Suh: Saying an Early Goodbye to a Legend

Clevelan Browns v Detroit Lions

Last weekend it leaked that the Lions had lost Ndamukong Suh, a future hall of famer and hands down the best player on their team the last 2 seasons to the Miami Dolphins. Suh would reportedly sign a 6 year, $114 million deal with the Dolphins, and end his time with the Detroit Lions. And by the time the Free Agency window actually opened on Tuesday it was all over.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

This is the lowest I think I’ve ever felt as a Lions fan. I know I know… I watched every game of an 0-16 season, and over a 10 year span I watched them go 39-121. You’d think there were some sadder moments in there. Saying I’m sadder about this moment then any of those makes it sound like I’m not a fan of the team at all, but rather just a fan of 1 player on that team (well… who USED to be on that team…).

But here’s the deal. During that 10 year, 39-121 stretch between 2001 and 2010 everything surrounding the Lions was hopeless. I was certainly sad and despondent, but that was all I knew when it came to the Lions. (Come to think of it I have no idea why I stuck with them through all that?) But that all started to chang in the 2010 draft when the Lions selected Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh with the 2nd overall selection in the draft.

Ndamukong-Suh (1)

With Suh came hope. Everything was different. The Lions certainly began the rebuilding process by adding franchise cornerstones Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford, but nothing really changed until Suh became a part of the team. And then EVERYTHING changed.

ndamukong-suh-aaron-rodgers-nfl-green-bay-packers-detroit-lions1-850x560 otkwiml139 suh-sacks-rodgers

It was a revelation. In 2010 Suh won pretty much every award in front of him (Defensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Lineman of the Year, and like 4 different Rookie of the Year awards). Moreover, while the Lions only went 6-10 his Rookie year it was a lot better than 2 or 0 (their win totals from the previous 2 seasons). And then it happened. Suddenly the Lions were winning. In Suh’s second season in the NFL the Lions went 10-6, came in second in the NFC North, and made the playoffs for the first time in twelve seasons.

This was completely unheard of. The Lions hadn’t been in the playoffs since the Barry Sanders Era. But what was even more impressive was how much of this credit Suh himself deserved. The Lions secondary was atrocious, their linebacking corps wasn’t quite where it needed to be, but their Defensive Line was the best in football and that was more or less all thanks to Suh. There were certainly other good players on that like (Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Willie Young) but Suh was the centerpiece. That’s the best thing about his play on the field. He makes EVERYONE around him better, and he was (and is) so dominant that he even made our secondary seem compitent simply because our pass rush was so dominant. All of a sudden, in the Suh Era there was always hope.

The rebuild process started with the drafting of Calvin Johnson. Continued with the firing of Matt Millen, hiring of Jim Schwartz, and drafting of Matthew Stafford, but after none of those moves did the Lions achieve any success. It wasn’t until Suh was with the team that the winning really started. He changed everything and brought hope back to the franchise. However, it wasn’t always a perfectly smooth road.

(Photo Credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

Suh was universally reviled outside of Detroit for his on the field actions. However, I’m not naive enough to think Football is as clean a game as the NFL wants us to believe. Theres dirty play constantly. Just watch any cornerback twist Calvin Johnson’s leg, throw an extra kidney punch at Matthew Stafford, or kick Larry Warford while he’s down. This is the way the game works. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that guys were doing things just as bad to Suh on the field. They just were smart enough not to get caught on camera. And whereas some of these guys make themselves look clean on the field, but are scum off of it, Suh couldn’t have been a better off the field guy.

(Photo Credit: AP)

(Photo Credit: AP)

In 2011 Suh donated some $2.6 million to charity, more than any other athlete that year. In a destitude and struggling city like Detroit a guy like Suh couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did he give the city of Detroit something to hope for and feel good about on the field, he went out into the community and helped try to rebuild it from the inside. This is a guy who had no ties to the city of Detroit or the State of Michigan before coming to the Lions, but almost immediately after arriving starting working his ass off to help out. If that’s the kind of guy I’m dealing with off the field, rather than someone accused of domestic violence or animal abuse, I don’t particularly care what he does on a football field where violence is accepted.

suh

(Photo Credit: Ndamukong Suh Family Foundation)

I’d much rather have a guy like Suh than someone like Greg Hardy or Ray Rice. No matter what anyone says He gives back to sick kids, donates to the poor, and even sponsors classes at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit. He is EXACTLY the kind of star the Detroit Lions needed, and exactly the kind of person the city of Detroit needed. Perfect in every way and right on time.

But now the team has cut ties with the source of that hope. Why would they let this happen? Someone who was NOTHING but positive for the city of Detroit, and helped transform a moribund franchise into a playoff team. Well… I guess there were 114 million reasons why… Not that the Lions weren’t willing to give up the dollars to Suh. He obviously deserves that money (and then-some) and everybody knows it. But the Lions, unfortunately, could not fit him under their salary cap.

Let’s stop there for a second though. This is an excuse that comes up a lot in American sports, and it is always a miserable and miserly answer. Teams imply that its not their fault and that the system is preventing them from doing right by their players and their fans, but in truth teams have only themselves to blame. Everyone could see this disaster coming a mile away. Martin Mayhew has done a miserable job managing Detroit’s cap situation from day 1, just like Matt Millen did before him (oh… jeez… I wonder if we could have predicted this considering MAYHEW WAS MILLENS RIGHT HAND FREAKING MAN). Stafford and Calvin are very important to this team. Don’t get me wrong. But Suh is the single most important player on it. He is either the best or second best defensive player in the NFL (behind JJ Watt in Houston) and is the best player on Detroit’s team. So it only makes sense that the team should have known, as far back as that first playoff run in 2011, that they should do the best they can to lock him up. They did not, and they used the Salary Cap as their excuse. So let’s take a quick look at this upcoming season’s highest plaid Lions.

