Bridging the Pacific 94 Feet at a Time

great wall

The summer between my Junior and Senior years in college (May 2011) I went abroad to China for a month. This was a really amazing experience for me because I studied East Asian History. However, while I went to observe Chinese historical landmarks like The Great Wall (the brick one not the Dancing One), The Terracotta Warriors, and Tian’anmen Square, but the part of my trip I found most interesting involved a lot less pretentious history nerd stuff and a lot more frivolity (just the way I like to live my life).

No no no... not that Great Wall, the once with brick and stuff

No no no… not that Great Wall, the once with brick and stuff

I was in China from late May and early June, right in the middle of the NBA playoffs and finals, and while I never would have guessed it, this fact ended up shaping a lot of my trip. A group of other guys on the trip and I would always stop into various bars and watch some playoff games whenever we could just to get a taste of home. Now, at first this seemed like an incredibly mundane activity, but eventually it dawned on me that it was more unique than that. First off, we’re in China!! Why were they playing NBA games at all? And furthermore, there’s a twelve hour time difference between the US and China, meaning these games that start at 8pm in Miami would be starting at 8am in Shanghai and Beijing. In spite of this, Chinese bars would be packed early in the morning with guys heading to work, trying to watch as much of a game (which was taking place half way around the world) as they could before they ran off to their manic jobs in a nation obsessed with financial growth.

Dem Duckets Though....

Dem Duckets Though….

Moreover, this was all happening in a post-Yao Ming world. Everyone knows that Yao opened China as an NBA market. Chinese people looooooooved to root for Yao, and the Houston Rockets famously capitalized on this being the first team to grab a foothold in the Chinese market. But Yao has since retired, and his heirs have failed to capitalize on this growth and expand on it. (Yi Jianlian I’m lookin’ at you.)

You just never quite measured up, didja Yi. Never looked quite the same when you weren't posting up folding chairs... (Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images North America)

You just never quite measured up, didja Yi. Never looked quite the same when you weren’t posting up folding chairs… (Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images North America)

In the past I always assumed this meant the Chinese desire to watch the NBA would decrease rapidly. The narrative went, “Chinese people love to watch Yao. They like to watch a Chinese man compete with the Americans at their own game, but they don’t actually care about the game itself.” And yet… here I was in a different packed bar every day watching the NBA playoff games. But because I am as observant as a sleeping sloth none of this registered with me at the time. Ok hold that thought.

Don't worry, I'll get there eventually

Don’t worry, I’ll get there eventually

SO ANYWAY, while we were in Beijing we went to a university and got to hang out with some of the students there. I ended up meeting this Chinese guy who went by Jack and he was nice enough to show me around his campus. He pointed out all the security cameras as well as the paramilitary police stationed on every corner, all the political stuff I thought I was in China to see. While we were walking, however, he asked me where I went to school. I told him I went to UK and as I was preparing to explain to him that no, I did not mean the United Kingdom, I mean the University of Kentucky and to explain where exactly Kentucky was on a map he goes “Oh I know Kentucky. Rajon Rondo played there. He’s my favorite NBA player.”

a pair of rondos

I was stunned. Apparently, as I quickly discovered, Jack was a huge Celtics fan and loved watching the NBA. This was shocking for me for a few reasons. I was under the impression that lots of Chinese people loved the NBA but only to watch the Rockets and only if Yao was playing. But Jack explained to me that a lot of people are huge fans of the league. Moreover, he and his friends actually would hack through the “Great Firewall of China” on a regular basis so that they could watch games online and read ESPN.com articles (in English no less) about what’s happening in the league.

J.R. Smith was one of many NBA players to take the cash grab in China during the lockout (and find themselves temporarily stranded there afterwards http://www.craveonline.com/sports/articles/178911-nba-players-stuck-in-china).

J.R. Smith was one of many NBA players to take the cash grab in China during the lockout (and find themselves temporarily stranded there afterwards http://www.craveonline.com/sports/articles/178911-nba-players-stuck-in-china).

We also discussed the then upcoming lockout that was looming over the NBA. I asked him if he was excited that so many NBA players would be coming to play for Chinese teams during the lockout (as was rumored to be the case and ended up happening) but he was just as mad as most American fans about the whole situation. He was a Celtics fan. He wanted to watch the Celtics play, and he didn’t care if NBA talent was on loan in China. He just wanted to watch basketball of the highest level being played and didn’t want Chinese teams acting like vultures pulling players out of the league he loved.

What Jack’s story meant to me was that the NBA had formed a truly cooperative cultural bridge between China and the US. This isn’t necessarily a new concept. Sports can do this and its been proved it time and again. What is new, however, is just how little inherent animosity and antagonism appeared to exist in the relationship. A lot of times in the world of East Asian Studies “Westernization” is a dirty word because it evokes images of American cultural imperialism. Because of this even positive things like the use of baseball as a cultural bridge in Japan after WW2 can be viewed in a negative light (due to the fact that baseball was brought by the American Occupational Forces; the conquering heroes who taught Japan their game). One can also look at the antagonism between the NHL and KHL where the rival Russian league capitalizes on every opportunity to attack the NHL by luring away NHL players and violating NHL contracts to see how a shared love of sport doesn’t always bypass political animosity.

China and the NBA appear to be different. People become fans of the teams they love because they love a style of play or a specific player’s game. So near the end of my trip while I was sitting in an imitation Brooklyn-style Pizza restaurant in Hong Kong and watching the Dallas Mavericks upset the Miami Heat for the 2011 title I couldn’t help thinking about Jack. China is a country in somewhat of an identity crisis. An economic powerhouse which is ostensibly Communist but de facto capitalist, a merger of Western modernity and Eastern history and traditionalism. A country which denies many basic freedoms to its citizens but whose people bypass their government at every opportunity, all while being the second biggest market for the NBA, a socialist sports league which, in true capitalist fashion, creates more millionaires year after year than almost any company in the world.  In some ways then, the NBA really does define China better than a long wall, some clay soldiers, or the site of a 20 year old failed protest. Basketball and the NBA talk about China’s ‘now’, and are a big part of the current culture of China. This is today’s China. A hybrid chimera more interested in function than form even when traditional rhetoric begs to differ. So I guess in the end it makes perfect sense that a college kid in China would hack through a government enforced firewall to watch a kid from Kentucky play basketball in Boston 6,800 miles away. Basketball is just a game, but by watching this game modern Chinese citizens are defining their national identity, and choosing to pursue their own interests outside of a nation’s rhetoric.

