Old Mother Hubbard: Stocked and Loaded

>> 8.05.2011


“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.


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.


Welcome: Detroit OnLion

>> 8.04.2011

Detroit Onlion, a new Detroit Lions blog 

Today, the Lions-blog family gains a new member: Detroit OnLion. Founded by Jeremy Reisman, formerly known around these parts as “Lions Suhperfan” and on Pride of Detroit as “simscity,” the author of the excellent On Paper preview series over there. Jeremy’s a good writer with a bright mind, and has already thrown a pretty radical idea out there—partially inspired by the end of Zack Follett’s career as a Lion.

So, head on over to http://detroitonlion.blogspot.com, and check out what he’s got up there. Bookmark it, RSS it, whatever, and then welcome Jeremy to the Detroit Lions blogosphere family. This is a good year to start a Lions blog . . .


Zack Follett Is No Longer a Detroit Lion

>> 8.03.2011

Detroit Lions linebacker Zack Follett, "the Pain Train," tackling New York Giant running back Brandon JacobsI’ll always have a soft spot for Zack Follett. He’s a piece of TLiW history; Follett was the second-ever subject of Meet the Cubs:

In researching this 6'-1", 238-pound spark plug, it quickly became obvious: Zack Follett is going to be the next inductee into the Lions Fan Hall of Fame. Players like David Kircus, Scotty Anderson, Casey Fitzsimmons, David "Blue" Adams, Greg Blue, and Buster Davis have been drafted late (or signed as a UFA) by the Lions, made a big play or two in training camp or preseason, and become cult heroes--often, with fans insisting that these practice squadders and/or bench riders would be immediate upgrades over the current starters, if only they were given the opportunity. Zack Follett perfectly fits this profile; I have no doubt we'll be seeing Follett jerseys in the stands sooner rather than later.

Oh man. I had no idea how true that would be, did I? Unfortunately, there was something else in that breakdown that proved to be prescient:

As a junior, he was second-team All-Pac 10, again with 12.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks, plus 64 total tackles. This, despite missing part of one game and all of two more with a neck stinger--thanks to an aggravation of a bulging neck disc discovered in high school . . .

. . . In most of my research, the first thing that comes up is amazement that this kid was available in the seventh round. Apparently the neck stinger that limited him in 2007 scared enough LB-hungry teams to engender a big fall—still, that is the kind of risk you want to take with a seventh-round pick.

Like Lydon Murtha, Willie Young, and Johnny Culbreath after him, the Lions consistently use late-round picks on players with NFL talent with question marks, and Zack Follett is no exception. In some cases, “medical flags” are overblown: Adrian Peterson’s injury history scared a lot of teams, and despite a punishing running style, health hasn’t been an issue. In Follett’s case, though, there’s something about his body, or the way he plays the game, or the combination thereof, that literally breaks his neck. It’s why he wasn’t drafted in the third or fourth round, and it’s why he’s not a Lion anymore.

Or is it? Lions President Tom Lewand confirmed Follett’s release in a statement, but claimed he was “waived healthy,” and that the signings of Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, and Bobby Carpenter made Follett expendable. This directly contradicts Follett’s Tweet that “Schwartz Mayhew Lewand didn’t want to risk a life threatening injury after seeing my pain.”

Perhaps the Lions wanted to break it to Follett gently; let him feel as though injury, and not performance, was the reason they decided he couldn’t hack it. But, if that were the case, why would Schwartz say Follett had an “outstanding practice” on Monday? Maybe the Lions were just trying to save a few bucks; being placed on the “waived/injured” list means the player is due an injury settlement. Since Ndamukong Suh makes more in a single game check than Follett would have all year, that doesn’t sound right either.

I think it’s a matter of semantics. Follett said he “couldn’t compete” in tackling drills due to the pain in his neck. Perhaps that’s the tipping point: the Lions would rather have Bobby Carpenter as he currently is, than Zack Follett as he currently is. Follett’s not injured—he’s been medically cleared to play—but his current physical condition prevents him from playing at a high level. For right now, Zack Follett can’t play for the Lions, and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever play anywhere else.

Zack Follett’s just one of hundreds of stories like his we’ll hear this year. Camp rosters have swollen to twice the size of gameday rosters. Nearly a thousand players who can call themselves “a member of [NFL team]” right now won’t even land on a practice squad. Yet, this one has a special sadness; Follett played the game with love, heart, and abandon—and few players have been as open a book to fans. I hope more players choose to live as full-throttle a life as Zack Follett, and I hope their NFL careers have a happier ending.

However, Zack Follett’s life is anything but over; it’s just beginning! He was so beloved partially because of his-off field creativity, energy, and passion—I’m certainly not going to stop following him on Twitter, or watching his videos, or keeping tabs on what he’s up to just because he isn’t wearing a Lions uniform on autumn Sundays. He’s no longer a Detroit Lion, but he’s the same man today that he was yesterday. For once, as fans, let’s remember that.

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Nick Injured? It’s Fairley Insigificant

>> 8.02.2011

Nick Fairley showed up to this morning’s practice in a walking boot, obviously unable to work. Confirmed by a  Tweet from the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, the previously-thought-to-be-minor injury became a possible stress fracture. To steal a meme from MGoBlog:


No, no panic. For starters, this is training camp—bumps and bruises happen. For seconds, this training camp comes after the longest absolutely-no-work layoff in modern NFL history. Normally, these guys have already gone through several sessions of “no contact” (but actually mostly full speed) OTAs, plus a full minicamp. The player-only workouts were just conditioning and 7-on-7 stuff; this is the first real football of 2011 and it’s already August. There were bound to be more nicks and dings than usual.

