When Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand took over, they had almost no young talent on the roster. That’s the idea behind the Old Mother Hubbard posts: when they got there, the cupboard was bare. No longer.
The Lions are a playoff team, and an incredibly young one at that. The foundation of this team is No. 9, Matthew Stafford, and his connection with Calvin Johnson—who, thanks to the richest total contract in NFL history, will be a Lion through the end of the decade.
I can't overstate the significance of this.
I remember well the advent of free agency, the splash Reggie White made by going from Philadelphia to the tiny outpost of Green Bay, and the pillaging of the league the 49ers and Cowboys did throughout the 90s.
From the beginning, free agency has been a revolving door for the Lions: Jerry Ball out, Pat Swilling in; Chris Spielman out, Pepper Johnson in; Jeff Hartings out, Brenden Stai in. Time and time again, the Lions lost foundational pieces and replaced them with designer-impostor stopgaps. Even when they drafted well, the Lions seemed all too content to let good players walk out the door. The Old Lions would have let Calvin walk, and signed Josh Morgan to replace him.
Calvin Johnson is not just a good player, he’s a great one—and not only is he a good person, he’s a great one. Despite the mind-boggling figure, his teammates took to Twitter en masse to declare he earned every dollar (and then some) with his attitude and work ethic. That combination of talent and character is breathtakingly rare—and he has chosen to spend the best years of his career as a Detroit Lion. As Justin Durant wrote at MetroTimes, it was a good day for anyone connected to the Lions.
The Lions have also re-signed Jeff Backus to a two-year deal, inked Shaun Hill to another two-year contract, and brought back veteran safety/special-teamer Erik Coleman. As Anwar Richardson reports, the last major free agent the Lions are looking to add is Stephen Tulloch.
But wait. Don’t I always say that standing pat is losing ground? Don’t I always say that A + B = C doesn’t work in the NFL? That each season is it’s own special potion, an alchemy experiment that can go wildly wrong or wildly right, even with similar ingredients?
Yup, I sure do. But letting Jeff Backus walk and signing Marcus McNeill, or swapping Stephen Tulloch for David Hawthorne, would be classic Old Lions moves. Moving from a sure thing who knows the system to someone new who doesn’t is a risk in and of itself; McNeill and Hawthorne are clear and obvious downgrades from Backus and Tulloch.
In the beginning, the cupboard was so bare the Lions cycled 123 different players on and off the roster in that first contract year. They were desperately clawing to get better at any spot on the roster, even if it was just the 53rd over and over and over. They viewed 1st waiver wire priority as a major tool to improve the roster. Can you imagine any street free agent improving the Lions now?
Let me quote what I said in the final Watchtower of the 2011 season:
For the first time in a long time, it’s truly possible for the Lions to regress. Building blocks of the offense and defense may need to be replaced. Jeff Backus, Cliff Avril, and Stephen Tulloch are all major contributors who may or may not be back, and they only start the list. For the first time since Schwartz was hired, this offseason will not be unidirectional.
Still, what’s important here is that the core, the fundamental truth, the identity of this team will not change. Jim Schwartz is the head coach, Matthew Stafford is the quarterback, Calvin Johnson leads a legion of viable targets, and the defensive line is stacked. That, along with all the other factors, is good enough to get the Lions to the playoffs—and that will be true in 2012 as well.
Can Schwartz, Mayhew, Lewand and company brew a more potent batch of Lions in 2012? Can they add just the right ingredients, and hold back what might spoil the brew? Can they put it over just the right amount of heat so, as the Saints are doing now, it peaks in strength at the perfect time? We’ll see.
We’re seeing right now: not only are the Lions drafting and develop long-term starters, they’re actually paying to keep them here long-term. Slamming the revolving free-agency door shut is crucial to becoming a perennial contender.
If the Lions ink Tulloch to a multi-year deal, and draft as well as they always do, this team is going to be better in 2012 than they were in 2011—and better over the next five years then they’ve been in fifty.