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Klieman Mountains Isn’t Easy

So we’ve come to the end of Chris Klieman’s first regular season as head coach of the North Dakota State Bison. And if I do say so myself, things don’t look too shabby. The Bison finished 11-1 (with yet another win over an FBS school, this time Iowa State). Moreover, this isn’t exactly a case of a championship roster remaining intact while only the Head Coach changes. In truth while the players can all be accredited to Bohl in large part, this team is largely devoid of myriad key starters from the 3-peat teams Bohl put together. The star, starting quarterback, Brock Jensen, is gone along with Marcus Williams and Billy Turner (now with the Jets and Dolphins respectively) starting running back Sam Ojuri, star linebacker Grant Olson, go to receiver Ryan Smith, and a veritable cornucopia of other guys. So while Bohl certainly didn’t leave the cupboards bare, it was up to Klieman to build a new title contender out of these parts. The “team” of Bohl was certainly not left intact.

(Photo Credit - Tony Guitierrez, AP)

(Photo Credit – Tony Guitierrez, AP)

So all in all I’m quite pleased with Klieman’s 11-1 record. The one loss came against UNI which, although not excusable, is at least understandable considering the circumstances. UNI plays NDSU tough every single year. Although they aren’t always sitting at the top of the division they always play NDSU tough. Indeed, they might have, historically, the best football program in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (the best FCS conference by far). Since 1985 (the year the MVFC began playing football again) UNI has won 16!!! conference titles. The next highest total by any school? 5. And while NDSU has won 4 titles running, they’re still newcomers to the league by UNIs standards, and UNI just wants to remind us of that on occasion.

Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor

Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor

So anyway, its incredibly hard to play AT UNI and this year we couldn’t pull off the win unfortunately. O’well. As much as I wanted Klieman to get an undefeated season during his first year as coach, he’s still 11-1 and split the conference title with Illinois State (also a 1 loss team with, guess who… UNI as their only loss). Now, while this kindof freaks me out as an aside (Klieman’s alma mater is UNI, and if we’re gonna lost to them it makes me worry that, if the job ever came open, Klieman would leave the Bison to return to his hometown of Waterloo Iowa) even though it probably shouldn’t (Mark Farley is only 51, and also a UNI guy so unless an FBS job comes calling he’ll probably be there another 10 years) none of this changes the fact that Klieman appears to have been the right choice for this job.

UNI has an elite program and not only are they Klieman's alma mater, they're his hometown team. He was born and raised in Waterloo Iowa going to Panthers games. (Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor)

UNI has an elite program and not only are they Klieman’s alma mater, they’re his hometown team. He was born and raised in Waterloo Iowa going to Panthers games. So there must have been some mixed emotions walking off the field in the UNI Dome with the first L of his NDSU Career. (Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor)

However, all isn’t quite perfect in paradise. First and foremost, regular season wins and conference titles are fantastic, but what I think all Bison Football fans want is that fourth straight title. No school in FCS history has every won 4 straight, and as a protest to our backwards thinking boosters at NDSU who wouldn’t allow the school to go to the FBS when we had the chance in 2004, I’d love to be the first school to achieve this. So while I don’t mean to downplay what Klieman has done so far, really he hasn’t done anything yet. I realize thats an incredibly unfair way to judge a new headcoach (win a national title in your first year or you suck) its just kindof the way I think about it.

klieman and boh

More importantly, however, is the fact that the team hasn’t always looked right this season. Under Bohl the team was the absolute picture of discipline and execution. NDSU never made stupid mistakes. Rarely committed penalties and helped the other team, and simply put their nose to the ground, ran the ball, and ground their opponents into flour (yay! Farm Jokes!!).

This is what discipline and hard work get you. (Image via Bison Illustrated)

This is what discipline and hard work get you. (Image via Bison Illustrated)

This year, however, the Bison just look off. On offense they can still grind opponents down with 6 yard rush followed by 5 yard rush, followed by 15 yard rush. Its the same formula. However, it feels like every third play they O line will hold, or false start, or something that erases the play and sets the team back. This was the formula that got us the L at Northern Iowa. Now, it didn’t result in repeated losses this year (obviously) and it didn’t even seem to slow the team down (of their 11 wins, 7 of them were by 20 points or more, INCLUDING the Iowa State win). NDSU still seems to dominate people, much the way Mississippi State was playing earlier this season. They were both just so much more talented and better than their opponents that they were constantly able to make stupid plays and mistakes and not just get the win in spite of this, but DOMINATE their opponents in spite of this.

NDSU has absolutely dominated in almost every game they played this year, even with mountains of mistakes. However, UNI proved we're not perfect, and wins against FBS schools don't matter come playoff time. (Photo Credit: Steven Branscombe, USA TODAY Sports)

NDSU has absolutely dominated in almost every game they played this year, even with mountains of mistakes. However, UNI proved we’re not perfect, and wins against FBS schools don’t matter come playoff time. (Photo Credit: Steven Branscombe, USA TODAY Sports)

However, when you run into a disciplined team, as was the case when NDSU squared off against UNI, things don’t look so peachy. As far as talent is concerned the Bison are clearly still the best team in FCS, and honestly a veeeery good team by FBS standards (Sagarin has them ranked #37 right now ahead of neighboring powers like Minnesota and Iowa) but the execution terrifies me.

ndsu sagarin

If you can screw it up during the regular season against a UNI team that finished 8-4, what happens when you start playing the best teams in the FCS during the playoffs. Like I already said, we all want this 4th title, but stupid mistakes me keep it out of our hands, and may rob us of an opportunity that I doubt will ever come again (a chance to win 4 straight).

Moreover, this whole issue of discipline really confuses me because I don’t see Klieman as an undisciplined coach. He knows how to run a program and has been a part of a winning one for a long time now. He learned under Bohl and is somewhat of a hand picked successor to him (although Bohl wanted Klieman to head to Wyoming with him rather than become head coach at NDSU, which only speaks to how important and skilled Klieman really is).Maybe its just youth. Like we already discussed NDSU lost more seniors off last years team than the number of pairs of glasses Velma lost on Scooby Doo’s 50 year run on television.

velma

 

Young teams make mistakes and that’s fine. If this is what a young Klieman team looks like, where they make tons of mistakes but are physically dominant most of the time, then I can’t wait for us to figure it out and get back to our disciplined ways. It scares me that this team didn’t seem to learn its lesson after the Northern Iowa loss though. You would think losing their 33 game win streak would have been enough to snap some sense into them, but even last Saturday in the Youngstown State game, a game they dominated and their last chance at a tune up before the playoffs start, they were STILL making all kinds of mental mistakes and stupid decisions throughout the game. This really terrifies me heading into the playoffs where all the teams are good.

