Old Mother Hubbard: 2011 Detroit Lions Offseason

>> 2.25.2011

Old Mother Hubbard's dog still has none, but the Detroit Lions' cupboard isn't so bare

not looking so bare this year

Those of you who’ve been reading for a while have, I hope, been waiting for my Old Mother Hubbard series, where I review the performance of every Lion on the roster with a chance to make the next roster. It begins soon, enhanced with film grades from Pro Football Focus. I do my own film review, too, but they grade every snap—and moreover, they do it for the entire league.  As the Lions’ roster has improved, it’s vital that we compare it to the rest of the league for context.

Before, we knew that the Lions were at the bottom of the NFL in terms of talent. We knew the roster was flatly awful. But it’s been so long since we’ve seen truly competitive football in Detroit, judging the Lions against only themselves no longer makes sense. So, this year’s Old Mother Hubbard will try to compare every Lion’s 2010 performance to their counterparts across the NFL. If I do it right, it’ll be like a statistical combine, for veterans.

Ah, that’s right, the NFL combine—it’s this weekend. All of this year’s prospective draft picks—save a few at the very top, and a few at the very bottom—will be doing drills and jumps and lifts and sprints this weekend in Indianapolis. More importantly, they’ll be getting their medical evaluations, and be doing their personal interviews.

All of your favorite writers and reporters are down there to cover it live, from Michael Schottey to Dave Birkett to Peter King.  Also, follow Will Carroll, who besides being awesome knows Indy—and everyone in the industry. Also, follow me, @lionsinwinter—because if you like my blogging, you’ll likely like my Tweeting. Don’t forget to read Tom Kowalski’s articles (and watch his vlogs) at Mlive.com, and for general NFL-wide combine updates, the folks at Scout.com just kill it every year.

As for the NFL combine, you can follow it live at NFL.com, as well as on NFL Network. I always make time for the OL and DL position drills, and I suggest you do, too. Also, the bench presses are fun to watch; the strength coach who usually oversees it is a real character.

As for the Lions, well, I haven’t built out their shopping list for this season yet. But, for the first time in years, they’ll actually be drafting for depth instead of for starters. They’ll be drafting players to sit and learn instead of step in and start.  They’ll be drafting players now to be major parts of their future—you know, like real teams do. In a way, it’s not as exciting; without free agency, we’ll be desperate to hear about lots of new starters coming in the door. In another way, it’s much more exciting—it means the cupboard isn’t bare anymore.

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Can the NFL pay for Zygiworld?

>> 2.24.2011

A little while ago, I wrote a post called “What Jerry Jones and the NFL Can Learn from Detroit,” comparing the gorgeous-but-abandoned Michigan Central Station to the new Cowboys Stadium. I explained that the push to build more Jerryworlds was a major factor in the CBA negotations:

In the mid-90s, teams explored the brave new salary-cap world, and realized that unshared revenue like luxury suites and concessions not only didn’t have to be shared with other owners, it didn’t have to be shared with the players! This kicked off almost two decades of teams building new stadiums filled with luxury suites and swank accommodations. Teams, for the most part, took advantage of easy credit and/or public financing. Jones used $325 million worth of public funds, secured $625 million of credit—and received a $150 million loan from the NFL.

That's the money the owners are looking to keep from the players: nearly a billion dollars a year to help build the Vikings’ Zygiworld, the Bills’ Ralphworld, and many others. Even the Panthers, a team whose stadium is was built in 1996, are already talking about building another one. Over the next ten-to-twenty years, most NFL cities will feel the pressure to either build a similar monuments to unbridled growth and fantastic excess—or risk their teams’ Ownerworld being built in another town.

Kevin Siefert, at the ESPN NFC North blog, passed  along the work of Cory Merrifield from SavetheVikes.org, who estimates the bill for Zygiworld at somewhere between $900 million and $1.2 billion.

