Old Mother Hubbard: The Offensive Guards

>> 4.21.2011

Offensive linemen take the most punishment in the NFL—however, they’re built to take it. They also have to work together as a cohesive unit; no other position group is as reliant on chemistry and continuity. Plus, they don’t have to run very far. As a result, offensive linemen typically start a ridiculous percentage of snaps. They don’t flex, they don’t rotate, they don’t get spelled, they don’t have multiple sets. SO, there are very few of them for me to break down:


The top-graded guard is New Orleans’ Carl Nicks, thanks to his strong pass-block grade and Herculean, almost-twice-as-good-as-the-next-guy run-block grade. Bringing up the rear is St. Louis’ Adam Goldberg, who was second-to-worst in both pass blocking AND run blocking.

The Lions’ top guard (of the only two with the requisite number of snaps) is Rob Sims. Overall, he graded out as an excellent pass blocker (ranked 16th-best of 82), and a subpar-but-not awful run blocker (68th of 82). His screen block grades were unremarkable (most are), but his penalty mark was nicely above average (only 2 penalties called all year).

Statistically, Sims allowed 3 sacks and 4 hits, slightly off the the league average of 2 and 3. But, his average-snaps-per-sack-or-pressure rate was 162.6, actually better than the 145.4 league average. Same story for pressures: Sims allowed a pressure every 63 snaps, and the average is 62. 

A quick reminder: PFF tracks sacks, hits, and pressures separately, a sack does not count as both a hit and a pressure. So, from these numbers, Rob Sims consistently makes good plays in pass protection, earning a quality pass-block, and overall, PFF grade. He allows sacks, hits, and pressures at a slightly better-than-average rate. His run-blocking left a lot to be desired, but he played exceptionally clean. On the whole, we see Sims just about as advertised: a solid NFL left guard, and the best player to slot between Backus and Raiola . . . probably ever.

There's an interesting bit, though: Sims’ grades took a huge midseason swoon. 5 of his 6 negatively-graded games came consecutively: in weeks 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Besides Week 3, Sims was weakly or strongly positive in every other contest. I can’t find any evidence of an injury . . . the only midseason event that happened to Sims was the signing of his four-year extension, which happened during Week 5.

Bottom Line: Sims is an above-average starter just entering his prime. If it weren’t for an odd midseason slump, Sims would have graded out amongst the best in the NFL. He’s locked up until 2014, and should provide stability at the spot for the first time in a very, very long time.

It's no secret that Stephen Peterman struggled with injuries all season long, and his grades reflect it. The seventh-most penalized guard out of 82 with qualifying reps, Peterman was subpar at pass blocking—and simply awful against the run (6th-worst). Considering Peterman is a 6’-4”, 323-pound beast who was PFF’s 13th-best-graded guard in 2009, this only makes sense in the context of playing hurt.

Peterman visibly couldn’t anchor against the run, and he was absolutely abused. He only turned in three strongly positive grades all year, and only two positive run block grades. Against the Vikings, Giants, Jets, Bills, Cowboys, and Bears Peterman was deeply in the red: –7.0, –3.7, –2.7, –2.7, –6.3, and –2.8. By comparison, Sims’ two worst grades were –5.6 and –3.7 in weeks 9 and 10, and the rest of his negatives didn’t dip lower than Peterman’s did.

Peterman's stats are slightly rosier: allowing 4 sacks and 5 hits puts him just a little below average. His 123.0 snaps-per-sack-or-pressure average ranked him 55th out of 82. Same story with pressures; on the average, Peterman went 48 snaps between allowing pressures, a little worse than the league mean of 62. That, combined with his 13 called penalties against (1 declined/reversed), completes the picture: Stephen Peterman was completely overwhelmed at the point of attack, but fought and scrapped and . . . well, cheated as often as possible to protect his quarterback.

Bottom Line: Peterman turned in incredibly consistent, strongly positive grades in 2009, and was clearly hampered by a laundry list of dings this season. We can reasonably expect a major bounceback in 2011—and, like Sims, he is under contract through 2014.

Dylan Gandy is just a guy, but he’s just a guy who keeps managing to stay on the roster. The 6’-3,” 295-pounder can play either guard or center, and it’s that versatility that’s kept him around.  He’s 29, though, isn’t being groomed to replace Raiola, and is actually older than the two young veteran starting guards the Lions have locked up.

Bottom Line: I see “starting Center of the future” as a major need for the Lions, and Gandy doesn’t seem to be it. He may have a hard time hanging on as a backup if the Lions do draft a C or C/G swing player in the middle rounds of this draft.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions are set for starting guards for 2011, and the forseeable future. Gandy is a decent, versatile backup, but his spot could (and likely should) be taken by a developing center.


All My Rowdy Bears Are Scheduled for Monday Night

>> 4.20.2011

Chicago Bears PK, Robbie Gould celebrates a Monday Night Football game-winning kick.

will they be wearing these terrible jerseys

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard: the Detroit Lions’ 2011 schedule has been released, and not only will the Lions be playing a primetime game, not only will they be playing on Monday Night Football, but the Lions will be hosting the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.