(Photo Credit North Dakota State Athletics)

(Photo Credit North Dakota State Athletics)

With all that said, however, I just worry that this year’s playoff run represents a once in a lifetime opportunity. If we aren’t going to be allowed to compete in the FBS, then this is really what I have going for me. I hope the players all understand that this is the kind of opportunity that never comes again and they get their act together for the playoff run. They already cost themselves homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with that one loss, dropping themselves from the #1 overall seed to #2. They’ve given themselves an uphill battle in every game this year, and now its carried over to their path to a title. It didn’t have to be this hard, but they made it this way. I just hope with the added pressure of playoff season and the chance to make history, they don’t crack under the weight. I hope we prove that NDSU football is a program, not just a coach. I think it IS a program of dominance and Klieman and this crop of guys ARE every bit as good as their predecessors. Now I just hope they prove that to the rest of the world and go make history.

Photo Credit Bison Illustrated

Photo Credit Bison Illustrated

Rebuilding the Hard Way: First Impressions on the Dave Richman Era

My Alma Mater is the University of Kentucky. As such I couldn’t help but become a big Kentucky Basketball fan. Now, I bring this up because this has given me a wealth of knowledge of what rebuilding a basketball program year after year, both in terms of replacing the coach and replacing the players, looks like. However, my view of these areas is CERTAINLY tainted by my school of choice, as in no way to they represent your average college basketball school.

The coaching transition I watched was that of the Billy Gillispie Dumpster Fire to the Calipari Renaissance.

billy g dumpster fire

BW5lmntCIAAZyOb-500x6661

I TELL YOU MAH BROTHERS AND SISTAHS I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT AND IT IS BLUUUUUUUUUUUEEE!!!!

 

This isn’t exactly how all coaching changes go. You don’t often go from “bottom of a bottomless barrel” to the Peak of Mount Olympus the very next year. Sometimes you go from Dumpster Fire to Just Crap or Good Team to Contender with a coaching change, but usually you don’t get to skip all 47 steps in between. So obviously the transition from Saul Phillips to Richman wasn’t going to look like that. The rebuild was also not going to look the same as Calipari’s roster overhauls. Y’see… when Cal rebuilds his roster, which he does every single year, he does it with Freshmen. But Cal’s Freshmen generally have about as much in common with your standard incoming Freshman basketball player as they do with Jennifer Aniston or this Taco Bell Chalupa I’m eating right now.

chalupa aniston

Cal is bringing in Freshmen who could be in the NBA rather than college which means that although he still has to deal with growing pains, he can (hopefully) nullify this effect through sheer weight of talent. Most college basketball programs aren’t this lucky. Which brings me to first year head coach for the Bison Men’s basketball team, Dave Richman.

The 2013-14 team was the best team in the history of Bison Basketball. Unfortunately for members of the loyal Herd, however, the team lost its Head Coach, Saul Phillips, and 6 seniors (including their two best players) after last season. Oh, and just for good measure our AD left to become the vice AD at Iowa… y’know… just to round things out. By all accounts this hinted at a rocky road forthcoming.

Unfortunately I have a sneaking suspicion that our rocky road will be infinitely less refreshing and delicious than this...

Unfortunately I have a sneaking suspicion that our rocky road will be infinitely less refreshing and delicious than this…

So, I prepared myself for a step or two backwards from the program with the full knowledge that eventually the program would be back on the right track. I had faith because for one thing I loved the coaching hire. Dave Richman is Green and Gold through and through. He graduated from NDSU and has spent all but 2 years of his coaching career, and has the endorsement of NDSU last two coaches Saul Phillips and Tim Miles. Perhaps the thing I liked the most then was the idea that he might stay put with NDSU for a couple decades or even his entire career. Now, I would never begrudge a guy for moving on and bettering his career, and in truth if it ever so happened that Richman became the coach at a big time college basketball program, I would love to root for him there the same way I root for Miles at Nebraska BUT whereas those guys came from out of state, Richman is home grown. I totally get why North Dakota is a place someone from outside wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their life. I mean… seriously… this isn’t exactly a friendly commute to work Mother Nature…

FEMA_-_40252_-_Path_cut_through_a_snow_bank_in_Fargo,_North_Dakota

But it would certainly help the program if we could find our Jim Boeheim, Coach K, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, or hell, even our own Scott Nagy. A lifer who will be a constant for the program for years to come. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just start on the fun part where I talk about all the ways Richman has already surprised me.

First off, I was incredibly pleased with the recruiting class he brought in to rebuild a depleted roster. Recruiting is always my biggest fear for NDSU Athletics. For one thing the state of North Dakota doesn’t produce a lot of Division 1 athletes simply because the population of the state is so low (less than a million in the entire state, making us the 4th smallest state in the Union… even behind South Dakota… those bastards…). So this obviously means you need to go outside of the State to bring in talent and compete at the Division 1 level. Then comes the problem of weather again. You have to be able to convince kids to commit to live in Fargo for 4 years which is definitely easier said than done. Its one thing to get them to come in, and another to keep them from transferring or leaving the program somewhere through the process. We won’t know anything about the latter until later in Richman’s career but as far as the former, so far he’s impressed me mightily.

angry dakota

Now a lot of these guys are shared recruits with Saul Phillips, but Richman is the guy who got them to stick with NDSU even after Phillips left, and he added to the class himself as well. So far he appears to have stuck to Phillips’ strategy of hitting Wisconsin hard for the bulk of his team (something Saul did because of his many connections to the state as well as the University of Wisconsin). The two Germantown guys (Jake Showalter and Evan Wesenberg) come from an elite high school program, and even though we failed to lock in their star teammate Lamonte Bearden, I think by the time they’re Juniors both those guys are going to be solid players for us. The only problem with that is because we lost so much of our size off of last years teams, and because we’re redshirting every other big guy we locked up this year (more on that later) we really need Wesenberg to start contributing now. In fact it would be ideal if he could start at Power Forward so we could play Jacobson at the 3, but that simply isn’t going to happen. And Showalter looks like a project player at the moment. Richman hasn’t given him many minutes yet so I supposed I don’t really know how good he is, but the very fact that Richman doesn’t think he can get on the floor yet says enough for me. That doesn’t mean they’re not valuable players however. Like I said both these guys come from a winning program in Germantown High School which went a combined 82-2 and won three consecutive Wisconsin Division 1 state championships from 2012-14. Both guys are winners and were key cogs to those winning teams, even if Bearden was the star.

