesome experience. Everything went exactly according to script: Matthew Stafford was powerful and precise, Ndamukong Suh was disruptive and devastating, and the Lions laid lumber to a reeling Bengals franchise. Things went about as right as they could possibly go for the Lions—including some favorable calls and bounces—but crucially, they capitalized on those opportunities. They put the game out of reach and kept it out of reach; the Lions’ twos and threes and fours dominated just as the ones did.

    It’s tempting to either write this performance off completely, or assign it way too much value. As the first game in the preseason, neither team was scheming or gameplanning. The Lions were engaged in a pure talent vs. talent struggle, and the Bengals have just lost many of their most talented players. Still, though, this is important in itself: the Lions are significantly more talented, top to bottom, than some other NFL teams. The crucial question: how many of the teams they play this year will they outclass like that?

    As I said in this week's Fireside Chat, I’m really struggling to control my expectations. I’ve already said the Lions are going to make the playoffs, and I’ve already gone on record saying the Lions will go 10-6 if Matthew Stafford stays healthy. Honestly, the ceiling’s even higher—if last year’s Bears can win eleven games, so can this year’s Lions.

    That having been said, we’ve seen the Lions look good in the preseason before—and recently, we’ve seen them dismantle teams with rookie quarterbacks in the regular season. So, I’m not going to analyze it to death, and I’m not going to proclaim anything dramatic has been revealed about this team.  Let’s just enjoy this game for what it is: a great performance, an awesome moment, and a fantastic preview of what will be the best Lions season in twenty years.

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    Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Sleet . . . Preseason Gameday Mailbag!

    >> 8.12.2011

    r1950157602

    It’s been far too long since the last mailbag, and since preseason is all about answering questions, I took some questions via email and Twitter, and I’m going to try to answer them. First up:

    Casey, sent from his or her iPad--

    The bengals have a relatively strong d line. Do you think we'll see how well staffords protection will be tomorrow, even with backups? Also I keep hearing sims is taking snaps. Any insight on that?

    The quick answer is no; Jeff Backus will provide Stafford’s blindside protection this season, but he won’t be playing tonight. Per Dave Birkett’s projected two-deeps for tonight, Corey Hilliard will get the start at left tackle, with Johnny Culbreath backing him up. That having been said, the remainder of the offensive line is intact. Rob Sims was getting some snaps at left tackle purely out of a lack of bodies.

    At the outset of camp, Hilliard and Ugoh couldn’t play because the new CBA hadn’t been ratified. You need two complete units to rotate “ones” and “twos,” so someone besides the only healthy left tackle had to play left tackle. The Sims experiment, or “necessity” as Schwartz called it, lasted just one practice.

    To the greater point, "protection" is more than just the left tackle; only one of Stafford’s three shoulder separations came on a blindside hit. The others were during broken plays, not from a straight-up failure of the left tackle. Without Backus and Pettigrew, protection may indeed be shaky. Most of all, I’m looking for a great night from Stephen Peterman. He was outstanding in 2009, and awful in 2010, and his play will either be a great boon to Jahvid Best, or spell another season of “one yard and a cloud of dust” up the middle.

    From @Jimbocity84 - If our patchwork O-Line lets stafford get rocked on the first series, does he see a second one?

    Yes. As much as they want to protect him, subconsciously I think you want to see Stafford take a hit and bounce back up.

    From @KrisWD40 - Could Rayner actually unseat Hanson as our kicker? He seems like a good option and he's got much more tred on the tires.

    Rayner played well enough last year to start somewhere this year, and I’d love to see him take over whenever Hanson is done. But Hanson’s one of the best kickers of all time, and he hasn’t lost much off his leg or his accuracy. Two years ago, he had the best season a kicker’s ever had, on worst team of all time. If nothing else, Hanson deserves to stick around for the playoff run. Who knows? Maybe Rayner waits around for the gig to open up.

    From @anthonytimlin - Who should we be keeping our eye on outside of the starters?

