LIVE PHOTOBLOG: Lions Hard Rock Café Watch Party

>> 4.29.2011

Tonight, the Lions are going to be hosting a second-round watch party at the Detroit Hard Rock Café, and I’ll be there live blogging! I’ll be updating this post throughout the night as things happen, so refresh often . . .

Update #1: Still at the office. Have a drive from Lansing, so I'll miss the 4:00 start.

Update 2: plus one boy:

Pimpin' the Sanders.

Update #3: On the road.

Update 4: Here! Roary is holding court.

It's PACKED. Totally crazy. LOVE the support.

Reaction to Barry . . . and then to the Titus Young pick.

YouTube Video

We won the raffle for an autograph!

Waiting for our turn with the big man . . .

The big man and my big man. Terrible photography but I was a little caught up in the moment.

. . . and the man you know as Commenter Matt won the luxury suite tickets to the MNF game!

We ran into Superfan, and his compatriot with an awesome Suh Pro Bowl jersey.

Of course, we had to pay our respects on the way out of town.

The boy didn't last long once we got into the car.

It was an excellent party, and an awesome time; one none of us will soon forget. Nick Fairley was really cool with my son, and I'm thrilled he'll be a Lion. Titus Young called in and sounded overwhelmed, ecstatic, and pretty funny. He said he can't wait to footrace the other Lions skill position players . . .

Big thanks to the Lions for putting this on.


The Lions’ Gate: Detroit Lions D-Line Death Cult

Last night, as Detroit’s time to pick approached, Spencer Hall a.k.a. Orson Swindle, of Every Day Should Be Saturday, Tweeted:

edsbs_detroit_fairley_suhFollowing the Lions’ pick, he followed it up with:

edsbs_detroit_death_cultFrom there, things kind of got out of hand:




With Nick Fairley, the Lions have added the player many thought was the best available talent in the draft—especially in that limbo between the college bowl season and the Combine. In Mel Kiper’s first mock (and many other early mocks, Fairley went #1 overall, to the Panthers. Instead of the “reach” that I was worried about yesterday, the Lions had an incredible player fall right into their lap—mostly thanks to four quarterbacks being taken in front of them, pushing a Top 5 talent all the way down to 13. The problem is, he plays the same position as Ndamukong Suh—doesn’t he?

Well, yes and no. First, Fairley spelling Suh would hardly be a bad thing: according to Pro Football Focus, Suh led all NFL defensive tackles with 997 reps. He barely came off the field at all! With Suh and Fairley, Williams and Hill, the Lions will always have two fresh impact tackles on the field. Beyond that, the Lions are extremely creative with their defensive line; they use weird sets, they stunt and loop, they shuffle guys around. Adding this weapon to Kocurek and Cunningham’s arsenal is dangerous, indeed.

Ultimately, it was a question of value. When the Vikings were on the clock, Adam Schefter reported that the Lions wanted, “badly,” to trade out of their subsequent pick. Apparently, the Lions feared Minnesota replacing the aging Pat Williams with Fairley, rather than roll the dice on a quarterback (as they did). This tells us what we need to know about the Lions’ draft board.

Yesterday, I wrote that the Lions, at 1.13, would be sitting on a pile of good-but-not-great prospects. At that point, the Lions would be loathe to stand pat—if they could find a partner, I’d thought, the Lions would try desperately to slide back. Faced with the possibility that Fairley wouldn’t be there, that’s exactly what they did. Clearly, for them, Prince Amukamara fell into that class of “a whole bunch of guys we’d gladly take at 20 but not so much at 13”—and considering he went 19th, that valuation must have been in line with the rest of the NFL’s.

For the Lions to have passed on Amukamara speaks volumes—not just about their thoughts on Fairley, but their thoughts on Amukamara. Obviously, cornerback is an area of pressing concern. Obviously, Amukamara was widely thought of as a Top 10 talent. Ndamukong Suh would be more than willing to tell the Lions everything they need to know about Prince. For them to not only pass on him, but be panicked at the thought of reaching for him at 13—well, as I said, it speaks volumes. It’s not that I think Prince will be terrible now, or something, but that if you woke up today thinking the Lions passed on the guy who’d immediately solve all their problems at corner . . . apparently, they didn’t.

It’s not all air guitars and pryotechnics, however, as not everyone is sold on Fairley and Suh becoming the Lions’ answer to the Mighty Ducks’ Bash Brothers. Pro Football Focus just posted an article called The Fairley Verdict, and the verdict was mixed, indeed:

It wouldn’t be the most ridiculous statement to say the Lions walked into the draft with the best combination of defensive tackles in the league.

So they didn’t need another one. Let alone a guy who on paper looks to suffer from the same weaknesses as Ndamukong Suh, as well as some pretty big character issues that caused him to drop in the first place. Presuming he plays up to his one good year in college, the Lions got themselves a guy who will likely be very good at penetrating, but perhaps lack a little in run defense. Just think how the combo of Suh and Fairley would leave them susceptible to draw plays and trap blocks? To say they don’t have the linebackers to deal with that level of linemen coming at them would be an understatement.

Eep. They even invoke "same old Lions," a phrase that sends a chill down my spine, and should induce shudders in anyone reading this. Yet, it’s important to note, Suh and Fairley will likely be rotating together in the same spot, not always playing side-by side—and, they are, Suh may be playing defensive end. Don’t forget, Suh has always had a little inside-outside to him, and rumors the Lions might play Suh more on the outside compelled Schwartz to publicly denounce them a few weeks ago. I’m not saying Suh is going to switch positions, but that he’ll be able to join the DE rotation for a number of different looks. Think about:

Avril * Suh * Williams * KVB

Jackson * Suh * Fairley * Avril

Suh * Williams * Hill * Jackson

These are just to wet your whistle. My calculator tells me there are 81 possible combinations with Avril, Lo-Jack and Suh rotating at left end, Suh, Fairley, and Williams at 3-tech, Williams, Hill, and Fairley at 1-tech, and KVB, Avril, and Lo-Jack at right end. As Jim Schwartz said:

"Well, we play 130 defensive tackle snaps in a game. So, if we're rotating three guys through and they're playing 45 snaps apiece ... No. 1, there'll be a little bit of pressure. We can keep rolling waves and waves."