Lions 2015 cap hits

Image via sportrac.com 

The Lions have already paid Johnson and Stafford boatloads of money. They decided they couldn’t afford a third boatload or the whole ship would go down. They gave out huge dollars to Johnson and Stafford, which, again, I understand and can get behind, but here’s the problem. Suh is very much in his prime, and I’m not even certain that he’s halfway done with his prime yet. While Stafford, though in his prime, has probably peaked, and certainly has quirks that limit the team’s performance (although I have no interest in cutting ties with him) and I’m very worried that Calvin is actually on the back half of his prime.

calvin-record2

Injuries are finally beginning to catch up to him through absolutely no fault of his own. He is far and away the greatest wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. Jerry Rice can shove it. But for his entire career there was absolutely NO way any defender could LEGALLY slow him down or stop him. So what did they do? Twist his ankles. Throw late hits and cheap shots. Basically do anything illegal that the refs would let them get away with. Which as it turns out was A LOT. The NFL created unfair rules to try to limit Calvin’s impact on the game (which came back to bite them this post-season as it screwed over Dez Bryant and the Cowboys) and refs refused to give him the benefit of the doubt EVER as defenders took cheap shots at him constantly.

Well… all these extra hits and extra miles were bound to take their toll, and Calvin has undeniably slowed down this year. He missed large chunks of the season last year, and that wasn’t the only problem. The whole offense was sluggish and disappointing all last year. Detroit was 22nd in scoring in a year where they had Stafford, Johnson, and new high paid receiver option Golden Tate. In only 3 games last year did the Lions exceed 24 points (and half the time the defense was scoring at least 7, but up to 14 of those 24 anyway) and in 10 games they were held to 20 or fewer points. So the first question is, how much could those 3 guys REALLY be worth if for well over half the season they only account for 20 points? And the next question is, how did that team even make the playoffs? The answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second, of course, is Suh.

Mayhew has allocated $43,629,250 of cap space to Johnson, Stafford, and Tate. $38,279,250 to Stafford and Johnson alone, and has therefore decided that he cannot afford another $20,000,000 for Suh. Makes sense if Suh weren’t an all time great, but if my only options were to lose Suh (a surefire Hall of Famer and ALL TIME GREAT at his position who BY ALL ACCOUNTS should have retired with his original team) or overpay all three of them, I’m picking the overpay 1,000 times out of 1,000. It’s too late to take the money away from Johnson, Stafford, and Tate, and in truth I don’t really want to, but off all those guys if I can only have one I pick Suh every. Single. Time. We’re paying 35% of our cap to 3 guys accounting for maaaaaybe 15% of last season’s success and “unable” to pay 15% of the cap to 1 guy who accounts for something like 40% of our wins. Sounds like wise business planning to me. Keep up the good work Mayhew…

No, I'm not quite sure why I got the job either. I'm also not sure why I haven't been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks... (Photo Credit - Daniel Mears)

No, I’m not quite sure why I got the job either. I’m also not sure why I haven’t been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks… (Photo Credit – Daniel Mears)

I’d rather keep Suh at whatever his asking price was and be bad for the rest of his career WITH him than let him go and embrace whatever debacle is about to be inflicted on me for the next 5 years.

And the worst part? Cutting him doesn’t even solve any of Detroit’s cap woes. That money tied up in an under-performing offense is still there. We’re still paying big money to two tight ends, neither of whom are performing at the level we need them to. And the real kicker is this. Check this one out. Bill Barnwell brought this up last week on the Grantland NFL Podcast, and it is a hilariously depressing point. This is a list of the 5 highest paid DTs in the NFL next year based on average salary.

Top 5 DTs Salarys

Image via sportrac.com

But there is one name missing from this list. Ndamukong Suh. “But wait!” You exclaim. “He’s not missing! He’s right there at the top!” Yes he is friend, but you are forgetting the ghost of Ndamukong Suh. Because of the way the Lions restructured his deal when he was still with the team, Detroit still has exactly $9,737,500 worth of Ndamukong Suh on the books for this coming season. And yes, that means Ndamukong Suh is technically both the highest paid DT in football with his Miami figure as well as the 5th highest paid DT in football with his Detroit figure… If he was going to be eating up $10,000,000 of cap space either way, HOW could you not re-sign him??? The whole excuse was that we needed to move on for cap related purposes!!! Well we moved on and it sure doesn’t look like the cap is fixed!!! Moreover, refer back to that earlier image of the Lions 10 highest paid payers for next season… SUH IS STILL THE THIRD HIGHEST PAID PLAYER ON THE LIONS!!! Add that number to Detroit’s replacement for Suh (Haloti Ngata) and his $8,500,000 figure, and essentially you’re still paying $18,237,500 to your number 1 DT tackle…only $810,000 more than Suh’s figure anyway… so don’t feed me this cap crap Mayhew…

And Mayhew’s plan for replacing Suh? That was a real gem. We brought in Haloti Ngata who is a very good NFL player.

(Photo Credit: Tanya Moutzalias, MLive Detroit)

(Photo Credit: Tanya Moutzalias, MLive Detroit)

Used to be better, but his prime ended a couple years ago so what are you gonna do. He’s still very good, just not at the top of his game like Suh is. But that’s ok. We’ll take him off your hands Baltimore. We’ll give you a 4th and a 5th round pick for him because cap starved teams NEVER rebuild through the draft right? That would be stupid. Teams with cap problems don’t draft rookies on cap controlled deals, they trade those draft picks for old veterans with massive salary cap hits. That’s what smart GMs do, right Martin? Nevermind the fact that Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome is the best GM in football who knows exactly when to cut ties with his own players, and nearly EVERY player Baltimore ever let’s go has a nearly immediate dropoff in production on their new team.