    I kinda-sorta answered this yesterday:

    The Lions’ strongest unit is quarterback; while I hope we’ll see at least two series from Matthew Stafford, I’d also like to see Drew Stanton in the whole second half. I doubt Shaun Hill will be interested in re-upping as a long-term backup, so the Lions have to find out if Drew Stanton is capable of taking his place. Elsewhere offensively, I’m hoping to get a long, long look at Johnny Culbreath at LT, and Derrick Williams at WR. Don’t think I won’t be watching the tailback situation with interest, too; I expect Harrison to get a lot of work.

    On the defensive side, I hope to see very little Ndamukong Suh. I want Sammie Hill, Andre Fluellen, and Quinn Pitcock in and causing havoc. I want a BIG dose of The Great Willie Young. I hope to see the starting linebacker trio in for as many snaps as possible. I hope to see a lot of Aaron Berry working against A.J. Green. I want Amari Spievey in there as much as possible, too; I’m convinced that more reps will help him develop quickly into a force.

    Berry likely won’t play, so instead I’ll just say “the cornerbacks.” To specify a little more on the tailbacks, I want to see the Jahvid Best we saw last preseason, then a 50/50 mix of Aaron Brown and Jerome Harrsion.

    From @AdamantiumAC - Do you think Harrison is capable of moving to HB2 on the depth chart, even with a healthy Morris? (FTR, I do)

    Honestly, they’re pretty similar backs. Harrison isn’t nearly as young as everyone seems to think, and Morris has proven himself a very solid #2 for two years running (pun intended). I could see it, but I don’t think it’ll affect the bottom line that much. Neither is Leshoure, so neither will really replace him. It’s going to be up to Best to prove he can be that every-down back.

    From @Dustin_aka_D - Our offense is going to need a nickname soon. I don't want any rehashing of "great Lakes offense" or "silver stretch" either

    Eh. I'm a fan of nicknames, but they have to be organic. Schwartz picking one from a contest isn’t the same as an actual nickname. “Megatron” was Roy Williams’ honest attempt at describing Calvin Johnson’s ridiculous abilities, and it stuck. Since the Lions’ offense isn’t unique systematically, it’s more about execution and the players. If a nickname for the offense is in the offing, it’ll become apparent during play.

    From @johnweeast - Which RB's you have them keeping right now? and WR?

    Yikes. I often avoid roster projections, because I'm often wrong. I thought John Wendling had only the most extreme long shot to make last year’s roster, and he made the first 53 in style. Best and Morris have roster spots, and after that it’s up for grabs. Aaron Brown will likely have tonight to prove he’s worth keeping around. If he can’t, Harrison likely gets the third spot—though if they need to keep six wideouts, Harrison may have to fight Felton for that spot. I DO think Derrick Williams makes it, one way or another. One last thing: the “final 53” is anything but; the last few spots will still churn like crazy after other teams release useful players.

    From @Dustin_aka_D - do you think the lions will try anything resembling the old Chicago 46 this year on defense?Seems like we have players for it

    A: No. B. My gosh, you’re right, they totally do. Check this out:

    4-6_defense

    The NT is a two-gap tackle; think Sammie Hill and/or Corey Willams there. On either side, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh each directly over a guard, holding the B gaps down. KVB rotating with Lo-Jack at the DE spot. Avril and Levy/Durant at the two upfront LB spots, with Tulloch and Delmas as the back two (Delmas would play the “46” role). Amari Spievey would play centerfield, and Chris Houston and Eric Wright would be in charge of preventinging all pass catching.

    The first little bit sounded really great, but by the end you got to see why the 46 just isn’t used much: modern precision short-range passing offenses would just carve this up, unless you did a LOT of zone blitzing—and what’s the point of putting eight in the box and bringing everyone if you don’t bring everyone? As a change-of-pace run-stopping look, I love it. As an occasional blitzing front, why not? But ultimately, I’m not sure it makes the DL enough more effective to make up for how dramatically you’d be exposing a secondary with question marks.

    Finally, I want to share with you an email from Bob R. He responded to the Mikel Leshoure piece with some intense memories:

    I am fifty three years old and I remember watching a game involving the NY Jets back in the 70's. In this particular game Emerson Boozer, I believe it was, ruptured his Achilles. Back then they didn't have the "in stadium" medical facilities they do now so they helped him off the field to the bench where the team doctors examined what appeared, to the commentators, to be his Achilles region. As the cameras kept cutting back to Boozer on the bench we could clearly see he was sobbing...and not from the pain. Which lead the "Color Man", a former player, to somberly intone, " If this is an Achilles Tendon, then we have just seen Emerson's last play. His career is over." And it was.