I was there the last time the Lions played on Monday Night Football. It was the first (and last) time I watched the Lions in the Silverdome, and it was a trainwreck of a game where Kurt Warner put on a quarterbacking clinic, while Ty Detmer and Charlie Batch combined to put on a quarterbacking circus. It devolved into chants of “Let’s Go, Red Wings” by the second half. The lone bright spot was getting to move down to 20th-row, 50-yard-line seats in the fourth quarter.

This time, though, the Lions are going to be out for revenge: against the league for blackballing them for so long, and against the Bears for last season’s stolen victory—and I’m going to do everything I can to be there.

But what about, you know, the rest of the games?

Don't be too concerned about the Lions being in a 7-way tie for the third-hardest strength of schedule in the NFL. It is, after all, the NFL—a game rigged to produce parity—and  teams’ winning percentages vary wildly from year to year. There’s a reason I call the exercise of going down the schedule and predicting wins and losses a “Completely Useless Waste of Time.”

If you follow that 2011 NFL Strength of Schedule link, you’ll see the swing in opponent winning percentage is about 5% off of 8-8 in either direction; pretty even considering all the moving parts that go into it. Instead, let’s look at a few key matchups:

Week 1: at Tampa Bay

Last season, I called the Bucs an "alternate reality" version of the Lions:

What if the Lions had brought in a Tampa 2 coach, like Leslie Frazier, and made evolutionary, rather than evolutionary, changes? The Buccaneers drafted Josh Freeman--a quarterback I'd championed as a possibility for the Lions two years ago--and, of course, the "other" monster DT available in this draft, Gerald McCoy. Much ink has been spilled along those lines, so I won't tip over another barrel--but in many ways, the Bucs represent an "alternate reality" version of the Lions.

Yes, the Bucs are an excellent benchmark for the Lions. Last year, of course, the Lions went down to Tampa Bay and won, breaking the eternal road losing streak. Presuming free agency and the draft (and, of course, the season) all happen, attempting to repeat the feat will be a great measuring stick for the Lions. Just like last season, though, this first week will be enormous. Three of the first four games are on the road, and if they don’t win this one they’ll struggle to keep their head above water.

Week 4: at Dallas

The phrase "at Dallas" generates a visceral reaction: “Oh NO! AT DALLAS!” But really, the Cowboys are an aging team coming off a 6-10 season. The Lions played AT DALLAS last season, too—and people forget the Lions were leading by 5 in the 3rd quarter, before the Cowboys were wrongfully awarded a kickoff return touchdown. This time, the Lions will get a chance to right a wrong—and again, if they don’t, they’ll be likely be 1-3 or even 0-4. A win would give them huge buzz and momentum going into Monday Night Football.

The Lions’ schedule softens in the middle: back-to-back home games against San Francisco and Atlanta, a road game against Denver, then the latest bye week the Lions have had in years. I’d expect the Lions to win two of those three.

Week 10: at Chicago

Just five weeks, and four games, after Monday Night Football, the Lions will go to Solider Field for the rematch. I have not been the biggest fan of the Bears’ approach to rebuilding, but Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli both did excellent work last year: Martz adjusted his playbook to match his personnel, and Rod Marinelli got the most out of the Bears’ talented-but-inconsistent defensive line. I’m not sure what to make of the Bears for 2011, but if the Lions win on MNF, I suspect the Bears get one back here. This one will have major playoff implications—for both teams.

Thanksgiving: vs. Green Bay

The Lions played the reigning Super Bowl champions very, very tough last season, and the NFL took notice. Scarily, both teams should be better this season, and this Turkey Day matchup should have the nation licking its chops beforehand, and loosening its belt afterwards. I’m expecting this to be one for the ages, and it could very even be for the division lead. By my count, the Lions “should” be one or two games behind the Pack coming into it.

Week 15: at Oakland

Huh? Oakland? Not at New Orleans? Not hosting Minnesota? No, this trip to the Black Hole has all the hallmarks of a trap game. Oakland, for all their many hilarious faults, were an 8-8 team last year—and some of their strengths dovetail obnoxiously with some of Detroit’s weaknesses. A winnable, late-season road game, when the Lions are fighting for a playoff spot in a cut-throat division, is exactly the kind of test the Lions must pass.

Week 17: at Green Bay

If the Lions want to make the playoffs, this is the ultimate crucible. The Lions have not won in Lambeau since before the the first President Bush authorized the first attack of the first Gulf War. The Packers will be defending their division crown very good season last year, and NFL title—and whoever loses the Thanksgiving Day contest will stop at nothing to win this one. The stakes in this game could be anywhere from “Meaningless” to “Winner Gets Division Title and First-Round Bye;” if it’s the latter than we’ll all be ten times more excited about this matchup than we are now about the Monday Night Football game.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Centers

>> 4.19.2011

In his best-known work, the Leviathan, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” is an apt description for the Lions’ center play in 2010:

imageThere’s only one center who was credited with any snaps for the Lions this season, and it’s Dominic Raiola. He was above-average in screen blocking (9th-best, in fact), and slightly below average in his penalty rating. Everything else was somewhere between “below average” and “way below average;” overall he was ranked 30th out of 34 centers.

