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

>> 8.12.2011

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

Casey, sent from his or her iPad--

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kinda-sorta answered this yesterday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-6_defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2011 Preseason Week 1: Lions vs. Bengals

>> 8.10.2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> 8.09.2011

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

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

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

Days like today are why I started this blog.

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

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

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

Let's reduce this to bullet points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,mikel leshoure,injuries,achilles

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Mikel Leshoure Out For Year; Lions Doomed Forever

>> 8.08.2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,mikel leshoure,jahvid best

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Fireside Chat: Training Camp & Roster Talk

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

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