(Photo via NFL.com)

(Photo via NFL.com)

Haloti Ngata is still a very good player. Detroit needed some star power on the defensive line to plug the gap left behind by Suh. And Ngata will do that. For the next year… maybe two… but trading draft picks for him feels horrendously short sighted to me and seems akin to cutting off your right hand, and trying to duct tape it back together… it just isn’t enough.

Ndamukong Suh is one of the greatest defensive tackles to every play football. He’s one of the best players I have ever watched in my entire life. And he was on my team. He was my guy. I didn’t care about all the on field incidents of aggression, mainly because he was such a spectacular guy off the field. He came to Detroit at one of its lowest points in years (and let me tell you, there have been a lot of low points for the city of Detroit this past decade) and he helped put together something to be proud of and something fun to be a part of when the Lions and being a Lions fan has been anything but for for… ohhh… idk… my entire life.

Suh should have been allowed to retire a lion. When you have one of the best to ever play the game. When he is a first round draft pick for your team and turns out to be even more than you ever hoped for. When he is an ambassador and a pillar for your struggling community. When you have a guy like that playing for your franchise you do your best to make sure he becomes a lifelong member of your organization. You make sure he becomes a part of your family and stays a member of your family for life because invariably its those kinds of players who become ambassadors for the sport and your franchise for many years into the future. When Suh came to Detroit it felt like the franchise had FINALLY turned a corner. They finally had pieces in place with Stafford, Johnson, and especially Suh to be winners on and off the field. It felt like they had finally moved on from the Matt Millen debacle era, and learned how a great organization thinks. But clearly this is the same old Detroit with the some old ignorance and losing ways.

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The Relief of Mediocrity and Why I Won’t Turn on Matthew Stafford

(Image via Leon Halip/Getty Images)

(Image via Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At 4:40 PM Eastern time today the Detroit Lions will play the Dallas Cowboys in what will be only the second Lions playoff game I’ve seen in my entire lifetime. So needless to say this should be a pretty big deal for me. However, it isn’t. I don’t have much confidence in the Lions pulling this one out. Even in spite of the fact that Dallas in the Tony Romo era has earned a reputation as post season or late season chokers. Now, part of this is because I think that reputation is undeserved, and Tony Romo is underrated, but part of it is also that I lack faith in this particular Lions squad.

In spite of their 11-5 record, the Lions are somewhat of a paper tiger. The Lions played 5 regular season games against playoff teams this season (Green Bay twice, Carolina, New England, and Arizona). They are 1-4 in those games, with their only win coming in week 2 against the Packers, so its not like their exactly building momentum off that one. In fact, the Lions have only even played 6 games all year against teams which ended the season with a winning record. In those six games they are 2-4 (adding a win against 9-7 Miami to their week 2 Green Bay win).

So, the Lions haven’t exactly been world beaters this year, and in truth they’ve barely even been tested. And what few tests they took were mostly failures. I’m not saying all this to be critical, but am instead trying to temper my own expectations for the second Lions playoff game I have ever watched, since the first one (a 45-28 route against Saints in 2011) didn’t exactly end the way I wanted it to. Now, the Lions definitely can beat the Cowboys. Dallas is a spectacularly beatable team this year. Tony Romo has nursed various injuries (especially to his back) all year,and could easily be knocked out of the game by Detroit’s stellar defensive line. Moreover, Dallas’s stud running back Demarco Murray has been great all year, but Detroit has the #1 Rush Defense in the NFL, allowing only 69 yards per game, so it wouldn’t be a shock if Detroit shut Murray down. More importantly, Dallas’s defense has been put together with Elmer’s glue and bubble-gum so there is no reason to think that Calvin Johnson shouldn’t be able to eat them alive. However, with the way Detroit’s offense has been playing of late that is extremely unlikely. And heeeeere is where we get to the crux of the article.

Detroit’s offense has been a colossal disappointment all season long. Part of that was because Calvin was hurt most of the year and missed a substantial chunk of the season due to injury, but many sports fans and reporters alike have put the blame squarely on Matthew Stafford’s shoulders. They claim that Detroit has seen enough to know that their former #1 overall pick is not cut from the Championship cloth which swaddled Bart Starr in his infancy. They get really excited to bring up the fact that he is 0-17 on the road against teams with winning records. Stafford, they claim, will never be a clutch quarterback, and Detroit should cut ties with the Stafford experiment immediately and move on. I disagree.

Missing Calvin Johnson really crippled the Lions all year.

Missing Calvin Johnson really crippled the Lions all year.

Now, I don’t deny that the offense has disappointed this year. They average only 20 points per game, and were held to 20 points or fewer in 10 different games this year. That doesn’t exactly sound like a team that has the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game on it. Furthermore, its incredibly frustrating to have an offense letting the team down like that when we have one of the best defenses in the NFL this year. I also understand why it would makes sense for Stafford’s numbers to spike this year considering Detroit blew their entire free agency wad bringing in Golden Tate to be a #2 receiver behind Calvin, overpaid to keep TE Brandon Pettigrew, and wasted their first round pick on an offensively minded TE in Eric Ebron (all while they already had red zone threat Joseph Fauria on the roster). That sounds like a lot of weapons. That doesn’t sound like a team that scores 20 points per game. Seems like it should be more like 28-31ppg. And that isn’t what happened.

Maybe that means all these dissenters are right. Maybe that means I’m supposed to abandon ship on the USS Stafford, but I’m not sold.

titanic

To be completely honest, I couldn’t care less if Stafford is underperforming based on his contract right now. I couldn’t care less if the offense isn’t as explosive as it should or needs to be. And I assure you this is entirely irrational, and motivated by my own scarred sporting past. I started following the NFL in 1998 when I was 8 years old, but didn’t choose to adopt my Dad’s beloved Lions until the 2000 season. As it turns out this was the worst possible time I could have picked. I remember my dad trying to make me watch football with him years earlier because he wanted me to experience the Barry Sanders years before they were gone. Welp, I hopped on the bandwagon about 16 months late, and it was all downhill after that.