Here's the other thing: depth. Remember The Parable Of The One-Eyed Beggar? This is partly why the Lions have Corey Williams AND Ndamukong Suh AND Sammie Hill AND Nick Fairley AND Andre Fluellen: so that they can lose one or two of those guys for a while without much of a dropoff.

The flipside is that the Lions’ defensive line must keep rolling waves, so they’ll need Fairley back—but not the way they needed Ndamukong Suh last season. Suh played a thousand snaps, nearly every single down the defense was on the field last season. Fairley was never going to carry that big of a load even if he showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, dominated every rep, and didn’t suffer so much as a paper cut. He’s an extremely talented player and he seems like a nice, fun-loving guy—but he doesn’t need to be an All-Pro for the Lions to have a good defense this year.

If you want to read the tea leaves for how this season’s going to go, don’t scour the injury report, check out Tom Kowalski’s first “Camp Observations” posts:

An interesting play developed during the first period of team work. The Lions' offense went to the line of scrimmage and center Dominic Raiola changed the call. Safety Louis Delmas sensed something and quickly changed the defensive call and shifted the defensive alignment. Seeing that, Raiola quickly reverted back to the original call and snapped the ball. It was a running play wide left and Jahvid Best broke it for a long gainer, bringing cheers from the crowd.

I love every single thing about that quote. I love that we see the value of Raiola: there are bigger centers who can run block better, but he improves the whole offense with his ability to read a defense and change the protection—or even the play. It’ll never show up on a stat sheet, or even in Pro Football Focus’s grades, but it Dominic Raiola brings a wealth of value to this team that that cannot be denied.

Second, I love that Louis Delmas is maturing. His groin healed from last season, allowing him to again play like “Da Missile” we saw in 2009—but he’s coming into his own as a complete safety now. He has the recognition skills and leadership ability to put the rest of the defense in position to succeed; he’s not just flying around putting shoulders into people.

Third, I love that Jahvid Best can still hit the home run. We didn’t see much of his “jets” after the first few games, but I believe he’s going to make a believer out of everyone this year. Delmas and Best were two guys who were supposed to be huge for the Lions last year, and they weren’t. If they can play at the level described above, they’ll improve the team just as much as Tulloch, Durant, or any of the offseason additions.


The Lions Have Arrived; The Bonfire Roars

>> 8.01.2011

The blue bonfire of Detroit Lions fandom. Original image by Donnan Photo, altered and used with permission.

Original image by Donnan Photography; altered & used with permission.


Whether you've been here since the beginning, or just wandered up to the blue bonfire, welcome.

Today is the first day of the first year of the New Lions. Not the possibility, not the promise, not the potential. Reality. This is the year when the Detroit Lions will take the field knowing they should win—and more often than not, leave the field victorious. This is the season that the Lions stake their claim as a perennial playoff team. This is the year that their championship window opens. This is the year where everyone, everywhere, sees the massive, roaring column of blue fire exploding above the tree line, lashing out into the sky, and are compelled to come near, and watch in wonder.

It has been a long, slow wait. It has been a punishing chore splitting and hauling the wood. It has been a bone-chilling, skin-cracking cold, penetrating my parka on the edge of the wind’s knife. It has been more than three years I’ve tended the little blue flame—and together with many of you we have sheltered it, fueled it, and watched it grow. We have warmed our hands as it’s waxed, and gone back to work as it’s waned, all the while greeted the folks who’ve come to watch with a smile, a handshake and a mug of cider.

Yesterday, the Lions signed middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, and re-signed cornerback Chris Houston. Together with Justin Durant, Eric Wright, and Erik Coleman, the Lions have added prime starters or quality backups for every position in the much-maligned back seven. Tulloch will center Levy and Durant behind the monster defensive line, and Wright will compete with Alphonso Smith, Nathan Vasher and Aaron Berry for the #2 corner spot. Add Coleman competing with Amari Spievey to be Louis Delmas’ backfield partner, and suddenly the Lions’ defense looks solid, even scary.

The offense is still the identity of this team, though, and with Matthew Stafford leading a truly exceptional corps of backs, receivers, and tight ends, the Lions will put up points in bunches. Based on their play last season, the talent they’ve added, and the return of Stafford, I expect the Lions to be amongst the top five scoring offenses in football. Pair that with the at-least-average-and-probably-better defense and, well . . . you have a playoff team.

Suddenly, the Lions are a hot ticket. The Lions opened as 30/1 longshots to with the NFC, but have been bet all the way down to 6/1. Peter King, when asked for his picks to make the Super Bowl, spoke the Lions’ name (as “a little bit of an upset.”). We haven’t seen this kind of attention and praise for our Leos in many years; it might seem bizarre, even disorienting. Some of you might be young enough to never remember the Lions entering the season as playoff contenders! Here’s a piece of advice to guide you through this strange and confusing time:

Enjoy it.

Crack a smile! Have a laugh. Take a big swig of hearty cider, and toast your favorite team with gusto. Break out your old Honolulu Blue gear, or buy some new stuff. Don it with pride, and say hey to everyone you see doing the same. If we ought to have learned anything over these past few seasons, it’s to treasure the good times—so why hedge our bets? Why hide this light we’ve kept burning for so long? What was all that work for, if not to enjoy it in times like these?

Yes, I know: you’ve been hurt before. You’ve believed before. But trust me on this one: you won’t want to spend this season with your nose in the air. You won’t want to spend this season mowing the lawn during games. You won’t want to “wait” for the Lions to “prove it” before you believe. Watching them prove it is what it’s all about! It’s what we’ve all waited for!

So. Today, be awed by the power of the blue flame. Marvel at the swell of support from across the nation. Read the reports of training camp practices (real practices!) like a kid who found their parents’ Christmas shopping list. Cherish every moment of this Lions season that you can, because it will be be one we’ll want to remember forever.


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