Photo Credit Joe Koshollek

Photo Credit Joe Koshollek

The last Wisconsin kid, Paul Miller, is making a serious case for being an impact player right now. He’s played his way into NDSU’s 6th man role at least at this early part of the season. Right now his offense is heavy on the 3 ball which I don’t necessarily like because thats prone to hot and cold streaks, but the guy is averaging 10 points per game and shooting 48% from the field so he’s definitely some great offense off the bench. This is critical for this NDSU team which lost so many guys from its 8 man rotation, and thats a great eye from Richman to identify that this young guy can come in and play right away (even more so when you consider that 2 of those 3 games were against Texas and Iowa).

So off the bat Richman has done a good job of keeping the Wisconsin pipeline open to NDSU. This is critical cuz these guys are used to the ND kind of winters and won’t be scared off by it. He also brought in a walk-on from Minnesota in Brian Ishola who also shouldn’t have any transfer fears for the program. I don’t know much about him as a player since he recently had knee surgery and hasn’t gotten on the court, but at 6’5″ 210lbs and judging by some grainy high school mixtapes he should be able to be a long, physical defender for NDSU, and hopefully Richman can develop his offense enough to get him on the floor.

However, Richman has also spread out the borders of NDSU recruiting a little bit. He brought in two skilled big men (much needed for NDSU) to redshirt this year. The first is Spencer Eliason, a 6’9″ PF from Nebraska whose brother currently plays at the University of Minnesota. The second his Trey Miller, a 6’7″ forward from Washington state. Both guys are redshirting which I like for several reasons. Whereas a program like Kentucky can only bring in these elite freshmen for 1 year before they turn pro, a school like NDSU is in for the long haul.

FYI if you're an NDSU recruit it helps if you're at least... like... 7% sasquatch... on either your maternal or paternal side... doesn't really matter, we just need you to have a hair for warmth

FYI if you’re an NDSU recruit it helps if you’re at least… like… 7% Sasquatch… on either your maternal or paternal side… doesn’t really matter, we just need you to have a hair for warmth

First and foremost, these guys are not from ND or anywhere near Fargo. There is going to be a period of adjustment for them as they get used to living somewhere else for the first time in their lives. This is a problem lots of normal college kids have to adjust to, and if you add the pressure of playing Division 1 basketball to the mix, you’re bound to have some issues. Redshirting them allows them to still practice, grow, and improve with their teammates, while removing some of the pressure and allowing them to adjust to their new college lives. Trey also just had knee surgery back in Washington, so not worrying about rushing him back from injury is yet another huge plus. All things considered, slowing things down seems like it will be incredibly helpful to both players, which is first and foremost in my mind, and the minds of the coaches and staff at NDSU.

In addition to helping the players, however, redshirting them also helps the program. While at first it seems detrimental to have 2 big men sit out the season on a team starved for size, that’s not quite the whole story. This would likely be a wasted year for these two. Certainly for Trey with that surgery, and probably for Spencer as well. It is much better for the team to have them both develop their skills without wasting a year of eligibility, and come back that much better for next season. Moreover, redshirting these two will help fix a balance problem which has been a problem for NDSU’s basketball program at multiple points during its D1 history. When you have a large freshmen class, eventually you’re going to have a large senior class (as was the case for NDSU with the class of 2009 and the class of 2014). Now, while in NDSU’s case these periods of large senior classes have resulted in the schools only 2 NCAA Tournament berths, it also leaves the program feeling rather shattered and broken once so many key players leave all at once.

NDSU recruting

To look only at this years team, we have only 3 upper classmen on the entire roster; Sr. Lawrence Alexander and Jrs. Kory Brown and Chris Kading. Moreover, because NDSU is regretfully not Kentucky, having a youthful team like this means you will make a lot of mistakes, which this NDSU team has done thus far this season. Its just a lot to ask for a program like NDSU to be competitive with so much youth.

Instead, it is much better to evenly disperse scholarships across the various classes. In Division 1 college basketball every team is allowed to have 13 scholarship players. This means the ideal situation would be to have 3 players in 3 classes, and 4 in one. This would give a team an even mix of upper and under classmen, and ensure that a team isn’t completely devastated by graduations.

This is something Richman is already addressing. Rather than leaving this class of 2018 as 7 players (including redshirt freshman A.J. Jacobson) Richman has redshirted Miller and Eliason, as we mentioned, shrinking the class size to 5, but with only 4 true freshmen, and only 3 of those true freshmen on scholarship. So anyway, our current breakdown of scholarship players/classes looks like this.

Seniors – 1

Juniors – 2

Sophomores – 2

Freshmen – 6

11 total scholarships. 2 short of the total allowed. Another no no most of the time, but it will allow Richman to fix this class size problem NDSU has. The way Richman has structured his team next  year the scholarship breakdown will look like this.

Seniors – 2

Juniors – 2

Sophomores – 4

Freshmen – 4

Not the ideal but getting closer. This is a rather boring point and one that I shouldn’t spend any more time on, but its one that I place a lot of importance on personally, because I want NDSU to be consistently competitive without any major rebuilding years. I think Coach Richman is approaching this issue with the same mentality, so hopefully in the future we’ll never have a team with only 3 upper classmen again.

(Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY Sports)

(Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY Sports)

As far as coaching, then, its too early to really say anything but I like how Coach Richman runs his program. He’s built a solid staff around himself and he runs things by the book. He establishes his 8 man rotation and generally sticks to it which is often critical in basketball, to ensure that players get into rhythm and to make sure your players maintain consistency of play as they are familiar with the various lineups they will play with. I’ve also heard that he’s more of a hard nosed guy rather than a players coach like Saul Phillips reportedly was. This worried me at first because I thought it would hurt recruiting, but after looking at how he finished the 2014 class, and the great start he has had to the 2015 class (two commits during the early commitment period last week) I’m a lot less worried about that and more worried about how the team performs on the court.

So anyway, there are going to be a ton of growing pains this year. That Kennesaw State game felt like a nightmare as NDSU blew a 23 point lead (HOW?!?!?!) only to then win by 13 (again… HOW?!?!!). Carlin Dupree is definitely the point guard of the future  for us and the guy is insanely talented, but when opposing teams really go at him (like Iowa did) he is prone to melting down. Thats just youth and its something he’ll get over, but it won’t help us this year.

carlin-dupree-behind-the-back-a

 

A.J. Jacobson has had a horrible start to the season, which I personally believe comes from the fact that we’re playing him at Power Forward. The guy is a natural wing who should ideally be playing the 3 for us, but right now that just can’t happen. You need to have your best 5 players on the floor as much as possible and Jacobson is one of our five best guys. The only problem is that 3 of our other best guys are guards (Dupree at the 1, LA at 2 and Kory at 3) which slides him over to the power forward slot playing next to Kading (at center). This means this problem will automatically fix itself next year when LA graduates and one of the younger guys slides into the PF role, but for now we have to play Jacobson there (since the only other 4 available is Wesenberg and he’s just not ready yet for starters minutes). SO ANYWAY Jacobson is struggling but thats not surprising when he’s wayyyyy undersized for the position he’s playing and the guys defending him are way bigger and more physical than he would normally have to go against. He seems to be figuring things out, albeit slowly, and made some strides against Kennesaw State, leading the team in boards with 8, so perhaps when he’s not playing the veritable skyscrapers Texas trots out there, it won’t look like such a mismatch.