The Matt Millen Era was one of the worst attempts to run a sports franchise in history, and it was particularly hard on the quarterback position. When I first hopped on the Detroit bandwagon they rolled out the cavalcade of Charlie Batch, Gus Frerotte, Stoney Case (I’m gonna be honest I don’t even remember who this is) and Ty Detmer (6 years after he was already known as a universal bust). Not exactly a star studded cast. In 2002, however, 12 year old Rick had hope for the future because the Lions spent their first round draft pick on Oregon’s star quarterback… Joey Harrington.Now, I’m not sure if you know this but during my childhood Harrington was thought to be the biggest bust behind only Tim Couch… ouch…

"O" for Oregon or 0 for the number of games I intend to win in the NFL. Who knows? (Image via Bruce Ely/The Oregonian)

“O” for Oregon or 0 for the number of games I intend to win in the NFL. Who knows? (Image via Bruce Ely/The Oregonian)

So that didn’t work out. But its ok… Detroit had other… uhh… plans… they had the veritable ace up the sleeve that is Mike McMahon (I distinctly remember arguing with me dad that all Detroit needed to do in the 2004 season in order to start winning was start Mike McMahon and we could easily win 8 games. The funniest part of this story to me is not that I thought McMahon would be a success [laughable in its own right] but that I thought “successful” meant going 8-8).

In 2005 they rented 5 games of Jeff Garcia, they put the serviceable Jon Kitna out to pasture (I loved the Kitna years. Kitna won 10 total games for us in the 2 years he started, and I still believe that the reason we went win-less in 2008 is because we went away from him). Then all hell broke loose as we decided to move on to the Dan Orlovsky era which lasted 7 games before we decided to trot out Dante Culpepper AFTER he had that devastating knee injury…

Dan Orlovsky... he of the self forced safety...

Dan Orlovsky… he of the self forced safety…

In 2009 we finally drafted Stafford, but his career didn’t really start until 2011 because he was hurt so often. Instead we spiced things up with a little Drew Stanton / Shaun Hill combo [the two QBs responsible for that beautiful 12-6 field goal clinic on Thursday night football earlier this season] until finally in 2011 we were squarely planted in the Matthew Stafford era.

Stafford has started every game for Detroit the last 4 straight seasons *knockonwood* and if my little narrative showed you anything it should be that, regardless of his faults, he is very clearly a sight for sore eyes. In those 4 years Detroit has won 32 games and made the playoffs twice. That is 2 more playoff games than I had seen in the rest of my lifetime and only 5 less losses than Detroit had in the 9 seasons before that (starting with the drafting of Joey Harrington).

Stafford has clearly been the best quarterback I’ve ever watch on Detroit in my years as a Lions fan. As such I’m willing to give him absolute mountains of slack. We very well could lose this playoff game tonight. And the talking heads and armchair GM’s of the world will be gleefully calling for the Lions to move on from Stafford. But I for one am entirely unconvinced. Even if this is the best Stafford can do, who cares? This is the best era of Lions football I have ever seen. Why risk moving on from Stafford if only to wind up back in the death spiral of has been’s, never were’s, and never will be’s that I spend my formative years watching?

Instead I’d rather just treat this Stafford/Calvin Johnson era as a better version of the Barry Sanders years my dad remembers. The Lions made a couple playoff games out of Barry’s sheer will, and the guy solidified himself as the greatest running back of all time in my opinion,. With the way Stafford forces the ball to Calvin we’ll have the same scenario with Johnson now. Make a few playoff games. Have a few chances to do something, and watch one of the greatest football players ever born prove his worth among the games elite. Dumping Stafford is the kind of thing franchises with Superbowl aspirations might do, but that isn’t this Detroit team. We could definitely win a Superbowl with this group because the NFL playoffs are so random (Carolina beat Arizona last night for instance) but no-one will ever call this group the favorites. And that’s enough for me. It’s January. We’re still playing football. And Matthew Stafford got us there. Enough with the rest of it. I just want to enjoy the success that I’m fortunate enough to see right now.

Go get'm big guy. Go get'm.

Go get’m big guy. Go get’m.

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)

 

A Tale of Two Doormats: The 2014 NFL Draft’s First Round – Part Two

Hey there! I’m an idiot who couldn’t keep this thing under 2,000 words so I broke it into 2 parts! This is Part Two but you can click HERE for Part One if you missed it!

C'mon think Martin THINK. What letter comes after 'B' in the alphabet... gah... dammit I'm just gonna hafta tell Martin Jr. to go to school with his homework incomplete... (Photo Credit - AP)

C’mon think Martin THINK. You KNOW this one… What letter comes after ‘B’ in the alphabet… gah… dammit I’m just gonna hafta tell Martin Jr. to go to school with his homework incomplete… (Photo Credit – AP)

First off, Mayhew is just an extension of the Matt Millen Era. Matt Millen will go down as the worst GM in NFL History. He absolutely destroyed the Lions and is responsible for assembling the talent that went on to go 0-16… the only team to do so in NFL history. However, when the Ford family finally fired Millen, the simply promoted his right hand man Mayhew to the position of GM, and Mayhew has done his best to keep the sucking tradition alive. Schwartz provided a strong voice in the front office, helping to pick his own players and pushed the team to its first playoff berth since the Barry Sanders era, but Mayhew doesn’t deserve any credit for this. If you don’t believe this just take another quick look at his offseason moves this spring and watch how beautifully they dovetail with his draft pick last night…