This, right here, is what I was talking about. The economics of billion-dollar stadiums are unsustainable. Teams can’t pay for them; the average NFL franchise is worth $1.02 billion. Cities can’t pay for them; municipalities nationwide are scraping the bottom of the barrel. So, the NFL is hoping to skim a billionish off the top of all the money the NFL generates, and set it aside to help build these stadiums nobody can afford—essentially, the players and fans of all 32 teams will be building these new stadiums, one at at time.

As I said in my prior post, this directly contradicts the letter Commissioner Goodell wrote to fans, explaining why owners were asking the players for big financial concessions from the players:

“Economic conditions, however, have changed dramatically inside and outside the NFL since 2006 when we negotiated the last CBA. A 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all. Fans have limited budgets and rightly want the most for their money. I get it.”

Either Commissioner Goodell doesn't get it, or he’s lying through his teeth. Current “economic conditions” make building a round of billion-dollar temples to football and consumerism illogical, if not impossible. Who will fill these stadiums, if ticket prices are hiked to pay off the debts incurred? What businesses will flush millions down the toilet for naming rights? I already call New Meadowlands Stadium “Your Company Name Here Stadium” because they haven’t been able to find an eight-digit taker.

The NFL might be able to swing this in their negotiations with the players.  They might be able to build Zygiworld, and a few more after that. But, to what end? What happens when the NFL’s bubble bursts, and these multibillion-dollar mega├╝berdomes are playing to half-empty crowds? What happens when franchises start going insolvent because their revenue isn’t covering their debt payments?  The NFL will only be able to cover that up with league money for so long.

Goodell says that these negotiations are about structuring the league’s finances in a responsible way, so to accommodate the huge piles of new revenue surely coming around the corner. But the NFL has to bring its visions of unrelenting double-digit-percent-every-year growth in line with the struggling-to-hold-steady local and national economies it’s part of. I hope, for all of our sake, that time is now, while things are stable—not when franchises are moving left and right to try and finagle one last sweetheart deal.

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The Lion Prince? Amukamara Works His Tail Off

>> 2.23.2011

This, if you can get it to load and run to completion (I can’t, in any browser), is a video about Prince Amukamara’s intense efforts to minimize his 40 time. Few thought during his senior season as the consensus at-least-second-best cornerback in America, he’d be spending this time trying to quiet those doubting his ability. But, partly on advice from Ndamukong Suh, Amukamara will do all the drills at this year’s NFL Combine, looking to prove he’s as good as everyone thinks he is . . . or isn’t . . . or something.

It’s an odd cause-and-effect cycle like this. People watch Amukamara play, they see he’s awesome, they make him Preseason All-America, etc. Then evaluators like Wes Bunting watch film, and say Amukamara’s not worth a Top 10 pick because his straight-line speed is “lacking.” So, in order to answer the questions about his straight-line speed, Amukamara is training to learn how to run really fast in a straight line, in shorts, on a track. Supposing he goes out and cuts a 4.20, what changes about the game tape he laid down? What does that prove about his ability to play in the NFL?

The Combine has gone from a convenient way for scouts to get independent apples-to-apples information on prospects, to a cottage industry with millions of dollars flowing in a circle. Players hire agents, agents pay for training, the trainers boost the players’ draft stock, the player gets paid more, the agent gets paid more, the trainers get more agents referring clients their way . . . everybody wins.

This process bears many strange fruits. There are Darius Heyward-Beys, guys whose eye-popping 40 time causes team to shell out big dough for a guy who can’t play. On the other hand, there are Chris Johnsons whose blazing track times clued teams in to real talent. On the other other hand, there are Joe Hadens, whose lackluster 40 times belie elite on-field ability. On the other other other hand, there are Derrick Williamses, whose slow 40 times reveal a missing top gear.