AJ Jacobson Texas Game

Other rotation guys like Dexter Werner still have a lot to learn, but have given us stretches of solid play (Werner had a great block against Iowa around the 10 minute mark of the 2nd half, but then came back on the very next play and fouled the guy so he’s still very up and down). Long story short, theres going to be a ton of growing pains on this team and even though they’re talented, I don’t see a tournament run in our future. But hey, we could easily get hot in the Summit League Tourney and make a run so you never know. Either way, I feel like Richman has removed every single doubt I had coming into this rebuild process. The team is going to bounce back strong next season, which is a full year ahead of when I first anticipated they’d be back to NCAA Tourney potential form. I feel like the rebuild is even already done, its just a matter of coaching these guys up and developing them some more, which could be done as early as March of this year! All things considered I’m already completely sold on Coach Richman and the New-look Bison. Which is pretty impressive when you think the team is only 1-2 right now. Unfortunately not everyone gets to rebuild the John Calipari way, where you lose 6 starters, and sign up 8 more fresh out of the gates. Schools like NDSU have to take the slower route, and every now and then have an ’empty-cupboards’ kind of year. But hopefully with Richman at the helm, NDSU won’t have to worry so much about these things anymore, and can develop into a consistent Mid Major staple in March. And hopefully he’ll be doing it for a long long time.

Honky-Tonks and Hockey Pucks: Change is Good

 (Photo Credit: John Russell,NHLI via Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: John Russell,NHLI via Getty Images)

The last couple seasons were not too enjoyable for the few but fiercely loyal Nashville hockey fans out there. After back to back trips to the second round of the playoffs in 2010/11 and 2011/12, the Preds missed the playoffs during the partial lockout season of 2012/13, and again failed to bounce back in 2013/14 even after clawing their way back to a winning record, finishing 38-32-12. This turned out to be not only disappointing for fans, but a seminal moment for the franchise, as the team decided to part ways with the only head coach they have ever known during their entire 16 year history, Barry Trotz.

barry-trotz.2

No that is not Danny Devito, but it might be his cousin. I’ve never confirmed, but we have our suspicions…

Trotz was as much a part of this franchise as anyone, and seeing him go was definitely a sad moment. However, Trotz’s tenure in Nashville was anything but typical. In the NHL coaches have been known to get fired less than a month after they were hired. The career of NHL head coach is anything but stable so for Trotz to spend a decade and a half in one spot could not have been less normal.

However, its not as if Trotz’s long tenure wasn’t deserved. Trotz kept the Predators competitive in spite of innumerable disadvantages felt by inherently cash strapped hockey clubs in the south with limited fanbases and the added struggle of finding it difficult to draw in free agents. Gary Bettman’s grand plan for Hockey in the South is no longer an unmitigated disaster, but it is still a struggle. Just look at the turmoil with the Phoenix Coyotes from a few years ago or the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets. Moreover, after the 2007 scare of a move to Hamilton Ontario for the Preds, we’re just lucky that they still play in Nashville. However, a big reason they stayed is Trotz.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

During the nearly 2 decades when Trotz and GM David Poile led the Preds there was a unified philosophy to keep the team competitive and in the playoff hunt (in order to ensure that less dedicated fans do not lose interest in a region where so few fans are available to the sport of hockey)  while also keeping costs low enough that they would stay within the team’s own more modest financial restrictions. The strategy devised to enact this plan for the new expansion club Preds was to build stout defensive teams with solid Goalkeeping as the franchise backbone, then make occasional mid season trades for added offensive firepower if it became obvious that more goal scoring was needed (which it almost always was).

Mike Fisher is one of the many trade deadline moves the Preds made to add late season offense during Trotz's tenure, but let's be honest... we all know they just traded for him cuz he's married to Carrie Underwood (Fisher) (Photo Credit:  Steve Granitz, WireImage)

Mike Fisher is one of the many trade deadline moves the Preds made to add late season offense during Trotz’s tenure, but let’s be honest… we all know they just traded for him cuz he’s married to Carrie Underwood (Fisher) (Photo Credit: Steve Granitz, WireImage)

Now, this strategy is in some ways defeatist from the start. It is a plan built to consistently pursue the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs, rather than swinging for the fences and pursuing championships. However, it is also perhaps the best strategy the Predators could have pursued given their limitations. They aren’t sitting on piles of cash to use to lure in free agents, and Nashville isn’t exactly a destination city for NHL players the way New York, Toronto, or LA might be. But you know what? It worked.

 

Part of the success involved Poile. The Predators drafted spectacularly in building the defensive core of their team drafting guys such as Shea Weber (best defenseman in the NHL for the last 6 years) and Ryan Suter and they even continued with this strategy in the 2013 draft when the best defenseman in the draft, Seth Jones, fell to them with the #4 pick. All this fit very well with Poile’s tough nosed, grind it out, defensive style. It kept Nashville competitive in a League absolutely littered with teams that had more money and more talent than Nashville.

From left to right Shea Weber (Defenseman) Pekka Rinne (Goalkeeper) and Ryan Suter (Defensemen)  formed the backbone of multiple playoff runs for the Predators, and kept the small market team competitive even when they had to play big market and big money clubs like Detroit and Chicago week in and week out. (Photo Credit: predators.nhl.com)

From left to right Shea Weber (Defenseman) Pekka Rinne (Goalkeeper) and Ryan Suter (Defensemen) formed the backbone of multiple playoff runs for the Predators, and kept the small market team competitive even when they had to play big market and big money clubs like Detroit and Chicago week in and week out. (Photo Credit: predators.nhl.com)

But all good things must come to an end, and the Predators decided to say goodbye to Trotz this offseason. Happily, Trotz landed with the Washington Nationals, a team known for their offensive firepower, that collapses defensively when games get tough. Trotz seems to be the perfect coach there to make an already skilled offensive team play defense and put the whole picture together for a deep playoff run in the East.