Oh Matt Millen... its like you never left us... (Photo Credit - AP)

Oh Matt Millen… its like you never left us… (Photo Credit – AP)

For the last 2 decades the Lions biggest need has been in the secondary. As the NFL transitions into a pass only league, Detroit has avoided skilled corners and safeties like the plague. So anyway it should be obvious that they still lacked secondary talent this offseason and sure enough that was one of two major concerns outlined by the organization to address in the offseason (along with improving receiver depth). So what did they do? They cut Louis Delmas, their best coverage safety… Moreover… they replaced Delmas with James Ihedigbo who is really a blitzing safety who can’t drop back in coverage, and to make matters worse, while Delmas was only 26, Ihedigbo is already 30…

This is an accurate depiction of how the Lions have played pass defense for the last 20 years... good hustle there Chris Houston... thats some real lockdown defense... (Photo Credit - Rick Osentoski)

This is an accurate depiction of how the Lions have played pass defense for the last 20 years… good hustle there Chris Houston… thats some real lockdown defense… (Photo Credit – Rick Osentoski)

The other long term issue that has plagued the Lions is their offensive line. I’m certain one of the reasons Detroit has gone through so many quarterbacks is poor O Line play. This probably ended Joey Harrington’s career the same way the Browns ended Couch’s career, Houston ended David Carr’s career, and the Jaguars are about to end Blake Bortles’ career. So you’d think this would be something they would improve. Hold that thought.

Ah yes... that is some EXCELLENT offensive line play by Detroit (Photo Credit - Curtis Compton)

Ah yes… that is some EXCELLENT offensive line play by Detroit (Photo Credit – Curtis Compton)

The other concern the team outlined for the offseason, wide receiver, was addressed in a similar manner to the secondary concerns… Mayhew cut Nate Burleson… Detroits #2 leading receiver… Now, they addressed this issue by signing Golden Tate to a massive contract… I really like Tate on the team and he’s definitely an upgrade over Burleson (who went to the Browns by the way) but I can’t help but feel a team that already has Calvin Johnson couldn’t have spent SOME money SOMEWHERE besides wide receiver… but what do I know…

Oh Calvin... thank you for making Lions fandom bearable (Photo Credit - Walter Iooss Jr.)

Oh Calvin… thank you for making Lions fandom bearable (Photo Credit – Walter Iooss Jr.)

Besides Tate, though, cap strapped Detroit handed out one other big contract this offseason: they gave Brandon Pettigrew a four year, $16million deal. Now, Pettigrew is a serviceable player. He really is a pretty bad blocker, but he’s an above average pass catcher. He drops a lot of balls, but so does everyone on our team besides Calvin. SO the issue here isn’t that I don’t want him… its more that we weren’t really bidding against anyone in resigning him (so we could have signed him cheaper) we were cap strapped in the first place so we probably couldn’t afford to give up that money to him in the first place, and signing him takes more time away from Joseph Fauria who I’m not incredibly high on as an every down tight end, but at 6’7″ he is a monster red zone target. However… he’s kindof a double edged sword… cuz you also have to put up with this…

Yes!!! Touchdowwwwohhhhhh... noooo.... oh Joseph... no no... ok thats enough... Joseph you're embarrassing the whole family!!!... dammit... (gif credit sportsnation)

Yes!!! Touchdowwwwohhhhhh… noooo…. oh Joseph… no no… ok thats enough… Joseph you’re embarrassing the whole family!!!… dammit… (gif credit sportsnation)

Now, the guys over at Pride of Detroit did a great job talking me off the ledge about that contract, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

BUT ANYWAY lets turn back to last nights draft. I have been begging for the Lions to draft an elite corner back in the first round for what feels like 10 years or so. Moreover, I’ve been watching every single step Justin Gilbert (CB for the Okie State Cowboys and the best CB prospect in this draft) makes for the past 18 months like some sort of overly possessive girlfriend.

He Justin nice catch!!! can I get you a Poweraid?? Maybe a back rub?? My first born son?!?! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME JUSTIN I'LL GIVE YOU ANYTHING TO PLAY FOOTBALL FOR MY TEAM!!!! (Photo Credit - Ross D. Franklin)

He Justin nice catch!!! can I get you a Poweraid?? Maybe a back rub?? My first born son?!?! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME JUSTIN I’LL GIVE YOU ANYTHING TO PLAY FOOTBALL FOR MY TEAM!!!! (Photo Credit – Ross D. Franklin)

And theeeeen Cleveland made the aforementioned trade from 9 to 8 (moronic) and stole him from me. No big deal though. Detroit could also improve their linebacking corps. My #2 guy I had been watching was Anthony Barr. An athletic freak of a Linebacker who can rush the passer, stop the run, and (most importantly in the new pass first NFL) he can drop back in coverage and cover the Jimmy Grahams and Wes Welkers of the world. Buuuuuuut Minnesota took him at #9… one slot ahead of Detroit… dammit… but thats ok!!! remember how earlier I said Detroit’s second major concern for the last 2 decades (besides CB) has been the offensive line?? Well we’re in luck!!! The mammoth of a man Taylor Lewan was still on the board! Detroit’s O-Line improved leaps and bounds last year and drastically outplayed expectations (in large part due to the addition of Larry Warford out of Kentucky) but adding a guy like Lewan would anchor this young unit for years to come. Lewan is enormous, he is skilled, he is tough, and he played college ball just down the road at the University of Michigan. PERFECT fit for Detroit at #10, right?