Ultimately, this was simply a Mayhew Pick. The Lions have a defensive philosophy: build the most dominant defensive line in the NFL and let them handle it. Mayhew took the best player available—to some, Nick Fairley was the best player available to anyone in this draft—that fit in with their approach.

Now pass me that Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid.


Okay, not a reach

Okay, not a reach. Nick Fairley, two months ago the consensus #1 overall pick, fell to the Lions at 1.13. Early-ish tomorrow I will explain why this is awesome. Stay tuned for it. For now, I sleep.


Anatomy Of A Reach, or Please Don’t Boo The new Lion

>> 4.28.2011

Last season, I was at Ford Field for the Lions’ draft event. When the Jaguars turned in their card at number ten, the Commissioner called out Tyson Alualu’s name. A collective exclamation went up, and there was much harrumphing—amongst Ford Field attendees, amongst the talking heads on the teevee, and amongst Jaguars fans. I was reminded of the Colts’ “big reach” for Dwight Freeney back in 2002 (I’d link a story, but the Internet doesn’t remember that Freeney at 1.11 was considered a major reach). Alualu is no Freeney, to be sure, but he’s a quality prospect that fit a need—and flashed real talent in his rookie season.

Tom Kowalski wrote an nice piece today about getting the right player versus filling a need, and it’s spot-on. With the 13th pick, if the Lions can’t trade back, they’ll be sitting on a small pile of defensive ends (Aldon Smith, Robert Quinn, Cam Jordan, J.J. Watt, and possibly Da’Quan Bowers), a few offensive tackles (Nate Solder, Anthony Castonzo, and Gabe Carimi), and possibly two cornerbacks (Prince Amukamara, Jimmy Smith).

Obviously, every team has a different grade on all of these guys. They all have strengths, they all come with questions, and they all fit different schemes differently. I can’t tell you who the Lions have highest on their board, but it’ll almost certainly differ from the teams drafting around them. In a situation like this, of course I’d love to see the Lions trade down and get their man anyway—just, as I’m sure, the Jaguars tried with Alualu, and the Colts may have with Freeney. In fact, the Lions may have roughly equal grades on all of these guys, and would be happy with taking whoever’s left!

On the other hand, they may have no trade partner—or they maybe be in love with one of these prospects far more than all the rest. So, if they elect to stand pat and take the guy they want rather than risk losing him—fine. The Internet has already forgotten that Dwight Freeney wasn’t a “good value” according to Mel Kiper; all anyone remembers is that he’s a great player. Besides, anyone who’s ever been in a fantasy football draft knows you want to be the one that starts a run on a certain position—not the one that finishes it.

So. Tonight, the Lions are drafting just outside the top ten, and will have their choice of slew of good prospects—but likely, no great ones. It’s the perfect storm for the draftniks to shout “REACH,” and instead of last year’s jubilation, we’ll be tempted to sigh and shrug our shoulders. But listen: if the Lions stand pat and “reach” for Nate Solder or Jimmy Smith or Aldon Smith, just suck it up and smile. We’re Lions fans, and the draft isn’t our Super Bowl anymore. Our team may not win in April—but that’s fine, because it wins in December.


the Detroit Lions 2011 Pre-Draft Extravaganza

28 April 2007: Calvin Johnson is all smiles after the Detroit Lions made him their 2007 #1 draft pick at Radio City Music Hall in downtown Manhattan, New York, New York.25 April 2009: A happy Matthew Stafford holds his jersey after being drafted first overall by the Detroit Lions during the 2009 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York, NY.  Super Bowl XLV

images by Icon SMI

All spring long it felt like this day would never come. Now, it’s here: the 2011 NFL Draft begins tonight, smack dab in the middle of the craziest labor chaos the league has ever seen. If you’re looking for my take on the Lions’ draft strategy, head on over to The Honolulu Blue, and check out my interview with THB’s author, Wade. We talk about needs, strategy, and my “gun-to-my-head” first-round choice. Wade does a great job, so keep going back after you listen!

Next, if you’re looking for my mock draft, I collaborated with Michael Schottey and Zac Snyder on #mockThree, a blogger/writer mock conducted entirely on Twitter. Schottey, who’s had real training as a scout, and goes to all the college All-Star games to grade these guys in person, did a fantastic job of wearing the Mayhew Hat. The expert graders haven’t turned in their marks for us yet—but just stepping through it made me thrilled for the Lions’ possibilities:


  • 1.13 (13) Da’Quan Bowers, DE – Clemson
  • 2.12 (44) Brandon Harris, CB – Miami
  • 3.28 (92) DeMarco Murray, RB – Oklahoma
  • 4.32 (129) Brandon Fusco, C – Slippery Rock
  • 5.23 (154) Buster Skrine, CB – Tennessee-Chattannooga
  • 5.28 (159) Casey Matthews, LB – Oregon
  • 5.32 (163) Ronald Johnson, WR – USC
  • 7.02 (205) Chris Conte, S – California


  • Traded #75 to New England for #92 and #159.
  • Traded #107 to Green Bay for #129, #163, and #233.

This mock was a dream scenario for the Lions. Let’s get this out of the way: I’ll out myself as the guy who pushed hard for Bowers. If the Lions stand pat at 13, they should take a developmental DE or OT. Why? Two reasons.

First, dominant power/speed combo rushers and huge, athletic pass protectors are only available in the top half of the first round. If 2011 goes as expected, the Lions won’t be picking anywhere near this high for a while, and eventually Backus and KVB must be replaced. Taking this opportunity to do so just makes sense.