Let’s be real: Amukamara can play. He’s proven with his play that he can play at the NFL level. The question is, does he possess the extra burst, the elite athletic ability, the splash of habanero required to lock down a Jennings, a Rice, or a theoretical top Chicago receiver? I don’t think his 40 time will prove he does or doesn’t—and even if he does have that potential, cornerback is a position that usually requires development. If Amukamara does fall to the Lions at 13—and many suggest he will—counting on him to shut down his half of the field from day one will be folly.

Last year, Taylor Mays’ “official” 40 time was mysteriously adjusted to be .19 seconds slower than cameras showed, for no apparent reason. There’s never been an explanation for this, and the NFL Network’s frame-by-frame overlap replay proved something was seriously rotten with the NFL’s official times. At this point, what a fast 40 time proves is not that you have elite recovery speed, or can rush the passer, or can beat the fullback to the hole—it proves you either have ridiculous God-given wheels, or you care enough about your career to put your nose to the grindstone and get the very best out of your body. 

So, if you’re watching the NFL Combine this weekend—and after all this, I suggest you do—watch the 40 for fun and oohs and aahs . . . but watch the drills if you want to know what’s really up.

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NFL & NFLPA Mediation: The Wait for White Smoke

>> 2.21.2011

popeSmoke

The NFL and NFLPA have agreed to mediation, as I’m sure you’ve probably heard. For four days—and, if all goes according to plan, three more—the two sides have been holed up with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, negotiating with the assistance of FMCS director George H. Cohen. Cohen comes with an impeccable pedigree. A former Georgetown law professor, he taught (during Martin Mayhew’s study there) “The Art of Collective Bargaining,” amongst other courses. Last year at this time, Cohen resolved a seemingly-unresolvable dispute between MLS players and owners. The last negotiation between the two sides had ended “acrimoniously,” and the threat of a lockout hung in the air. Yet, Cohen brought the MLS and its players to an agreement.

Landon Donovan weighed in on Cohen:

The guy is a stud. Hope he can help RT @TaylorTwellman: very interesting to hear MLS CBA facilitator...George Cohen will mediate NFL CBA

An interesting note, one of the NFLPA’s executive committee members—the guys on the players’ side of the table—might look familiar to Lions fans:

Charlie Batch, former Detroit Lion, current NFLPA Executive Committee member

In fact, Batch is the only one on either side who’s made anything resembling a substantive remark about the progress of the talks:

"Things are going well," said Batch, a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee. "We'll see how things progress over the coming days."

Yes, thanks to the mutually-agreed-upon media silence during the talks, nobody has any real idea about what is happening in there. Is substantive progress being made? Is a deal realistically reachable in time? Will Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s quote from two weeks ago, “we could do this deal next week,” be proven true? Or, is this all a sham, a circus intended to appease us? Are the owners negotiating in bad faith to make it look like they’re negotiating in good faith, thereby enabling them to declare an impasse and impose their will?

It reminds me of how they elect a new Pope. For those who don’t know, all of the Cardinals sequester themselves in the Sistine Chapel, and they nominate, debate, and vote while the world waits outside. Every time they take a vote, they burn the ballots—and if the vote fails to produce a new pope, they mix straw in with the papers to produce a thick black smoke. So, black smoke means no new pope. White smoke means new pope. Sometimes, the papal election can take a while:

Back in the 13th century it took almost three years to install a new pope. After the death of Pope Clement IV, who died in 1268, church officials became involved in a bitter political struggle and many refused to vote. Finally, in effort to break the stalemate, the cardinals were fed only bread and water. The roof of the building they were staying in was removed. The desperate measures worked, because a new pope was soon elected.

I'm not suggesting we take away the NFL and NFLPA’s sub sandwiches, or the roof off of the FMCS. But this has got to get done—for the good of the league, for the good of the players, for the good of the fans, and for the good of all the local economies that depend on the NFL. Meanwhile, good reporters like NFL.com’s Albert Breer are stationed outside the FMCS offices, reporting even the faintest wisp of smoke on Twitter for the millions waiting on the good news.



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