(Photo Credit - Erin Kirkland)

(Photo Credit – Erin Kirkland)

Wrong. Detroit passed on Lewan for Eric Ebron… Tight End out of North Carolina. (Moreover, Lewan ended up going to Tennessee… the same team that beat Detroit out to hire our first choice for a new coach this offseason (Ken Wisenhunt, who incidently the Browns tried to hire as well)… awesome…) Now let me be clear. I am incredibly happy to have Ebron on my team. Ebron is another in the long line of former basketball players who convert to Tight End and have great success in their new sport. This line goes all the way back to Tony Gonzalez (the greatest TE in the history of the NFL), through Antonio Gates (maybe the most dominant TE in the league from 2004 to 2009), and to Jimmy Graham today who is absolutely demolishing bitches in New Orleans. These guys use their superior size, strength, speed, and leaping ability to become matchup nightmares on a football field. Moreover, the new “pass all day erry day” NFL has shifted in the post Gronkowski / Graham era to a place where a receiving tight end is important for every elite offense.

(Photo Credit - Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit – Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

But heres the problem… Detroit already HAS TWO of these guys on their roster! Joseph “He-of-the-Many-Absurd-Dances” Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew to whom we just forked over $16 million that we didn’t have!!!! Now we have 3 TEs on the roster, who we can’t put on the field all at the same time, and we can’t do anything to clear up the logjam. Fauria is probably the least versatile of the three since as of right now I only see him as a red zone and short yardage threat. You obviously won’t move Ebron because he’s the most talented of the three and you just spend a top 10 pick on him. And you can’t move Pettigrew because he is in YEAR ONE of a brand freaking new 4 year deal.

(Photo Credit - Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit – Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

All this while IGNORNING other REAL positions of need. I don’t care if Ebron is better than the 2 guys we had (he is)… the team needed to improve in other places! We didn’t improve the secondary which, again, has needed it for decades. We left Ha Ha Clinton-Dix AND Calvin Pryor (top 2 safeties in the draft) on the board, and we had to sit idly by as 6 MORE defensive backs came off the board… Yes this was a deep draft for DBs (a position of need for Detroit) and yes their top choice at DB was gone when they were picking, but now the best 9 defensive backs in the draft are gone and Detroit didn’t land a single one of them… so much for that depth.

Furthermore, we had a chance to improve the other DECADES long hole in the team, the O Line with a hometown kid who backs up all the hype no less, and instead we take a position where we had no need whatsoever… well done Mayhew… great job. Now, the fan in me has already begun coping with this issue. I’ve starting to think maybe we can run some unique (non redzone) packages with Ebron, Pettigrew, Calvin, and Tate together. Either slide Ebron into the slot as on oversized mismatch or put Tate there because of his size. I don’t know. Ebron is a good enough athlete to play slot receiver even if he’s taller than average for the position. However, the fact remains that this now creates unnecessary headaches. Now we have to struggle to make sure we properly and fully utilize these different guys instead of just drafting players at positions where we lacked depth and need immediate starters *cough cough* corner *cough*

Sooo is this my cue to put my head in the sand go back to living vicariously through Matthew Stafford again??

stafford-hot-blonde1

Now, they could fix all of this tonight and tomorrow with some well thought out, strategically placed draft picks… but after last night… and after 15 years of front office futility, I’m not holding out hope… This front office hasn’t exactly given me a ton of reason to hope… (and yes, the Millen and Mayhew offices should be considered the same… that move represented continuity not change…)

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers

But hey, we’re not Cleveland. Oh wait… Cleveland fans at least had “The Drive.” I know they were on the wrong end but even playing in that game meant you were at least good. Wait… scratch that… it means you were at least in the playoffs… a treat rarely enjoyed by Detroit. Detroit is one of hte oldest professional football teams in America (active since 1930 though they didn’t change the name to Lions till ’34) and yet we’ve only even been to the playoffs 10 times since 1970 (post merger modern era) with only 1 win. The Browns have made the playoffs 11 times in that span with 4 wins AND THEY DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A TEAM FOR 3 OF THOSE YEARS. So whatever… both these teams suck… but hey… maybe this draft is the beginning of a new Era… heres to Browns vs. Lions in Superbowl L (thats 50 in Roman numerals… I feel the need to point this out so you don’t think L stands for Losers… ugh)

Sad-Lions-fan-featured-on-two-story-Detroit-billboard

A Tale of Two Doormats: The 2014 NFL Draft’s First Round – Part One

Hey there! I’m an idiot who couldn’t keep this thing under 2,000 words so I broke it into 2 parts! This is Part One but you can click HERE for Part Two!

(Photo Credit - Adam Hunger)

(Photo Credit – Adam Hunger)

So the NFL draft’s first round FINALLY happened, and Johnny Manziel to Cleveland is of course the big story. I’m glad Manziel went to Cleveland. I like the idea of him becoming the face of a franchise, and he’s better off in Cleveland than Bortles is in Jacksonville (not by much, but I’m convinced Bortles will get the David Carr treatment with the Jags and he’ll be pounded into Hamburger Helper by his third year in the league) BUT I’m pretty worried for Manziel anyway.

Better put a ring on it Mr. Bortles cuz things are about to go downhill fast.

Better put a ring on it Mr. Bortles cuz things are about to go downhill fast.

I really like Manziel and I want him to succeed in the NFL. But this Cleveland organization has blown through 20 quarterbacks since they got their team back and most of them left Cleveland as shattered husks of their former selves. (see: Couch, Timothy).