Second, there are only a few positions on this roster where a rookie can come in and start—and with the possible exception of Prince Amukamara, there won’t be any impact players at those positions. Even if the Lions go with a corner or outside linebacker, they’ll likely be developmental guys anyway. If reaching for an immediate need won’t satisfy that need, then why do it? Take the best prospect that fits a long-term need.

Ultimately, I think the Lions should trade down from 13. There will be four-to-six players the Lions should be happy to add to their roster there, so why not move down a few slots, add a pick, and take who’s left? In #mockThree, Michael Schottey couldn’t find a trading partner before our clock ran out, so we took the prospect with the highest upside: Bowers.

After that, the board unfolded beautifully for the Lions. CB Brandon Harris fell to us in the second round, which I couldn’t believe—but even after that, corners were bountiful throughout the draft. Ras-I Dowling, a corner many believe the Lions might take in the second, fell to us in the third—along with OLBs like Quan Sturdivant and KJ Wright, RBs like DeMarco Murray and Kendall Hunter, and OG/OC Will Rackley. Unable to decide between so many strong options, we traded back and picked up an extra fifth-rounder. At our new, lower third-rounder, we added Murray, a complementary tailback of the sort we know the Lions are looking for.

Things just kept working out. Schottey brought up Slippery Rock C Brandon Fusco’s name in the third, and was Schottey’s #2 choice for our original fourth-rounder. Then we got a whopper of an offer to move back in the fourth and add a fifth and a seventh, and we took it. Fortunately, Fusco was still there with the later pick. Bam, developmental center. With the three fifth rounders, we nabbed Buster Skrine, a CB Schottey had a third-round grade on, and LB Casey Matthews, a 4th-5th graded guy. With the last fifth, we picked up WR Ronald Johnson—a Muskegon product with whom some of you may be familiar. Seventh rounders are always BPA.

After the confounding first round, the board sets up perfectly for the Lions’ needs. Of the Old Mother Hubbard shopping list, (which, I know, isn’t complete), we filled every need except developmental tackle. We added six players who could all be major contributors, if not starters, in 2012. If the Lions are crafty, they could do just as well.

What the Lions won’t be able to do is add three 2011 starters. That’s because of the skill and talent already on the roster, not a lack of skill in the front office or talent in the draft. The Lions have become a good team, and on good teams you don’t draft a raw project in the fourth round and start him Week 1, a la Sammie Hill. On good teams,  a fourth-round project has to work to make the roster, let alone the starting lineup!

I’ll be honest: tonight, I have no idea who the Lions will take. I’m hoping they pull off a trade down, and get a player who’ll be great someday, plus change. Whether they get an OT or DE for the future, or a CB for the present, the amazing thing about this draft is that we can just sit back and enjoy it. If you’re smart, you trust Mayhew, Lewand, Schwartz and his staff, Shack Harris, and all the scouts—they’ve done beautifully with their first two drafts, and I have faith they'll do so with this one, too.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Tight Ends

>> 4.27.2011

I’m on a breakneck schedule now, trying to wrap this series up before the draft . . . or free agency begins; whichever comes first! We move on to the tight ends, about whom we need another disclaimer: Pro Football Focus grades every TE as a complete package. Typically, if a TE is an impact receiver and a terrible blocker, fans still consider them an impact TE because that’s what we see, and what we can easily measure. Please remember, then that the TE “Pass” grade is not a synthesis of a tight end’s statistics, but a subjective grade of how they actually performed on each play, just like with the linemen and defenders.


The spread this produces is quite interesting: there’s a handful at the top who are good at both receiving and blocking, a handful at the bottom who aren’t good at anything, and a huge hodgepodge in the middle of guys with varying tool sets. At the top of the heap is Jason Witten with the 3rd-best receiving grade, 5th-best pass-blocking grade, and #1 run-blocking grade. The backmarker is Brandon Manumaleuna: 26th of 64 in receiving, 64th of 64 in pass-blocking, and 63rd of 64 in run-blocking.

The highest-rated Lions TE, of course is . . . Will Helller? Yes, with a Blutarskian 0.0 grade, Heller notched the best mark of any Lion TE (NFL average this year was –3.2). He was only thrown at five times, and somehow got dinged for a -0.4 receiving grade in those four plays (NFL average: +0.48). Still, he caught 80% of the balls thrown his way (4 out of 5), for 33 yards and a score.

Heller's primary role is as a blocker, though, and in that he did well. He was graded by PFF at +0.7 in pass blocking (average: 0.0), and +0.1 in run blocking (average: –3.5). So, compared to all TEs who got at least 25% of their team’s snaps (Heller didn’t qualify, only 169), Will Heller was a slightly-above average blocker, slightly better in the run than the pass.

Bottom Line: Will Heller is a good rotational blocker, who’s come up with a few nice catches in his time here. He should have a place on the roster for 2011, at least.

The second-best Lions TE in 2011, according to PFF grades, was Tony Scheffler. The former Western Michigan Bronco was the 21st-best tight end overall. He was a decent +1.2 in receiving, lower than I’d expected, but Heller’s equal in pass blocking at +0.7 (which I didn’t expect, 26th-best). His run blocking was notably worse than Heller’s, graded at –2.6—but that still outpaced the NFL average of –3.5, and slotted him  25th of 64.

Statistically, Scheffler had an up-and-down year. He was thrown at 66 times, and caught 45 of them--percentage-wise, matching the NFL average to the decimal (68.2). What surprised me was his low YpC average, just 8.4 (avg. 10.59). Scheffler is known as a downfield threat, but it seems he wasn’t used that way. His YAC suffered, too—just 4.3 AYaC, compared to the NFL average 5.0.

