Cross Road Blues

>> 8.10.2013

As the legend goes, Robert Johnson met the Devil himself at a crossroads, and sold his soul for the ability to play guitar like no one ever had. Though Johnson didn’t achieve worldwide fame and success until after his mysterious poisoning death, Johnson will reign as King of the Delta Blues for eternity.

A Faustian bargain made in a swirling mist of hoodoo, it’s an intoxicating tale that Johnson never shied away from—after all, it didn’t hurt from a marketing perspective. According to blues historian Robert McCormick (via Wikipedia, yeah what of it), Johnson’s friends and family believed Johnson’s death was divine retribution for making secular music instead of glorifying God with his talent.

Johnson, McCormick believes, accepted the idea of “selling his soul” as a metaphor for abandoning honest work and playing the blues full-time.

Last November, I made the same choice.

I accepted a full-time position with Bleacher Report as a National NFL Lead Writer. I continued working my day job full-time for weeks afterwards to handle the transition. Between that workload and my family life, I struggled to keep up TLiW.

For four years, I’d kept the blue flame burning while burning the midnight oil. The words written here were penned during lunch hours, stolen moments, and brain-melting early-morning sessions that often had me waking up to a darkened computer, both hands still on the keyboard.

Switching careers at 31—with a wife, three kids, two cats, a dog, a mortgage and two cars hanging in the balance—was not something I could afford to do halfway. TLiW is a labor of love, but owed my loved ones every ounce of my labor.

Old Mother Hubbard, Meet the Cubs, eulogies for the careers of Jeff Backus and Jason Hanson: these are all projects I sincerely meant to undertake and just… never… did.

This season, the Lions are at a crossroads of their own.

The 2013 iteration of the Detroit Lions made their preseason debut last night. Despite massive turnover on both the offensive and defensive lines, and shiny new toys on both sides of the ball, the 2013 model looked largely similar to the 2012 edition.

The Lions’ greatest flaw from last season—a total inability to cross the opponent’s 30-yard line in the first half—was there for all to see. The dominance of Stafford-to-Calvin, the not-dominance of just about every other Stafford-to-whomever combination, and the boom-or-bust running game looked spookily familiar (remember, Joique Bell hurdled fools last year).

The defensive line looked overwhelming, with Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones combining with Suh and Fairley to form a front line shocking in its size, strength and athleticism. I mean, look at this:


The obvious size and strength of the line up front allows the Lions to be ridiculously aggressive with the back seven, as you can see. The much-maligned Wide 9 alignment maximizes this up-front advantage. At first, this made a hash of everything the Jets tried to do offensively. Then, the back seven fell apart, with multiple blown coverages making Sanchez look good.

The Ziggy thing? Yeah, that was awesome. Snagging a pick-six on his first series in Lions uniform? Awesome. Don’t make too much of it, though. As Jim Schwartz said at halftime, per the Detroit Free Press:

“We said from the beginning that he plays screens well, he plays draws well and all those kinds of things. We’ve seen that stuff on tape so wasn’t a surprise when he made that play.”

As I said all along (on Twitter, mostly), the Lions having coached Ansah at the Senior Bowl means the whole staff knew exactly what they were getting. Those speculating assumed Ansah would be raw and lack instincts because Ansah’s only been playing football for a few years. The reality is, Ansah’s grasp of the game is exactly that: instinctive. He’s still not the Pro Bowler they need him to be.

Don’t make too little of it, either. The strength, hands, athleticism and playmaking skills the Lions knew they were getting in Ansah were on full display against the Jets. That’s awesome. He definitely has the talent to be the Pro Bowler they need him to be.

There weren’t a ton of valuable takeaways from this game. Shaun Hill is still way too good to be a backup. The kickers and punters look good, and the special teams overall are improved. Riley Reiff is not going to put Stafford’s life in danger. Other than that drive, the Jets couldn’t do much against the defense—then again, the Jets have almost no offensive firepower.

There were still too many two-yard runs, incomplete passes, stalled drives and punts for a theoretically high-flying offense.

Throughout the offseason, I’ve fought the impression that this is going to be a tantalizing but unsatisfying “sim year,” one we’d simulate though if we were playing on Madden. There are too many young and inexperienced players in key roles, too many question marks yet unanswered, and too little proof that Matthew Stafford has enough rapport with anyone besides Calvin Johnson to take his game (or the Lions) to the next level.

Though this team has more than enough talent to make the playoffs, and my faith in the coaching staff is still strong, nothing I saw on Friday looks significantly better than in 2012—or 2011, for that matter.