    So back in the seventies an Achilles rupture was a football players death sentence.

    I experienced this first hand when my father back in the 70's ruptured a disc in the lumbar region of his spine. "L5" to be specific. The surgery he endured left him with two vertebra fused together, which limits his movement and causes pain to this day, and left him with a ten inch scar down the center of his back. He spent a week in the hospital after surgery and then two more weeks flat on his back at home in a great deal of pain.

    In 1993 I had the pleasure of enduring the same injury to my L5. But the difference in my experience versus his was like night and day.

    I went into the hospital at 8am, had surgery at 11:30am and was walking down the hall of my ward by three that afternoon. The scar from my surgery is two inches long and I was back at work , pain free, in seven days.

    Now, I know we're talking about apples and oranges when it comes to the demands Mikel's body will require, as opposed to mine. But I think it's safe to say that had Emerson Boozer's injury occurred now, he most certainly would have played again.

    Like yours, my heart goes out to him and his family as they face the beginning of the long road back.

    All this is to say, I think your right. I think Leshoure has an excellent chance to be a top RB in this league for years to come.

    What can I possibly add to that? Leshoure’s injury is a “gut punch” to him, his family, Jim Schwartz, and the franchise—but it isn’t a death sentence. Orthopedic surgery and treatment have advanced tremendously in the past few decades—and NFL stars aren’t getting the same therapy  that weekend warriors are. Josh at Roar of the Lions posted how his own shoulder rehab contrasts with what’s known about Matthew Stafford’s regimen; the difference is astonishing.

    To wrap this all up, I’m glad to say I’ll be at the game tonight; please follow @lionsinwinter on Twitter for my real-time updates. I hope whatever TV you’re watching isn’t too tape-delayed—and no matter what, GO LIONS!

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    2011 Preseason Week 1: Lions vs. Bengals

    >> 8.10.2011

    It’s been so long, I’d almost forgotten. Real football been so far removed from my train of thought; the courtroom antics and traded barbs and season review and number crunching and shopping lists and salary cap numbers almost made me forget about real football. I almost forgot how close it was, how little time there’d be between the figurative kickoff of the league year, and the literal first kickoff.

    Two days from now, the Lions will play the Bengals, and all these players, these search keywords, these post tags, these names—mere labels for collected notions of “size” and “instincts” and “experience”—coalesce into people. Men. Players will don pads and jerseys, taped fingers will lace up cleats. Underneath the laundry cynics say we root for, sweat will bead and stomachs will flutter. From the inside the foundation of the old Hudson’s warehouse, they’ll emerge to smoke, music, fireworks, and crowd of thousands of screaming, cheering Lions fans. Then, they’ll go to work.

    The Bengals are an interesting opponent. Looking to break in rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie superwideout A.J. Green, we may see their starting offensive line and receivers a little more than usual. Fittingly, they’ll be stress testing the Lions’ weakest unit, the back seven, while providing opportunities for the Lions’ second-strongest unit, the defensive line. Zac at SideLion Report had a nice Q&A with Bengals blog Stripe Hype, if you’re looking for more.

    The Lions’ strongest unit is quarterback; while I hope we’ll see at least two series from Matthew Stafford, I’d also like to see Drew Stanton in the whole second half. I doubt Shaun Hill will be interested in re-upping as a long-term backup, so the Lions have to find out if Drew Stanton is capable of taking his place. Elsewhere offensively, I’m hoping to get a long, long look at Johnny Culbreath at LT, and Derrick Williams at WR. Don’t think I won’t be watching the tailback situation with interest, too; I expect Harrison to get a lot of work.

    On the defensive side, I hope to see very little Ndamukong Suh. I want Sammie Hill, Andre Fluellen, and Quinn Pitcock in and causing havoc. I want a BIG dose of The Great Willie Young. I hope to see the starting linebacker trio in for as many snaps as possible. I hope to see a lot of Aaron Berry working against A.J. Green. I want Amari Spievey in there as much as possible, too; I’m convinced that more reps will help him develop quickly into a force.