It’s known that Scheffler suffered a series of injuries throughout the year (concussion, shoulder, ribs), and something definitely seemed amiss with him. After a very strong showing in Weeks 3 and 4, where he hauled in a combined 13 passes for 123 yards (and received +1.3 and +1.4 grades), his production fell off the map. For ten weeks the only non-negative grade he got was a +0.3. He had a particularly awful stretch in weeks 6-10, turning in grades of –1.5, –1.8, –0.1, and a nasty –3.1 against Buffalo. Worse, though, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew found their role in the offense, and the quarterback carousel seemed to hit Scheffler’s numbers more than than anyone’s . . .

. . . I found an interesting little wrinkle, though: Tony Scheffler led all NFL TEs with 25% or more of their teams’ snaps in target-to-snap ratio. Scheffler was thrown to once every 6.3 snaps he played—meaning if he was on the field, he was a major part of the play. He seems to have a very specific niche in the offense, even if it isn’t what we expected.

Bottom Line: Tony Scheffler was signed to a three-year extension right after his great two-game stretch at the beginning of the season; he’ll likely be here through 2013. The player we saw in September was the same player we saw for years in Denver; I can’t believe that guy’s gone for good. Even if he is, “Diminished Scheffler” is a solid receiving TE, who blocks better than you think.

Now, stunningly, we come to the bottom of the list: the Lions’ #1 TE, Brandon Pettigrew. Let’s clear something up: Pro Football Focus does not grade on “upside.” They do not round up for “potential,” or “excitement.” They don’t even care about the name on the back of the jersey, except to correlate back to the data. All they care about is what a player does, and what Brandon Pettigrew did in 2010 is drop a hell of a lot of passes. 12, to be exact, on 103 targets. Dropping a pass every 8.6 targets gave him the third-most-buttery fingers of any TE with 20 or more targets . . . and a huge factor in his overall –8.0 grade (43rd/64).

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Pettigrew's receiving grade, -5.0, is the fourth-worst in the NFL. It turns out, though, that all that “He’ll be like a third tackle” hype actually does hold water: Pettigrew had the NFL’s 6th-best pass-block grade, a +2.3, and 16th-best run block grade, with +0.5.  Unfortunately, his ridiculous ten penalties assessed gave him the second-worst penalty grade in the NFL.

You wanna know something interesting, though? Even with his extremely high drop ratio, Pettigrew’s receiving percentage (% of targets caught) was actually slightly above average, 68.9 (avg. 68.2). Either his quarterbacks are throwing more accurate passes than everyone else—unlikely, given the Lions’ QB situation in 2010—or maybe, Pettigrew is like a range-y shortstop, making “errors” on balls other people wouldn’t even get to. Further,

Pettigrew’s game-to-game grades are wildly inconsistent—and unlike Scheffler or Cherilus or Sims, there’s no “everything was cool and then it all went bad.” Pettigrew’s grades swing from bad to good to bad to okay to terrible to outstanding to okay, with no rhyme or reason. After turning in a horrific –5.6 against Chicago in Week 13, where he got negative grades in every phase of the game, he thwomped Green Bay with a +3.0 overall, and positive grades in every phase of the game. There appears to be no rhyme or reason.

Bottom Line: Brandon Pettigrew is young veteran with a huge frame and amazing tools. He’s already an excellent pass blocker, and a very good run blocker. As a receiver, his awful case of the dropsies hurt both his grades and several key Lions drives. Overall, his many penalties did the same. If he can cut down on the mental mistakes, Pettigrew could be one of the best TEs in the game. If not, he’s still a great blocker, and a target defenses must respect.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions like to run 2-TE sets, both to for blocking purposes, and for passing purposes. With Pettigrew and Heller, the Lions have a powerful blocking tandem. With Pettigrew and Scheffler, the Lions have a (theoretically) potent receiving combo. This unit didn’t play like it’s capable of in 2010, but even so I see no needs to address. None of these players is perfect, but as a group they’re nearly perfect for this offense.


Fans Win, Owners Lose: A Layman’s Breakdown

>> 4.26.2011

A few weeks ago, when Judge Susan Nelson heard the player’s request for a preliminary injunction in Brady vs. NFL, I wrote a little piece running down the possible outcomes:

. . . the best-case scenario, for fans, is that Judge Susan Nelson orders the two sides back to mediation, and to not come out until they reach a settlement. Unfortunately, that’s quite unlikely. The second-best-case scenario, is Judge Nelson granting an preliminary injunction—meaning, she rules in favor of the players, the lockout ends, free agency begins, and we have business as usual until the conclusion of the trial. This is more likely than her ordering the parties back to mediation, but still not very likely.

Fortunately for everyone not named Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder, the second-best-case scenario is exactly what happened. As everyone’s now heard, Judge Nelson enjoined the “lockout,” in an extensive 89-page ruling (click for .pdf of full text). As part of my half-a-degree in Political Theory, I did have some edumacation in reading court decisions. If you want the quick version, read ESPN’s Lester Munson, whose interpretation of Judge Nelson’s ruling pretty much says what I’m about to say, only a lot smarter and a lot more concisely.