This was the maddening thing (not the Madden-ing thing) about the 2012 season: the team looked so much like the 2011 squad, but the offensive touchdowns just evaporated. The margins were so thin and the outcomes so unlucky, it not only defied belief at the time but threw into doubt just how “real” the magical 2011 season was.

Even if the 2013 Lions perform at exactly the same level as 2012, they could still be a seven- or eight-win team, if they’re as lucky this year as they were unlucky last year.  If Reggie Bush can terrify defenses with more explosive plays like that hurdle, and Stafford takes advantage of the space, they could win the division. If not, they could struggle to reach .500.

Did I make a deal with the Devil himself to express myself for a living? No, but I did make a deal with you folks. I swore I'd never let the little the blue flame die out, and I won't this site go dark. I can't promise anything too regular or too specific, but I'll be writing throughout the season (and, Lord willing, Fireside Chatting again on game nights).

If TLiW's not already bookmarked or RSS feed'd, you can always keep track of new posts at my Twitter feed, and the VERIFIED (!!!) Lions in Winter G+ page.

If you're reading this (and surely, if you've read this far), you're part of the reason I was able to follow my dream and do what I love for a living. Even more than I was up all night writing for me, I was up all night writing for you.

It's the unique spirit of the Lions fan that compelled me to providing a warm, comfortable place for us frozen and weary souls. You came, in shocking and humbling humbling numbers, to join me by the fire. You encouraged me, supported me, let me know when I did well and let me know when I'd strayed from my Flamekeeping duties.

The Lions in Winter—its words, posts, community, comments, podcasts, UStreams, all of it as a whole—has changed my life. Thank you, all, for letting it be a small part of yours. I hope it still will be, for as long as the blue flame burns.


Bryan Emanuel,  August 10, 2013 at 3:28 PM  

Its a sentiment I'm seeing over and over as I read post game follow-ups. I'm glad people are attuned, that their eyes are open, but - it does remain that this is a preseason game... May we trust, or hope, that there is a learning curve here? -Or at least allow ourselves to bethink the possibility? Being that there is a lot of youth on this team, especially in the defensive backfield, I'd guess these 4 preseason games will present a big curve for them. Real-time action, speed, hitting. The worrisome question is Stafford. Is he in a rut.? I worried before the preseason, when we heard over and over how the defense was getting to Stafford in training camp. No one seemed to ask whether that had to do with him being off-. Stafford DID say before this game that part of the challenge in the limited time of a preseason game would be in getting off early. -A struggle from all last year too. He was conscious of the goal but missed the target. Hopefully there is a learning curve for Stafford. Hopefully he gains the confidence in his corps to sling it all over the field again, and not JUST to Calvin. (Stafford too has to drive the point to opposing defenses that there are other people on the offense to be wary of other than Calvin.) Hopefully these preseason games are martyrs for the regular season. Hopefully it is then that we are hitting on all cylinders

Joel Morgan,  August 10, 2013 at 4:09 PM  

Welcome back. It's been cold without the little blue flame :)

Bill Barnwell on Grantland wrote a good article arguing for the overall resurgence of the Lions - namely, they underperformed their Pythagorean win expectation, terrible record in one score games, and very low turnover percentage.

10 wins. Playoffs. We'll win our first playoff series since whenever we last won one.

-Formerly known as A Lion in ViQueen Territory. I think I need a new commenting name. Back in Michigan!

Anonymous,  August 11, 2013 at 10:17 PM  

Welcome back!

Marc,  August 12, 2013 at 8:46 PM  

I look at it as preseason.

That bein' said....Stafford has to work on buildin' chemistry with WR's beyond CJ. He also has to focus upon the underneath routes to Scheff and 'Grew. *The big play downfield is not the only 1....*

I am not concerned with the defense at all....even at LB at this point....

I truly believe this team will be much better than many of us are expectin' them to be this season....And I say The Division is not out of reach....

I see a teamwork type effort and overall vibe that has been lackin' years past....

Time will tell....

John,  September 4, 2013 at 1:05 PM  

Dude! I was afraid this was turning into a farewell post. I read your other NFL stuff on BR, but I've been missing your take on our Lions this preseason. Since I've been reading, I have found TLIW to be a regular source of thoughtful, cogent and intelligent observations about a team for which you (and your readers) are unabashedly passionate. Your affirmation to keep the site alive - in whatever capacity and with whatever frequency you can manage - made my day and warms my Lions-devoted heart. When you can find the time to write about the team we love, I'll look forward to reading it here.

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