    Really, though? I just want to see who beats who in a fight between lions and tigers.

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    Lies, Damned Lies, & Mikel Leshoure’s “Career Ending Injury.” A Study in Devilish Details

    >> 8.09.2011

    A third of NFL players who rupture their Achilles tendon never play again. The rest are significantly less effectiveness and durable. These are facts, gleaned from an actual medical journal, The Lower Extremity Review:

    Of the 31 players who sustained an Achilles tendon rupture, 21 (64%) returned to play in the NFL at an average of 11 months after injury. In the three seasons following their return, those 21 players saw significant decreases in games played and power ratings compared to the three seasons preceding the injury.

    This study is being shared far and wide around the Lions-y corners of the Internet, and fans are mutually crying in their coffee this morning knowing that poor Mikel Leshoure’s career is over before it started. “No elite running back has ever returned to top form after this kind of injury,” the pundits are saying, and the fans are hanging their heads and repeating that line to each other.

    Days like today are why I started this blog.

    A study says that Achilles tears are all but a death sentence for NFL players, eh? Well, let’s have a closer look at that study. In fact, the LER article cites several individual studies, but primarily draws conclusions from one published in 2002:

    Parekh et al used a player’s power rating as a measure of functional outcome in the evaluation of “skill players” in the NFL, which included defensive tackles, cornerbacks, linebackers, wide receivers, and running backs.3 The power rating is a measure of a player’s performance using statistics gathered during game play, such as passing and rushing yards for an offensive player and tackles and interceptions for a defensive player. This study showed that 31 acute Achilles tendon ruptures occurred in NFL players between 1997 and 2002. The average age of a player sustaining a rupture was 29, with an average career before injury spanning six years.

    Of the 31 players who sustained an Achilles tendon rupture, 21 (64%) returned to play in the NFL at an average of 11 months after injury. In the three seasons following their return, those 21 players saw significant decreases in games played and power ratings compared to the three seasons preceding the injury.

    Let's reduce this to bullet points:

    • The study covered 31 players playing from fourteen to nine years ago.
    • The average age of the players at the time of injury was 29.
    • The average career length at the time of injury was six years.
    • 10 of the 31 players studied did not return to the NFL.
    • Those players who returned did so after an average of 11 months out.
    • Affected players’ production steeply declined over 3 post-rehab seasons.

    In 1997, there were 30 teams in the NFL. Multiply that by 53, and that’s 1,590 active roster spots. Assume 15% turnover (that’s conservative, 2010’s churn was 20.04%), plus teams 31 and 32 joining the league during the study, and you have roughly 2,800 players in your data set. With just 31 rupturing an Achilles tendon, that’s a very rare injury, affecting only 1.1%.

    The average player in this study was 29, and the average career length was six years. Nobody on the Lions exactly matches that. The Lions have two 29-year-olds with seven years of experience: Stephen Peterman and Isaiah Ekejiuba. The 29-year-olds with eight or more years are Nate Burleson, Nathan Vasher, Erik Coleman, and Don Muhlbach. The Lions only had one 28-year-old with six years of experience, Tony Scheffler . . . until they signed Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison to try and replace Leshoure; both of them are 28-year-old six-year veterans.

    How many of those guys above could pop an Achilles, take eleven months to rehab, secure a starting spot, and then stay just as productive over the next three years as they were for their first six or seven? None, because the average NFL career only lasts six years—and that’s going by the rosier league estimate. How many studies have we seen proving NFL players—especially tailbacks—hit the wall at 30, injuries or no? All this study has done is point out what we already knew: the shelf life of most NFL players is short, and major injuries are a major obstacle. It has nothing to do with the Achilles tendon.

    I don’t have access to injury data, but I’d bet you a dollar that these figures would look exactly the same for ruptured ACLs, fractured patellas, torn biceps, broken femurs, or any other season-ending injury sustained by NFL players. None of this data is specifically relevant to a 21-year-old rookie in the best shape of his life, after a college career where he only carried a full load for one season. No elite running back in recent memory has come back from a ruptured Achilles at full speed, because no elite running back has recently ruptured an Achilles.