First, the NFL’s main argument: that the NFLPA's decertification was a "sham," a legal end-around designed solely to prevent the NFL from locking out the union, as is the right of an employer during collective bargaining. Right off the bat, there’s a big problem with this:

“Among the negotiated terms of the SSA, the Players, who had de-certified their union in order to bring antitrust claims, acceded to the NFL’s demand that they re-certify their union within 30 days. As an apparent form of quid pro quo for that accession, the NFL agreed to waive any right in the future to assert the non-statutory labor exemption, after the expiration of the CBA, on the ground that the Players’ disclaimer was a sham or otherwise ineffective to end the labor exemption.” –p. 11

Oops. As a condition of the players’ reforming into a union back in 1993, the NFL expressly waived the right to use the “sham defense” if the NFLPA ever decertified again. Not only that, but the union did an airtight job of making absolutely sure it wasn’t a union anymore:

“Accordingly, at approximately 4:00 p.m. on that day, the NFLPA informed the NFL that it disclaimed any interest in representing the Players in further negotiations. (Id. ¶ 57; Doc. No. 91, Ex. B.) In addition, as of that time, the NFLPA 7 amended its bylaws to prohibit it or its members from engaging in collective bargaining with the NFL, the individual teams, or their agents. (Doc. No. 1, ¶ 58.) The NFLPA also filed notice with the Department of Labor to terminate its status as a labor organization. (Id. ¶ 59; Doc. No. 91, Ex. E.) Similarly, it filed an application with the IRS to be reclassified for tax purposes as a professional association rather than a labor organization. (Doc. No. 1, ¶ 60.) And on March 11, it also informed the NFL that it no longer would represent players in grievances under the soon-to-expire CBA, so that the players would have to pursue or defend on an individual basis any grievance with the NFL or the individual teams. (Id. ¶ 61; Doc. No. 91, Ex. C.)” –p.14

Honestly, the spirit of the NFL’s argument might be valid: the NFLPA’s leadership did decertify specifically to prevent a lockout, the NFLPA’s leadership is still all the same people—and, before this is all said and done, the NFLPA may well re-certify (under the same leadership) in order to negotiate a new CBA. However, Judge Nelson ruled, A) the NFLPA is definitely not a trade union now, B) they gave up significant rights when they decertified (like the right to collectively bargain, the right to strike, etc.), and C) even if it’s all a ruse, the NFL already promised it wouldn’t call the players out on it.

The owners' repeated insistence that the NFLPA “resume collective bargaining” post-decertification looks pretty silly now, eh? The NFLPA wrote into its bylaws that neither it, nor any of its members, can collectively bargain with the NFL, the teams, or the agents.

The NFL claimed that the federal courts had no right to hear the case, and Judge Nelson should refer the dispute to the National Labor Relations Board. The NFL had already filed a complaint with the NLRB alleging the players’ engagement in unfair labor practices, and noted that the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction over such issues. Judge Nelson first pointed out that there’s a difference between exclusive statutory jurisdiction, where an issue can only be resolved in one place, and primary jurisdiction, where a court refers the parties to an outside agency (like the NLRB) because that agency is better-equipped to resolve the dispute. She cited a whole mess of precedent showing that this case would be subject to the latter, not the former.

Then, she explained why—even if the NLRB’s expertise outstrips her own—she declines to stay the injunction and refer the parties to the NLRB. For starters, the NFLPA isn’t a union anymore—and unlike in other cases where unions “decertified” but kept right on striking, picketing, and collectively bargaining, the NFLPA has completely ceased any unionesque activity. According to the NLRB’s own guidelines, the NLRB’s exclusive jurisdiction covers unfair collective bargaining practices, and there isn’t any collective bargaining happening. Judge Nelson is ruling on an injunction in an antitrust lawsuit filed by a bunch of employees against a monopoly, not a labor dispute:

“Even assuming that the question of the Union’s disclaimer is an issue of labor law, this Court need not refer it to the NLRB because it arises as a question embedded in the larger framework of this antitrust suit.” –p. 32

Judge Nelson cites the the NLRB’s own General Counsel in the 1991 dispute (in which the NFL used the “sham” argument against the NFLPA’s original decertification), and :

“’[T]he fact that the disclaimer was motivated by ‘litigation strategy,’ i.e., to deprive the NFL of a defense to players’ antitrust suits and to free the players to engage in individual bargaining for free agency, is irrelevant so long as the disclaimer is otherwise unequivocal and adhered to.’” –p. 40

The NLRB has heard this exact complaint from the NFL before, about this exact action by the NFLPA, and they already told the NFL it doesn’t hold water. Even if Judge Nelson referred everyone to the NLRB, the NLRB would likely dismiss the claim anyway. Finally, Judge Nelson points out that the players’ request for an injunction is based on the lockout causing them irreparable harm; holding the case up for months waiting for the NLRB, just to have them go “We already told you, this isn’t our thing” would just be doing more harm.

The NFL also argued that the Norris-LaGuardia Act prevents federal courts from issuing injunctions in labor disputes. However, 1) the Norris-LaGuardia act was expressly written to keep courts from stopping labor unions from forming. It’s a pro-worker, pro-union law; it was enacted because the courts were too often granting injunctions for business against workers, flouting the intent of laws already on the books (like the Clayton Act). She even cites her colleague, Judge Doty, in his ruling on 1992’s Jackson vs. NFL:

"'[i]t would be ironic if a statute that had been enacted to protect the rights of individual employees from improper actions by employers and the courts were turned against those employees and used to justify the continued application of a system found illegal under the Sherman Act.'" –p. 56

Even leaving aside the historical context of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, and that the Norris-LaGuardia Act says right in it it’s meant to provide protection for workers, it’s expressly designed to be enforced during labor disputes—and . . . brace yourself . . . this isn’t a labor dispute because the NFLPA isn’t a union anymore. Again, she cites Judge Doty:

Judge Doty, in this district, came to the same conclusion in 1992. Jackson v. Nat’l Football League, 802 F. Supp. 226, 233 (D. Minn. 1992) (concluding that the Norris-LaGuardia Act “does not preclude injunctive relief in the present case because such relief will not undermine any labor policy set forth in the Act,” once the bargaining relationship ended). This Court is, of course, not the first to have issued injunctive relief against the NFL despite its objections that such relief was precluded by the Norris- LaGuardia Act. –p. 67

She then lists several other cases where the NFL has tried invoking Norris-LaGuardia to protect itself from lawsuits, and every single time it got them nowhere. According to the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard, Judge Nelson took a dim view of this argument even in the courtroom:

One of the haymakers Boies received from a very prepared Nelson – she said this case was all she studied the previous two weeks – was about the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1937, which the NFL insists precludes the court from stopping a lockout.