Unfortunately Ovechkin hasn't been able to put his team in Washington on his back and carry them through the playoffs quite as easily has he carries young ladies around the ice. (Photo Via: http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/2010/12/31/alex-ovechkin-gives-wedgie-plays-football-winter-classic/)

Unfortunately Ovechkin hasn’t been able to put his team in Washington on his back and carry them through the playoffs quite as easily has he carries young ladies around the ice. (Photo Via: http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/2010/12/31/alex-ovechkin-gives-wedgie-plays-football-winter-classic/)

The Predators, moreover, appear to be enacting an identical plan but in reverse in Nashville. They brought in Peter Laviolette to take over the reigns in Nashville. Laviolette is veteran NHL coach so there is zero fear that discipline would collapse on the team after Trotz’s departure. Moreover, whereas Trotz is a grind it out Defensive coach, Laviolette’s teams play a more fluid offensive style, especially his 2004/05 Carolina Hurricanes team which won the Stanley cup after scoring nearly 300 regular season goals.  (Also, as an aside I feel its relevant to note that Laviolette’s teams outscored the Predators in nearly every season that Laviolette was a head coach).

(Photo Credit: Paul Chiasson, AP)

(Photo Credit: Paul Chiasson, AP)

This leaves the Predators at the crossroads of what could be a golden opportunity for the franchise. For the next couple years the defensive players and mindset Trotz imbued the club with are still present. However, the team has the chance to add much improved offensive play to this receipe. That, unlike the old Predators way of gutty defense and solid Goaltending alone, is the full picture of what it takes to make a Stanley Cup run. You can’t win a hockey game if you hold your  opponents to 0 but can’t score yourself. For the next couple years then we should be able to maintain Trotz’s defensive mindset while also bringing the added offense that comes with Laviolette’s own style.

shea-weber

The first part of this goal should be easy to keep around if only considering the fact that Shea Weber, the best defenseman in the NHL, still anchors Nashville’s blueline while key guys like Ryan Ellis are still around and the next generation is in the pipes with Seth Jones. And the second part of that goal appears to be succeeding in flying colors at the moment. The Predators flew out of the gates to a 7-3-2 record at the time of my writing this and look to be every bit the team I want them to be.

Weber is an absolute beast with perhaps the most deadly (literally) slapshot in the NHL. Not only has he been known to shoot so hard he tears through the back of the net, he has also shot so hard it tears the net AND knocks a hole in the wall behind…

Image via Seth Jones' twitter https://twitter.com/seth_jones3

Image via Seth Jones’ twitter https://twitter.com/seth_jones3

The most important cog to the new Preds offense is James Neal, acquired in June via a trade with the Penguins. This guy is an absolute stud of a goal scorer and is still only 27 years old. The Predators have never had an offensive player this good, this young, and still in his prime. They have had plently of good offensive players. Steve Sullivan, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott. But most of the time this guys have been brought in near the tail end of their prime. Still good players, but there was always a reason Nashville was able to pry them away from their old club. Neal is different. Neal is going to be a special player in Nashville, and he can be every bit the franchise cornerstone that Weber is. We now have both a defensive and offensive star on the team which I can only imagine means bright things.

(Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

Neal wasn’t the only new acquisition to the new Laviolette era, however. They also brought in Derek Roy who is a skilled scorer and helps overhaul the Preds offense with veterans who know how to score and know what a top offense looks like. They took a flier on Olli Jokinen who has been disappointing thus far, (perhaps not surprising considering how he has bounced around the league since being traded from the Florida Panthers in 2008, but I still think the guy can play.).

Jokinen may be in an extended rough patch in his once brightl career, but ... I mean... look at that hair! that face! that big, square, Finnish Jaw! Who wouldn't want this big lug on their team?! (Image via Wikipedia)

Jokinen may be in an extended rough patch in his once brightl career, but … I mean… look at that hair! that face! that big, square, Finnish Jaw! Who wouldn’t want this big lug on their team?! (Image via Wikipedia)

Perhaps more importantly however would be the addition of troubled center Mike Ribeiro who was cut from the Phoenix Coyotes. Hopefully Ribeiro can put his troubled past behind him with the Preds, but on the ice the man is a stellar player, the the combination of him and James Neal on the same line this year has proved devastating thus far. Moreover, to contribute to the winning mentality Laviolette has Matt Cullen, one of the stars of his Stanley Cup winning Hurricanes team on this Preds roster.

It can never hurt to have Stanley Cup winners on your roster (Photo via http://www.stcloudstate.edu/news/success/story.aspx?storyid=33415&SIimageID=1811 )

It can never hurt to have Stanley Cup winners on your roster (Photo via http://www.stcloudstate.edu/news/success/story.aspx?storyid=33415&SIimageID=1811 )

All these factors combined mean that the Preds have added a solid core of players who know what an elite, winning offense looks like. They will be able to help coach up the already talented players in the Preds system (such as Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Filip Forsberg) who have been coached to play with a defense first mentality in the past, and help them develop into full out offensive threats (which Forsberg already is… kid is a baby-faced stud out there on the first line with Neal and Ribeiro).

He may not have the most intimidating face... and its entirely possible he is currently incapable of growing a beard... but regardless, Filip Forsberg is going to a huge star in the NHL sooner rather than later (Photo Credit: Frederick Breedon, Getty Images)

He may not have the most intimidating face… and its entirely possible he is currently incapable of growing a beard… but regardless, Filip Forsberg is going to a huge star in the NHL sooner rather than later (Photo Credit: Frederick Breedon, Getty Images)

All things considered then it seems to me like the Preds have a real opportunity to make a legitimate playoff run here. As much as I love Trotz, the team may have cut ties with him at exactly the right time. The Defensive menace Trotz built is still largely intact with Weber, Ellis, and Jones and Pekka Rinne is still good in net. Moreover, bringing Laviolette in brought an almost instantaneous offensive makeover of the franchise with all the new influx of veteran, skilled talent. Not to mention the fact that the cupboards weren’t exactly bare on the offensive or defensive end.

This first season may be too early to ask for a deep playoff run, and indeed the Preds have cooled off of late following their blistering 5-2-0 start to the season, but this new group of Predators comes bearing a lot more hope and excitement than the teams of past seasons. The Predators were always competitive with Trotz’s style, but never flashy. That was the point. That was what they were built to do. Now, however, the team is exciting and ready to make some real noise come playoff time. I don’t know how far they’ll go, but a boy can certainly dream.

StanleyCup

Martin Mayhew and the Barren Cupboards of Detroit

2009+NFL+Draft+QckctmMgjFXl

(Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images)

So late last week Grantland’s NFL writers Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did a redraft article covering the 2013 NFL draft. Normally this kind of thing is interesting to me, but doesn’t really stand out. However, something interesting happened this time around. Both guys had all 3 of the Lions’ first 3 picks in the 2013 draft (Ezekiel Ansah – 1st Round, Darius Slay – 2nd Round, Larry Warford – 3rd Round) reclassified as 1st Round Picks. Moreover, every single guy moved UP in their draft position as Ansah (#5 overall in 2013) we selected by both Barnwell and Mays to be the #2 overall player if the draft were redone today.