    The LER article  itself repeatedly notes that there’s a huge variety of therapies, rehab schedules, and outcomes, and no set-in-stone way to quickly return to full speed. After sweeping generalizations in the beginning, by the end it all but shrugs its shoulders and goes “Eh, who knows? I guess it depends.” If it depends, then Mikel Leshoure has every possible indicator pointing to success: youth, a light previous workload, no prior Achilles pain, and a long track record of determination to succeed. This is a logical double-edged sword: perhaps Leshoure’s rare combination of size, speed, and agility has already doomed his tendons, just as Aaron Gibson’s shoulder joints could never quite handle the torque their muscles were generating. But right now, the “facts” being used to eulogize Mikel Leshoure’s career simply don’t stand up to examination.

    Grieve for the loss of his contributions this season. Grieve for the pain he and his mother must feel as his dream is deferred. But don’t grieve for Mikel Leshoure’s career before it’s begun, and don’t you dare write him off.


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    Mikel Leshoure Out For Year; Lions Doomed Forever

    >> 8.08.2011

    Well, it was bound to happen. From Mikel Leshoure’s Meet the Cubs scouting report:

    LeShoure reminds me of another Lions running back, one who stood a very similar 6’-1”, 224: James Stewart. Stewart, like LeShoure, made a lot of hay between the tackles—and if Stewart lacked a certain je ne sais quoi in comparison, he probably hit a little bit harder. Both had excellent acceleration into “good” straight-line speed, both played faster than their reputation or clock times would suggest. Stewart, though, struggled mightily to stay healthy . . . let’s hope LeShoure doesn’t have that problem.

    This morning Mikel Leshoure ruptured his Achilles tendon, ending his 2011 Lions campaign, maybe his career, definitely the Lions’ playoff chances for the next five years, and also every reason you had to ever be happy again. Or, you know, not.

    The culture of hype surrounding the NFL draft, and NFL draft picks, leads us to believe that every rookie drafted in the first few rounds should make an immediate impact on the bottom line. That every team should be counting on its first few picks to step in and excel. That each and every talented rookie will blaze the trail to your teams’ glorious new era of dominance and winning. Only a handful of rookies achieve anything like this kind of instant success in any given year, yet we all go on believing it will happen with next season’s first hundred picks.

    Mikel Leshoure was drafted to fill a need; the Lions will miss him. Here’s another paragraph from that scouting report:

    Mikel LeShoure looks to be an excellent complement to Jahvid Best, much the way Stewart combined with Fred Taylor in Jacksonville. This isn’t a “thunder and lightning” situation, like Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne, or Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. Some folks had LeShoure rated as their #1 workhorse back due to Ingram’s injury concerns; he and Best will doubtlessly find a mutually beneficial workload ratio. Together, they’ll spell each other, make each other more effective, and back each other up—the Lions’ offense shouldn’t ever be without a tailback that can keep defenses honest.

    So, you want to know, who will the Lions add to fill that role? Nobody. Nobody else will fill that role. Anyone who can be 1b to Jahvid Best’s 1a is on another roster. There are “goal line backs” and “big backs” and used-up “veteran backs” with names you’ve heard of, but anyone who’s available right now likely won’t be as good as Maurice Morris, who grades out as a sightly-below-average heavy-rotation running back. The Lions had a need for Mikel Leshoure—that doesn’t mean they have a need for Clinton Portis.

    After Best, Leshoure, and Morris, the Lions have tailback Aaron Brown, and fullbacks Jerome Felton, Matt Clapp, on the roster, as well as H-back Preston Dial. Those four guys were likely fighting for one, or possibly two spots—Leshoure going on IR means two, or possibly three, of those guys will be kept. This coaching staff seems to love Felton as a runner (when he isn’t fumbling), so he may be the “goal line back” going forward.

    Part of building depth is understanding that you may have to use that depth. Though the lockout injury bug has struck the Lions’ “luxury pick” rookies hard, the starting 22 looks essentially the same: the pressure is on Ndamukong Suh, Jahvid Best, and Nate Burleson to succeed, just as it was last season—just because their rookie backups didn’t hit the ground running doesn’t mean the teams’ fortunes don’t still rest on their shoulders.