“'Isn't there some bit of irony that the Norris-LaGuardia act, designed to protect employees from strike-breaking federal judges, should now be used to prevent an injunction of a wealthy, multiemployer unit seeking to break players who are no longer in a union?” Nelson asked.

It was one of the few times during the hearing that Boies, the legendary antitrust litigator, didn’t have a swift response.

Judge Nelson then took up the main issue from the players’ perspective: whether a preliminary injunction is needed to prevent “irreparable harm.” She first notes that the players aren’t asking for a blanket injunction granting them an early victory on the whole Brady vs. NFL case (abolition of the draft, restricted free agency, the salary cap, etc.) just a lift of the lockout so they can all keep working while the full case is tried.

Second, she notes that the legal standard here is that the players need to have a “fair chance of prevailing” at the full trial, not the higher “likely to prevail” standard that applies for injunctions against government actions. She notes that foremost, the players must be suffering, or likely to suffer, irreparable harm.

Third, she must balance the harm the players would suffer during the lockout against the harm the owners would suffer if the courts lifts the lockout. Finally, she must consider the public interest.

Judge Nelson immediately states that the players have done an excellent job of establishing irreparable harm:

"Here, even on the present preliminary record, the Brady Plaintiffs have shown not only that they likely would suffer irreparable harm absent the preliminary injunction, but that they are in fact suffering such harm now." --p.71

The NFL argues that 1) players missing out on getting paid now can get paid later, especially if the NFL loses the overall suit and must pay the players “treble damages” (three times what they rightfully owe the players, a common penalty). 2) the players aren’t going to suffer a season-ending injury while sitting around not working, and 3) not being able to work out with their teammates at team facilities doesn’t do them irreparable harm, either.

Honestly, at first blush, this holds water with me. Yes, the players are being harmed right now—free agents-to-be aren’t getting their paydays, players like Chris Houston don’t know if they’re to be restricted or unrestricted free agents (HUGE difference in payday potential), and those rookies about to be drafted won’t be able to sign either. However, all of those things are “we miss out on getting paid” problems, and of course if the NFL is found liable, the players will eventually get paid.

However, Judge Nelson again cites a mess of case law, including the Court’s own rulings in the previous cases, noting that players’ short careers, extremely high risk of injury, and the extraordinarily competitive NFL job market, even missing one year can derail a career.

As an example (not in Judge Nelson’s ruling, this is me talking), if the lockout were allowed to last until Brady vs. NFL was tried and decided, Jason Hanson might elect to retire rather than ride it out—thereby ending his career.  Second, we all talked about how rusty Mike Vick would be at playing quarterback after two years in prison; imagine a whole league where all the veterans haven’t played for almost two calendar years—then imagine them competing for jobs against rookies who were playing in college the whole time . . .

Judge Nelson accepts the players’ arguments that free-agents-to-be, like Logan Mankins, have already missed out on the usual March feeding frenzy that pushes salaries through the roof. A year of no football finally ending with a momentumless free agency period wouldn’t replicate the conditions that would produce long-term, big-money paydays that young proven veterans like Mankins typically fetch—and players usually only get one or two chances in their careers to sign deals like that.

Further, Von Miller’s inclusion as a plaintiff represents a rookie class that will have an unprecedentedly short—or nonexistent—window to make a team in 2011. If the lockout goes through 2011 and ends in 2012, you may have two whole classes of rookies competing for the same roster spots—and this April’s class would have a year’s-thick coating of rust.

Finally, for players who are due to be free agents in 2012, 2011 is their contract year; they must make the most of it in order to maximize their market value. If the lockout infringes on the season, an opportunity to build their marketability will be forever lost.

The NFL argued that the balance of harms is on their side, because if an injunction was granted it would rip the fabric of the NFL asunder! Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes; the dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Instead, Judge Nelson again notes that the injunction is not to grant a full victory to the players in Brady vs. NFL, just to lift the lockout:

“In ruling upon that request for injunctive relief, this Court need not–and does not–address whether the non-statutory labor exemption still applies so as to shield the NFL from the Players’ other antitrust claims, that is, those regarding the various restraints the League imposes on the Players. Resolution of the issue of whether the exemption precludes relief on the NFL’s various Player restraints must await another day.” –p. 83

Judge Nelson turned her attention to the players’ case.

"As the Brady Plaintiffs observe, the NFL does “not contest that their ‘lockout’ is a per se unlawful group boycott and price-fixing agreement in violation of antitrust law.” (Doc. No. 41, at 6 (Mem. at 1).) Rather, the NFL’s defense is confined to their argument that the non-statutory labor exemption from antitrust liability continues to protect the League because the NFLPA’s disclaimer was invalid and ineffective and that resolution of that issue is for the NLRB and not this Court. Because this Court has disposed of those arguments, the NFL presently has identified no defense against Count I of the Brady Plaintiffs’ Complaint. That the policies and decisions of the individual teams constitute “concerted action” seems plain."

Right, the way the NFL operates is flatly illegal if there’s no union, no collective bargaining, and no antitrust exemption. The NFL doesn’t, and really can’t, contest that. Their only defense is “Well they are too still a union,” which . . . yeah.