(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports)

Now, in its own right I suppose this isn’t a huge thing. Ansah was the most surprising product, in my opinion, to come out of the 2013 draft for the Lions, but I always had faith that under Jim Schwartz’s [part-time defensive line guru and full-time asshole] tutelage his freakish athletic ability could be converted into stellar play, but even that was at risk after the Lions fired Schwartz. Those fears proved to be unfounded as Ansah has not only shown signs of life in his last 3 games but has looked every bit the top 5 pick that he was.

(Photo Credit: DetroitLions.com)

(Photo Credit: DetroitLions.com)

Darius Slay, Detroit’s 2nd Round Cornerback selection was a First Round caliber player coming off a serious injury which forced him to drop into the second round. I knew the guy was talented, but was very skeptical that he could regain his former athleticism, and indeed last year he looked like he would be a bust. This year, however, with Chris Houston cut, Slay has slipped right in as the Lions’ #1 Corner and looked fantastic.

(Photo Credit: Tim Fuller, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: Tim Fuller, USA Today Sports)

Larry Warford I always knew would be good after watching him at Kentucky, but he damn near barged his way into the Rookie of the Year race last year. This is impressive not just because he’s an offensive lineman, but because he is a Gaurd!! Sometimes you might see a Left Tackle (generally considered the most important player on your O Line) sneak into these discussions but a guard?? Hardly.

(Photo Credit: Daniel Mears, Detroit News)

(Photo Credit: Daniel Mears, Detroit News)

So anway, Barnwell and Mays are totally right. Detroit [and GM Martin Mayhew by extension], at this point anyway, appears to have smacked it out of the park on their first three picks from last year. This got me thinking though. Does this mean that the Lions front office is better than I think? In the past I gave most of the credit for successful Lions draft picks to Schwartz. He drafted D Linemen high and developed them into stellar players. I was always reluctant (with good reason) to give any credit to Lions GM Martin Mayhew.

Good lord just look at this picture. Note Joey Harrington's "God save me" eyes and Millen's... oddly lustful eyes as he stares a whole through Harrington with like 6 buttons undone on that shirt.... this, ladies and gentlemen, was the Matt Millen Era.

Good lord just look at this picture. Note Joey Harrington’s “God save me” eyes and Millen’s… oddly lustful eyes as he stares a whole through Harrington with like 6 buttons undone on that shirt…. this, ladies and gentlemen, was the Matt Millen Era.

First and foremost this was because I never thought he should have gotten the job after Matt Millen was fired. Mayhew was Millen’s right hand man, and promoting him after firing Millen represented a victory for the Old Regime when, in my opinion, what the franchise needed was a changing of the guard. My thoughts were validated by the fact that Mayhew runs operations very much like Millen did before him (not a surprise since he worked under the guy for a decade).

Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley

Recent events, however, have forced me to question this opinion. The Lions current roster is littered with draft day success stories, something which I wasn’t lucky enough to see for the first 20 years of my life. Guys like Suh, Ansah, Fairley, Levy, Slay, Warford, Reiff, Johnson, Stafford… the list goes on… but the point is Detroit used to be a team that either drafted bad players or drafted good players and failed to develop them. They were then forced to wander aimlessly into free agency and overpay inferior, over the hill players to try and stop the bleeding, which never worked. That is not the way to succeed in the NFL. Things appear to have changed for the better and I decided to take a look and test the validity of this assumption. What I found, however, was more in line with my own opinions than this flowery new picture.

First off, I decided to start things off by going back to 2009. This was Mayhew’s first offseason in charge, and also gives us a nice 5 year, half decade window to examine. So lets take a look at the 2009 draft courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.

2009 draft

So first and foremost, everyone from Derrick Williams down is no longer on the team. Not THAT uncommon in the NFL, but still… not a good thing. Brandon Pettigrew is overpaid for what he provides, he’s currently hurt, and the Lions just drafted Eric Ebron in the first round when they already had Joseph Fauria and Pettigrew on the roster anyway so… I’m gonna go ahead and say the TE position is a clusterfuck and I refuse to say Mayhew has handled it correctly. Stafford is what he is. Strong arm QB who locks on to one receiver far too often, but he’s my guy. When you spent the entiretly of your childhood trying to root for Joey Harrington, Mike McMahon, Dan Orlovsky, Past-his-prime Dante Culpepper, and the cavalcade of inferior QBs the Lions had… you tend to be all in on a guy like Stafford, even if he’s not perfect. So I’ll call that a win for Mayhew. Delmas, though injury prone, was consistently the best coverage defensive back on the Lions rosters. However, Mayhew inexplicable cut him this offseason so I really don’t feel like that is a win either. DeAndre Levy, however, is like a ten gold star player. Good job Mayhew. To get a guy like that in the 3rd round who is now one of the best Linebackers in football is outstanding. So in the end Mayhew found 4 starters out of this draft, better than his goal, and the draft itself was a success, even if his player management after the fact was exceedingly poor.

2010 draft

2010, however, wasn’t as great. Suh is obviously a success story, but if these contract talks don’t go well this summer and we lose him it will mean the 2010 draft was an absolute disaster. Jason Fox, Jahvid Best, and Amari Spievey all looked to be adequate NFL players but for one reason or another none of them stayed with the Lions long term. Fox is a backup with the Dolphins now. Spievey, though talented, couldn’t stick around in the NFL. The more important player, however, is Jahvid Best. Best had concussion history in college and it ended his NFL career as well. These are the kind of things you have to be aware of as a GM. Now, Best was a very good player while he was here so I’m not saying Mayhew drafted a bad player BUT he traded up in the draft to grab him. Trading up generally costs you picks elsewhere, so if you’re going to give up 2 potential players for 1 potential player, you better make sure the guy you’re trading up for is healthy and will stick in the league for a long time.

Willie Young also turned out to be a spectacular pick. The guy is a legit starting DE in the NFL and Detroit drafted him and developed him out of the 7th round. However, they lost him in Free Agency this past summer to the Bears, so again, the problem is keeping talent around more than finding it.

2011 draft

2011 was a terrible draft. Mikel Leshoure had a lot of hype around him last year and the year before, but ended up getting cut this offseason. Titus Young had countless off the field issues and washed out of the league. And Nick Fairley was lazy in college and lazy in the NFL. He finally started putting together a good season this year (the last year of his contract with Detroit) but went out injured int he London game so who knows if he’ll be the same player next year, leaving the Lions with an awkward contract issue going into this summer.