On the other hand, Raiola only allowed 2 QB sacks and 1 QB hit, compared to NFL averages of 1.74 and 2.65, respectively. Given his massive rep total (over 1130 snaps), Raiola did a truly fine job of preventing quarterback sacks and hits. He allowed a sack or hit only once per every 380 snaps or so, making him seventh-best in the NFL.

How could it possibly be, then, that Raiola was graded so poorly in pass protection? Well, his 22 quarterback pressures allowed were second-most in the NFL. Even if we adjusted for his high rep count, Raiola’s pressure numbers are terrible; he had the fourth-worst rate in the NFL—an average of once every 52 snaps!

The picture his paints is of a center who is continually overmatched at the point of attack, but almost always prevents disaster. Remember the PFF “consistency bias,” as I’m calling it: a player constantly racking up minor dings is going to have a worse overall grade than a guy who’s mostly average, except for occasional catastrophic failure.

The strangest thing about Raiola’s grades is his inconsistency. In weeks 4, 13, 14, and 15, Raiola turned in very strong positive grades. In weeks 1, 5, and 10, he was weakly negative. Every other game netted poor, or very poor, grades for Raiola. Interestingly, he went on pronounced hot streaks: in weeks 2, 3, and 4, he had uncharacteristically positive pass-blocking grades, while in weeks 13, 14, and 15 he had great run-blocking marks (0.9, 3.1, and 2.9 respectively).

I looked at Raiola’s 2009 and 2008 performances; he had only three games with overall negative grades combined. To turn in nine “red” games this season indicates a dramatic decline. Now, we’ve seen players—especially offensive linemen—fluctuate wildly from year to year. This was his first year playing next to Rob Sims, and Stephen Peterman was clearly limited by multiple injuries this season. So, this may not be a real, permanent fall off the cliff. But, the Lions have no solid backup and no developmental prospects.

Bottom Line: Raiola had his worst season in years, and possibly ever, last season. Lions tailbacks had zero room to run inside in 2010, and Raiola dances on the edge of disaster in pass protection. His value is partly in recognizing defenses and calling protections, but these grades point to a disturbingly rapid decline in pure performance.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions cannot afford to assume Raiola will bounce back, and be fine for years to come. They need to acquire an impact starting center for 2012 and beyond.


George Plimpton, Plimpton!, and My Paper Lion Story

>> 4.18.2011

I’ve been slyly mentioning, here and on Twitter, that I’ve been working on something really, really cool; this is it. Plimpton! is a documentary about the life and work of George Plimpton, currently in post-production. To celebrate that work, the folks behind the film are doing an online book club. Each month, they’re highlighting a specific part of George Plimpton’s body of work, and posting from people who’ve been touched by it. April is Paper Lion’s month.

The first Paper Lion story that went up was by Bill Dow, a writer who’s done a lot of excellent freelance work covering Detroit sports. Dow coordinated the 40th anniversary celebration of Paper Lion at Ford Field, and . . . well, read the article. It’s a powerful story, and gives you a glimpse into how classy, humble, and and gracious a man George Plimpton was.

The second Paper Lion story at the Plimpton! Book Club is my own. Literally, it’s the story of how my parents turned me on to the book (they actually bought me a copy), my thoughts and feelings while reading it, and what it’s meant to me—both as a Lions fan, and as a writer-y type guy.

Doing research for this piece, I was amazed at just how well-traveled, widely read, and influential George Plimpton was, and is. I knew he was a mainstay at Sports Illustrated—as I say in the story, as a tyke I read his later SI work—but, to borrow a phrase from Luke Poling, one of the film’s co-creators, Plimpton was an “intellectual Forrest Gump.” I couldn’t believe how incredibly well-connected he was to, not to mention beloved by, so many great people. On top of that, well, he was an amazing writer.

I’m really excited to see Plimpton! when it’s released, and I’m jazzed about following the book club as it goes from month to month. If you’d like to, too, I’d suggest you subscribe to the Plimpton! RSS feed, and follow @PlimptonMovie on Twitter. In the meantime, I’d love if you’d give my piece a read, and let me know what you think. If you dig it, pass it on.


Fireside Chat: Lions team needs, part I

The Lions in Winter Fireside Chat, a Detroit Lions podcastSunday night, I did a rundown of the Lions team needs on the defensive side of the ball. Actually, I did the offense too—but I kicked the network cable out of the back of the computer in the middle. so only my cats heard the second part, which I’ll be rerecording.  In the meantime, check out Part I by clicking on the picture above—and hear me say “James Harrison” when I meant “Lawrence Timmons” (H/T @Detroit_Fanatic).


Fireside Chat Podcast tonight!

>> 4.17.2011

That’s right, the Fireside Chat is back! I’m doing it an hour early, 10:00 pm EDT, so some of the early birds can join in. I’ll be doing Lions draft needs, draft Q&A, and probably some sports-blog meta followup from my Rock Music & The Millionization of Sports Blogs post.  So, join in LIVE on Ustream to participate in the chat!


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