Finally, Judge Nelson must rule on the "public interest," and . . . yeah. If the owners win, the only people who win are the owners:

the public ramifications of this dispute exceed the abstract principles of the antitrust laws, as professional football involves many layers of tangible economic impact, ranging from broadcast revenues down to concessions sales. And, of course, the public interest represented by the fans of professional football–who have a strong investment in the 2011 season–is an intangible interest that weighs against the lockout. In short, this particular employment dispute is far from a purely private argument over compensation. –p.87

If you haven't noticed, the league is precisely 0-fer in this ruling. On every single point, Judge Nelson sided against the owners. The courts’ order shouldn’t really be a surprise:

Based on the foregoing, and all the files, records and proceedings herein, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:

1. The Brady Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction [Doc. No. 2] is GRANTED;

2. The Eller Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction [Doc. No. 58] is MOOT; and

3. The “lockout” is enjoined.

So what does this all mean? First, as Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio notes, the league’s legal strategy smacks of arrogance, ignorance, or both. They brought, essentially, the exact same argument to the exact same court about the exact same greivance as White vs. NFL. The NFLPA decertified, and the NFL trotted out the same “yeah, but it’s a sham decertification,” and the “actually, this Court has no right to rule on this issue” defenses. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re in line to get the exact same result.

What of the NFL's appeal to the conservative Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals? Look, this isn’t about “liberal” or “conservative” courts. As agent Howard Shatsky noted on Twitter, Judge Doty is an ex-Marine appointed by Ronald Reagan. Judge Nelson cited him, but also TONS of other precedent on every single one of these points. The ruling is an 89-page monster; as Lester Munson and Mike Florio and several others have said, it’s been carefully constructed from the ground up to prevent an overturn. The Eighth Circuit may well be “business friendly,” but they’ll be reviewing a blowout of a decision, with a high standard of deference. In order to stay, or overturn, this ruling, they’ll need to find that Judge Nelson “abused her discretion,” which is highly unlikely.

Ultimately, it’s what I’ve been saying all along: the owners think you’re dumb. The owners think the players are dumb. The owners think it’s their amazing business skills—and not the product on the field, nor the passion of the fans—that has fueled the success of the NFL. Throughout these negotiations, the NFL has presumed that not only will the NFL remain an incomparable entertainment juggernaut, but that it will continue to grow at unprecedented rates: 278% by 2027! The NFL wants to keep the players from their share of that pie in the sky, and to ensure that they don’t care who suffers. Not their employees, not their local economies, certainly not the players whose backs they’re making the money off of, and definitely not the fans whose pockets are the source of all this revenue.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Offensive Tackles

>> 4.25.2011

Note: This is part of an ongoing series; check out the rest of the entries if you dig!

After my review of the centers took a whack at a perennial fan piñata, Dominic Raiola, I’ve been both anticipating and dreading doing this one. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised:


The top-PFF-graded NFL left tackle is Andrew Whitworth, who is not that defensive end from the Cardinals from back in the day. A 2006 second-round pick, the 6’-7,” 335-pounder turned in the NFL’s second-best pass block grade, ninth-best run block grade, and best screen block grade. He did take seven penalties, but  even that wasn’t enough to drag him off the top of the heap. At the bottom is Levi Brown, the man he replaced in Cincinnati [Ed. note: that was Levi Jones; thanks to Anonymous Commenter]. Levi turned in an appalling –34.1 pass block grade, while allowing the Cardinals’ sad menagerie of quarterbacks to get flattened.

Of course, the man of the hour is Jeff Backus, and unsurprisingly he’s the Lions’ best offensive tackle. His overall +1.4 grade puts him 21st out of 78 offensive tackles; 13th out of left tackles. His pass block grade slots him 27th, 14th amongst qualifying left tackles. His run block grade is 33rd, 16th amongst left tackles. His four penalties called (one declined/offset) gave him the 8th-best penalty grade in the NFL (5th-best amongst left tackles. You’ll notice that his blue line is solidly above the thick black AVERAGE; that’s correct. Jeff Backus performed like an above-average tackle in 2010.

Backus was 13th amongst left tackles in snaps-per-sack-or-qb-hit-allowed, with 87.2 (NFL avg. 83). He was  21st amongst left tackles in snaps-per-pressure-allowed, with 34.3 (NFL avg. 41). That’s the only dimension of Jeff Backus’ game where he wasn’t above both the mean and median for either all offensive tackles, or left tackles only: he has a below-average-but-not-awful pressures-allowed rate. Whew.

Digging into the individual-game grades a little bit, Backus (predictably) was graded either weakly or strongly positive in all but five games. His five negative grades, were: –1.0, –1.5, –1.5, –2.1, –2.6, and a nasty –5.4 against Buffalo, of all teams. From Week 4 (@GBP) through Week 10 (@BUF), Backus turned in a positive pass block grade of +1.0 or better for all but one game. (+0.1, v. WAS). That’s right, even in only truly bad game, Backus was strongly positive in pass protection. He (along with the rest of the line) was awful at run blocking that data, though (-5.1), and he was assessed two penalties. Other than that, though, Backus was mostly positive or neutral across the board.

Bottom Line: Jeff Backus, for the second-straight year, has turned in a solidly-above-average performance at left tackle. His ten-year consecutive games streak is an amazing accomplishment, and he’s playing the best football of his life. The Lions will be fine with him for 2011—but how much tread is left on those tires?

As the offense’s answer to Cliff “It Would Be So Sweet if This Guy Stepped Up” Avril, Gosder Cherilus answered the bell, if not with the same aplomb his defensive counterpart did. Cherilus was PFF’s 27th-best-graded offensive tackle in 2010, 13th-best if you’re counting only right tackles. HIs +0.5 pass block grade slotted him 26th-best (12th-best amongst RTs)—very slightly better than Backus! Gosder’s –2.7 run-block grade was only 42nd-best out of 78 OTs, though, and 18th-best of right-siders. PFF only has him credited with five penalties (one declined/offset), though, so his penalty rating was right about average—great news for those of us with random bald spots from pulling our hair out.

Statistically, Gosder has a nice feather for his cap: he averaged 120.9 snaps per QB sack or hit allowed! This is the 13th-best mark overall, and 9th-best amongst right tackles. Like Backus, though, he allows a lot of pressures; one every 31.3 snaps, on the average. That’s 48th-best amongst all tackles, 20th-best amongst primary RTs.