2012 draft

2012 looked much better. Bill Bentley (IR this year) still has a little time to develop into starting caliber corner alongside Slay once Rashean Mathis finally retires. However if he doesn’t turn into something in the next year or so its probably time for the Lions to move on. Jonte Green already proved he wasn’t up to this task and was cut this year. Same for Chris Greenwood. Ryan Broyles appears to be a major bust, and the Lions seem to agree. They spent big money bringing in a #2 receiver (Golden Tate) this offseason. Tate now plays the position Broyles was drafted to occupy. Moreover, Broyles doesn’t even get on the field in the slot as that position is occupied by Corey Fuller, and he hasn’t even been able to fight his way into the starting lineup via injury. Calvin Johnson has been injured all year, but its been Jeremy Ross who plays over Broyles. Travis Lewis is on IR right now but I doubt he’ll ever be anything more than a Special Teams player (which ultimately is fine for a 7th rounder). Ronnell Lewis is long gone and out of the NFL. So really, the only 2 bright spots out of this draft are Riley Reiff and Tahir Whitehead. Whitehead is a great guy to have as second string in your linebacking corps, and with Stephen Tulloch out of the year he’s filled in more than adequately at outside linebacker after Levy was moved to the inside to replace Tulloch. Reiff, I think, has a lot of potential and should stick around in the league. The only problem is that I think he’s an above average starter at Right Tackle, but the Lions, because of their talent deficiency, have been playing him at Left Tackle. I worry that he’s not up to the task and will lose confidence on the left side if left there for too long, but that remains to be seen. In any event the 2012 draft doesn’t look too great. You have 2 guys in Whitehead and Reiff who I think belong in the NFL. One as a backup and part time starter, one as a full time starter at a position where he currently isn’t playing. And 1 guy who might make it in Bentley, but the rest is a wash.

2013 draft

The 2013 draft has already been touched on as a success. In addition to the top 3 guys already mentioned, Corey Fuller plays significant minutes in the slot and Theo Riddick is a very useful pass catching back, albeit injury prone.

2014 draft

Its definitely too early to judge on last year’s draft but so far here’s how I see it. Nate Freese was terrible and was already cut. Eric Ebron was very much the wrong pick (already handed out a big contract to Pettigrew and had Fauria on the roster) but he will probably develop into a valuable weapon eventually. I have a lot of faith that Kyle Van Noy will make some noise when he finally gets healthy and gets on the field. But the rest of those guys I have no idea. If I had to guess I’d say they don’t make it but only time will tell.

So in the end here’s how Mayhew’s drafting tenure looks to me. He’s drafted 46 guys in his 6 drafts. Let’s toss out last year because its too early to tell. That leaves us with 38 guys in 5 drafts. He found 15 NFL caliber players. However, of those 15 1 was forced into retirement due to an injury history that we knew about at the time (Best) and 3 are good players but not every down starters (Fuller, Whitehead, and Riddick). That leaves us with 11 true NFL starting caliber players. Two of them are no longer with the team, but starting elsewhere (Delmas and Young). Nine of them are still with the team (Suh, Fairley, Slay, Ansah, Warford, Reiff, Stafford, Pettigrew, and Levy) but might not stay that way for long. Suh is in a highly publicized contract dispute and can walk this summer if he wants to (which he very well might which would absolutely destroy this Lions defense which is completely built around him). Fairley is also in the last year of his contract and could leave in free agency. Even if he stays, however, we don’t know if he’ll be even close to the same player once he comes back from this injury. Reiff may wash out of the league if we continue to play him at Left Tackle and he doesn’t develop a feel for the position. Pettigrew was signed to a large contract extension this summer after which the team moronically drafted another first round tight end to replace him so who knows how long he’ll be on the team. The only surefire players the team can count on for the next few years are Levy and his glorious beard (who the team MUST lock up to an extension soon or risk losing him like so many others) Stafford, Warford, Slay, and Ansah. All together not bad, but not as positive a set of results as I was hoping to find. And there’s a bigger issue.

My goodness its like staring at the Gates of Heaven... (Photo Credit: Detroit Lions)

My goodness its like staring at the Gates of Heaven… (Photo Credit: Detroit Lions)

The Lions are a very talented team. The best players on the Lions are as good or better than their equivalents on any team in the NFL. The problem, however, is depth. Depth is an issue most teams address through the draft. The Lions have been great at picking out top level talent in the draft. Acquiring starters. But where the best NFL teams use the draft to add depth (the next generation of starters is always waiting in the wings for an opportunity to step up and displace higher paid starters) Detroit hasn’t been so lucky. When we lose starters to free agency or injury we often struggle to plug the gaps. Mayhew’s purported goal is even always to find 3 starters, 3 contributing players, and 3 developmental players every draft. While it looks like he’s hitting fairly consistently on the first goal (admittedly the hardest to achieve) the other categories aren’t falling in line so nicely. Time and again the Lions have drafted good players but their player and cap management is bad enough that they lose these guys in free agency before they have anyone on the bench ready to replace them. Part of that was the massive talent dearth Millen left us with. Its going to take a full decade or more to rebuild this franchise from the bottom up and for the time being I’m just glad that we at least have starting caliber players actually starting for us, but if you can’t lock those guys up long term (as Detroit didn’t do with Delmas, Cliff Avril, Gosder Cherilus, Willie Young, and many more) then you need to be sure you have the guys in the wings ready to step up and replace them. Detroit has done a good job of this on the Defensive line (VandenBosch is getting old? We’ve got Cliff Avril. Avril goes to the Seahawks? Ok we have Willie Young. Willie Young leaves for Chicago? That’s ok Ziggy Ansah is ready to step up for a bigger role.) but we don’t have the depth yet at other positions to follow this same kind of smooth transition.

Overall this makes me think I’ve been too harsh on Mayhew in the past. He has found talent for us and he has helped build the skeleton of a winning roster in Detroit. However, the issue of depth is an absolute Sword of Damocles, hanging over the Motor City’s head right now. You can get by without depth if your starters stay healthy, resign for reasonable contracts, and play out of their minds. But right now we don’t have health (Tulloch, Fairley, and Johnson are out) we might lose some of our best and key players in the offseason (Suh and Fairley) and the only thing keeping us afloat is how well the players we have left are playing. If we have a mass exodus this summer it will be right back to rebuilding mode again this summer. Only this time hopefully we can build with some Depth instead of the top heavy, redundant roster Mayhew gave us right now. Because we already know what the alternative looks like… and nobody wants that…

(Photo Credit: Paul Sancya, AP)

(Photo Credit: Paul Sancya, AP)