You can see the fear in his eyes... its almost as if he already knows that... (Photo Credit - Ezra Shaw)

You can see the fear in his eyes… its almost as if he already knows that… (Photo Credit – Ezra Shaw)

... the rest of his career will look like this ...(Photo Credit - Bob Rosato)

… the rest of his career will look like this …(Photo Credit – Bob Rosato)

Moreover, the ownership and management do not lend hope to Manziel’s success. The Cleveland GM was  like a scared little puppy out there, running around, trading all the picks that two MUCH better personnel guys put together in Cleveland’s warchest… a warchest which had Cleveland fans refreshingly optimistic. That continues to be a comically bad move, but more so after tonight. It was bad in the first place to think these guys who managed to turn the “run 2 yards and fall down” Trent Richardson into Indianapolis’s first round pick (a move that should have earned Lombardi and Banner co-GM of the year awards in its own right) and stockpiled 11 picks in this years draft, including 2 first rounders and 7 in the top 127. That is an amazing, franchise saving draft board. Banner and Lombardi assembled it, and it got them fired. Farmer took a sledgehammer to it and keeps the job. What an excellent owner you are Jimmy Haslam.

Now, this is sad to me, for one because I really like Lombardi. He’s an excellent NFL analyst and writer, and I was incredibly excited to root for him with the Browns. I loved how right some of his analysis turned out to be once he got a team in his hand. He disliked Trent Richardson, flipped him for a first rounder, and Trent promptly sucked in Indy. He loved Brian Hoyer as a backup in New England, always said the first thing he would do if he took over a team was trade for Hoyer. He brought him to Cleveland and Hoyer promptly made the Browns exciting, instantly developing chemistry with Tight End Jordan Cameron before heartbreakingly injuring himself and taking the Browns’ season down with him.

(Photo Credit - Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit – Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

Buuuuut none of that was any good. So Haslam promptly fired his two excellent front office men and replaced them with a dude who runs an NFL team like he’s playing Madden on his Xbox. Those trades made no sense. Trading down from 4 I was fine with but they didn’t get nearly enough back. Then they promptly gave up their meager gains from that trade to trade up 2 more times … one of which was ONE PLACE from 9 to 8 to take Justin Gilbert who wasn’t going to be drafted until #10 anyway… so that was a waste… then he gave up even more picks to move up from 26 to 22 to draft Manziel which is fine, but it cost them a 3rd rounder which was too high a price to move up 4 spots at the end of the first round. All things considered they didn’t really hurt themselves there, but I can’t help but think that Haslam was telling the truth when he said he turns to the homeless for his draft day consultations. In any event Cleveland is very talent depleted. Hoyer can bridge the gap nicely while Manziel gets up to speed with the NFL game and Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron will help Johnny Football bring excitement to Cleveland, but I for one am worried for the guy… but what do I know… only the homeless can be trusted with personnel decisions.

HOWEVER… after watching the first round I can’t help but think the Lions would be better off with a homeless man running their team than Martin Mayhew.

No, I'm not quite sure why I got the job either. I'm also not sure why I haven't been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks... (Photo Credit - Daniel Mears)

No, I’m not quite sure why I got the job either. I’m also not sure why I haven’t been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks… (Photo Credit – Daniel Mears)

Click HERE for Part Two!

Naive Optimism: The Joys of Being a Detroit Lions Fan

detroit_lions3

With the Free Agency period pretty much over and the NFL draft on the horizon I figured now might be the right time to recap the retooled Lions. Now, generally any Lions front office moves are a clinic in incompetence (still waiting on approval of that Matt Millen restraining order), but this year I’m feeling fairly confident (which certainly means something terrible is about to happen. Somebody go check on Calvin Johnson’s knees! Can we take out another insurance policy on them? Maybe protect them with 4 armed guards?) BUT IN ANY EVENT! Let’s take a look at the damage.

Things started out in typical Lions fashion. Ask any Lions fan what the team needed to prioritize after the Coach Schwartz firing and they would have said improve the secondary (which has needed repair for a decade but that doesn’t prevent the team from avoiding top level corners in the first round like the plague) and add a legitimate #2 threat alongside Calvin Johnson to make teams AT LEAST think twice about triple teaming him before ultimately decided “screw it… give him the triple team.”  So… of course… with these two concerns in mind what does Detroit do? They cut Safety Louis Delmas, their best secondary player who, by the way, WAS ONLY 26 YEARS OLD!!! Yes he had injury history, but he played all 16 games last season… so… this was smart… And then, in order to improve their receiving corps, they cut their #2 receiver Nate Burleson. Awesome. Now I know Nate injured himself last year as a result of his unhealthy love of pizza, but this does not seem like the way to build your receiving corps… unless they just thought everyone else on the field was getting in Calvin’s way…

In a lot of ways its like you never left Matt... (photo credit Matthew Emmons)

In a lot of ways its like you never left Matt… (photo credit Matthew Emmons)

That was all before Free Agency  had even started. Free Agency made things worse. One of my biggest fears with losing Coach Schwartz is that this dominant defensive line he built will take a huge step back. However, I tried to convince myself that, hey, we still have all the players from that unit so even without the coach we should still be able to produce on some similar same level. Buuuut as it turns out… Mayhew did not think those players were as important as I did… We lost defensive end Willie Young to division rival Chicago (which has shades of the Cliff Avril to Seattle loss… except worse because the Bears are in our division) and we also lost defensive end Israel Idonije to the Bears (less important loss, but its the principle that matters!) We also lost Shaun Hill to St. Louis which is fine until you realize that we replaced him by bringing back Dan Orlovsky.

HOWEVER thankfully that is where the bad news stops and I get to put on my Honolulu Blue Fan Goggles!!! Prepare yourselves for wreckless optimism! The first big move (and really the Lions only big free agency splash in recent memory) was signing Golden Tate away from the Superbowl champion Seattle Seahawks. At first I was a little unsure of this signing because Tate is undersized and he’s never really put up huge numbers in Seattle. However, *fan goggles* that was in an offense which ran the ball 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and only thought to pass as a 4th option. If Tate can put up 64 catches, 898 yards, and 5 TDs in that Seattle offense, there is absolutely no reason he shouldn’t be able to dwarf those numbers when playing next to the walking triple team that is Calvin Johnson. I’m thinking around 80 catches, 1,200 yards, and 8-9 TDs. Plus if Tate really can put up numbers like that its just gonna free up Calvin Johnson even more. Not only that, but Tate’s leaping ability makes up for his size so he can play #2 BUT if we decided to draft another receiver in this loaded WR draft, we could probably slide Tate into the slot. He clearly has no fear going over the middle. This is a major improvement over Nate (as much as I loved him).