Gosder's individual-game grades are fascinating. For the first three games, he turned in horrific grades of –4.6, –3.0, and –4.9. After that, he was a stud. He turned eight straight games without a negative pass block, run block, or overall grade. He was strongly positive overall for six of those eight games. In the ninth game, against Chicago, Gosder had a tough time run blocking (-1.1), which brought down his overall grade for that week to –1.0. I thought Rob Sims’ grades had a noticeable “slump” in them, but this is incredibly dramatic; like night and day. I have no idea what happened after Week 3, but Gosder’s performance went from practice-squad material to top ten RT stuff.

Bottom Line: Gosder took a huge step forward in 2010—specifically, in Week 4 of 2010. I can’t explain what turned the lightswitch on, but if he recovers from his knee injury and picks up where he left off, Cherlius will be a top ten RT in 2011 and beyond. That’s a big “If,” though.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was backup RT Corey Hilliard, who came in cold in relief of Cherilus on Thanksgiving and turned in an impressive +1.7 grade on just 33 reps. I remember him playing a pretty good game the following week against Green Bay, too, but the PFF graders handed him a –1.8, due to a –2.0 pass block mark. He was given an overall negative grade for every game thereafter, too. His only positive grade of any sort after that New England game was his +1.9 run block grade against Tampa—negated in the overall grade by five pressures allowed, and two penalties assessed.

Bottom Line: by only allowing one sack in 271 snaps, Corey Hilliard flashed performance we had no idea was there. He played only better than you’d expect from a 2007 sixth-rounder with very, very few snaps of live action—but you wouldn’t expect much at all, and Hillard was far short of revelatory. I expect him to be in the mix as a backup for 2011, but Hilliard does not appear to be a long-term answer. He is, however, only 25.

Rookie fourth-round draft pick Jason Fox only saw the field for 26 snaps, in Week 17. A natural left tackle, Fox played out of position at RT. He didn’t surrender any QB sacks or hits, and only one pressure—but his run blocking was abysmal, graded out at a horrendous –4.0 by PFF. All the talk about him needing to develop his body, build strength in the weight room, and all that sure rings true.

Bottom Line: Fox was a project pick, and we knew that at the time. He will definitely be in the mix as a swing backup, but you cannot “pencil him in” as either the left, or right, tackle of the future just yet.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions need a long-term heir apparent to Jeff Backus at left tackle, one who can fill in for Gosder Cherilus if his rehab falls behind schedule.


On Losing Interest in the NFL

While the battle of Courtroom Football rages on, something’s happening: fans are losing interest in the NFL. NFL bloggers are figuring this out by their dwindling traffic, and their quiet commentariats—that includes little ol’ single-team fan blogs like this one, all the way up to the Grandaddy of Us All, Pro Football Talk.

Here's a graphical demonstration:

This is the worldwide Google search interest level for the NFL, from 2004 to today. It’s a nice snapshot of How Interested The Internet Is In Something. I’m sorry I couldn’t make this look any nicer, the Javascript embedding tool didn’t play nicely with Blogger. Anyway, you see an immediate, definite pattern: traffic builds to a peak the first week of the season, dips for a few weeks, then, starts building towards the playoffs. The peak week is always the last week of the regular season, or thereabouts; as most teams’ seasons end then, traffic starts a precipitous decline to a mid-March trough. Then, interest builds back up to a second, lower peak come Draft time, before hitting the long doldrums of summer.

The last cycle on the graph (2010) is remarkable for a number of reasons. The April peak was much, much higher—about twice as high as the usual draft spike. The regular season interest started building earlier, climbed to 20% above usual levels, and stayed there. However, there’s a problem: after the Super Bowl, interest dipped lower than it’s ever been before the draft, and it’s not building back up to a second peak right now.

The four weeks before, and week of, the 2010 draft pulled search interest levels of 17, 18, 19, 23, and 78 last year. This year’s predraft month, it’s been 14, 14, 17, and 24—meaning, unless interest goes from 24 to 100 this week (unlikely), the draft simply isn’t moving the needle like it always does. Coming off of a record-smashing year for interest in the NFL, this looks scary—especially to bloggers like me.

My traffic for April so far has been just a quarter of it was for last April, and comments have all but disappeared. This is partly due to the Lions’ pick being later in the draft (and therefore less sexy). However, even national blogs like Pro Football Talk are feeling the pinch, too:

That said, we think it’s fair and appropriate at this point to disclose our stake in the situation.  Because our overall interests are driven by site traffic (Charlie Sheen says, “duh”), we want our traffic to be higher.  Right now, our traffic is lower than it would be if a lockout hadn’t happened . . .

. . . Thus, we acknowledge our bias in this regard — we want the lockout to end, quickly. Since we’d feel the same way if we were merely fans and not financially invested in the process, it won’t be affecting our opinions or our coverage in any way.

The day of the schedule release saw a flicker of interest, though, which Florio discussed with Mike Freeman of Tellingly, Florio Tweeted out: 

Even with no end in sight for the lockout, the release of the schedule has made me very happy, at least for one night.

Throughout this labor negotiation, lockout, and litigation process, I’ve been warning both sides that they’re doing real, permanent damage to the NFL’s fandom. They’ve presumed not only that the NFL will maintain their unheard-of dominance over the American sports landscape, but that their stratospheric growth rate will continue unchecked—accelerate, even. Like King Midas, though, the NFL’s ability to turn everything it touches into gold may be threatening to starve it.

The lockout has taken away everything fun about the offseason, and replaced it with endless legal wrangling and PR spin. So far, most fans have responded by tuning out. Will they tune back in for the second primetime draft? Or, will the NFL not get its groove back until there is a new collective bargaining agreement? Or, will the NFL finally wane, settling back into its position as the nation’s number one sport—instead of the nation’s only sport that matters?


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