    The Lions' season is not lost. What the Lions have lost is some breathing room, some, margin for error, and the lottery ticket stub that Young, Leshoure or Fairley each represent. Last year, they won the Mega Millions with Suh; don’t think that just because the Powerball didn’t  bounce their way in 2011 that these kids won’t become productive Lions soon. And, just because Mikel will be “pressing the pause button,” as Jahvid Best said, don’t think that you need to hit “Eject” on your hopes. The Lions’ short-tem picture has not dimmed; they will still win more games than they lose.

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    Fireside Chat: Training Camp & Roster Talk

    The Fireside Chat podcast is back! We started up last night at (slightly after) the usual 10 pm Eastern time on Sunday night, and did a little training camp/roster Q&A. Technical difficulties did exist—but hey, it’s training camp for everyone, right? Give it a listen; if you dig it, subscibe to the podcast feed. If not? Well, as always, I’ll try and do better next time.

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    Old Mother Hubbard: Stocked and Loaded

    >> 8.05.2011

    detroit_lions_tickets

    “We’re free! We’re free!” shouted Rashied Davis, as twenty-six new and returning Lions veterans rushed onto the field, donning their helmets as thousands of Lions fans cheered them on. Released from the locker room by the ratified CBA, the new NFL League Year began with a roar. The Grandmaster suggested a horn:

    “I’ve never been in the army or anything else, but when the cavalry comes, you feel good,” Schwartz said. “If we could have had a horn blowing, that would have been good, put somebody on horseback and bring them out. We needed it. It added so many to our lines, just stretching.”

    For the first time yesterday, all of the 2011 Lions fit to play were out on the field in full pads, practicing without limitations, restrictions, or artifice. As I write this, Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith are signing the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement with pomp and circumstance normally reserved for Israel-Palestine peace treaties. Season tickets went out, including to a friend of mine (who supplied the above glamour shot). All is finally officially right with the Detroit Lions’ world.

    Good.

    Now, to work.

    Martin Mayhew held a rare press conference at this morning’s practice. Clearly, the kid gloves have come off:

    "I think we're at a point now where we expect to challenge for our division, and that's what most good teams expect to do," he said before Friday's practice. "We're at that point."

    "We're here to win football games. We're here to be productive. There's no need to talk about it. It's time to stop talking about winning, and it's time to start winning."

    Sorry, Martin, I’m going to keep talking about it. Let’s assess the shopping Mr. Mayhew did, starting from our original Old Mother Hubbard needs list:

    • An impact two-way defensive end to rotate soon, and develop for 2012.
           [Lawrence Jackson]
    • An athletic, pass-rushing OLB to rotate soon, and develop for 2012.
           [Bobby Carpenter/Doug Hogue]
    • A field-stretching #2 WR.
           [Titus Young]
    • A power back to complement Jahvid Best.
           [Mikel Leshoure]
    • A credible backup middle linebacker.
           [Levy, Durant, Tulloch]
    • An athletic, pass-rushing OLB ready to start right away.
           [Justin Durant]
    • An athletic cover corner, ready to take over one side in 2012.
           [Eric Wright]
    • If Chris Houston leaves, a complete two-way corner, ready to start right away.
           [Chris Houston]
    • A left tackle who can be groomed to replace Jeff Backus.
    • A center who will be ready to rotate at guard soon, and compete at center for 2012.

    I had to fudge the linebackers around a bit; DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, and Justin Durant will likely be your starting linebackers, all three have the ability to play inside or outside as needed. Bobby Carpenter can rotate right away, and Doug Hogue can develop for 2012 (while likely seeing some mopup duty this year, too). Assuming Titus Young will be “a field stretching #2 WR” is looking like a shaky assumption, considering he still hasn’t even practiced yet, and rookie wideouts rarely produce right away. The only other stretch here is classifying Eric Wright as “an athletic cover corner,” but he has the tools and immediately upgrades the position. Between Wright, Alphonso Smith, Nathan Vasher, and Aaron Berry, the #2-#5 corners should be much better this year than last, across the board.

    I remind everyone that half of all top draft picks bust out, and a similar number of free agents fail to live up to their billing. Several of these line items are sure to uncross themselves as the year goes on. But for right now, the larder is well stocked; the Lions are ready for autumn—when the growing season ends, and football season begins.

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