No no no Patrick! That is not how we catch the ball!!

No no no Patrick! That is not how we catch the ball!!

However, the biggest positive about bringing in Tate is the fact that he never. drops. passes. Ever… Tate has only dropped 5 passes in the last three years combined. Last year alone the Lions dropped more balls than a Scarlett Johansen nude scene.

Evidently Scarlett finds my comments to be excessively lewd. My apologies.

Evidently Scarlett finds my comments to be excessively lewd. My apologies.

SO after filling their self made hole at receiver, the Lions had to address their self made hole at safety. They did so admirably in my opinion by signing James Ihedigbo, even if it is just a bandaid solution. Whereas Delmas was only 26 and Tate is only 25, Ihedigbo is already 30. This makes it clear that the Lions are in win now mode, and honestly they probably don’t have more than a 2-3 year window anyway. Calvin Johnson is 28 and Reggie Bush is 29 so this window isn’t as wide open as it used to be. Plus the Lions are already strapped for cash and pushing up against the salary cap, so within a couple years they’ll probably be in the same terrible problem the Panthers found them in this offseason where they need to cut valuable players year after year just to stay under the cap. So while it would have been nice to grab someone younger, Ihedigbo is still a serviceable player, he’s familiar with Coach Caldwell, and he’s generally stayed healthy throughout his career. Paired with Glover Quinn that should give us some solid leadership at the 2 safety positions. In this same vein, the Lions brought back Rashean Mathis (thank God) to bring some veteran experience to the worryingly young secondary led by the disappointing and troubled Chris Houston and Darius Slay (who will hopefully look 100% recovered this year from an injury late in his college career). They also brought in Cassius Vaughn for the same reason so hopefully between the talent of the young guys and the skill of the old guys we can duct tape together a pass defense.

Hey! Hey guys! Mr. Ford Jr. how you doin today? I really like those shoes!! Hey, you wouldn't fire me right?? Right??? (photo credit AP)

Hey! Hey guys! Mr. Ford Jr. how you doin today? I really like those shoes!! Hey, you wouldn’t fire me right?? Right???
(photo credit AP)

Those were really the 2 major stories in the Lions offseason moves. I also think its interesting to point out that our new OC grabbed a Fullback off of the Saints (his former team) to come with him and help implement his schemes. The Lions haven’t used a Fullback consistently for maybe 8 years as far as I can remember. So I don’t know if this is good or bad or if it will even change anything, but hey… thats new. They also brought back Joique Bell which is a great story (Michigan kid who went to Wayne State right in the city and has experience working with our new OC Joe Lombardi from his time in New Orleans along with Reggie Bush) but also a solid move. I love having a two back system to protect Reggie’s legs as much as possible. Moreover, the offensive line is looking young (outside of Raiola) and solid with the addition of Larry Warford from Kentucky last season, which is a Godsend for Stafford.

(Leon Halip - Getty Images)

(Leon Halip – Getty Images)

All things considered I’m cautiously optimistic about all these moves. The draft will hopefully address some other concerns. The Linebacking corps could use an influx of talent so I wouldn’t mind UCLA LB Anthony Barr. But I’ve also praying for a 1st round corner for the last 7 years so I would love to see Justin Gilbert as well. And like I mentioned earlier I wouldn’t mind drafting another receiver at 10. Maybe someone like Mike Evans if he’s still around, but if they end up trading up for Sammy Watkins I think thats a mistake, because they can’t afford to give up draft picks that they need to use to add talent other places.

(Kirby Lee - USA Today Sports)

(Kirby Lee – USA Today Sports)

Either way though, this is a competitive team. At its ceiling it could probably win 11 games but that would definitely require a slip from either Chicago or Green Bay within the division. There’s probably no chance that they win less than 8 games, but I think the team really needs to do whatever it takes to make it to the playoffs this year. You can’t continue to waste the greatest receiver of all time (shut up Jerry Rice). I know this team can’t win a Superbowl, but the core of Johnson, Stafford, Bush, and Suh should at least have won a playoff game by this point. We have a three year window to make some noise here so I’ll be polishing up the Honolulu Blue Goggles and preparing to go down with the ship.

Ford Family Traditions

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To me sports fandom has always been about community. As such, I have always really liked the fact that the Ford family owned the Lions. I don’t think anyone would deny that Ford Motor Company is one of the primary actors which made Detroit, Detroit. The automotive industry pushed Detroit to be one of America’s preeminent cities. Henry Ford and his Model T assembly lines are an American legend. A sort of real life folk tale. It just feels right, then, to connect the Ford family with Detroit’s branch of America’s pass-time. Detroit and Ford just fit together on so many levels. The Ford family is a major part of the Detroit community, just like the Lions.

I say all this just to point out that I really like the Ford family. I like the fact that they own the team. Heck, my dad won’t even let anyone in my family drive anything other than a Ford. I’m very pro-Ford. I don’t want them to ever sell the team. But it can’t be denied that under their leadership the Lions suck. We’re atrocious. Like really really bad. A lot of this losing comes down to who the Ford’s have had in charge of this team, whether that was in the front office or on the field. Moreover, they traditionally compound this problem with their vaunted loyalty.

bilde (1) “So I know we have the worst defense in the league, and our offensive line consists of 3 obese constructions workers, a tractor tire, and a cardboard cutout of Patrick Stewart as Jean Luc Picard, but I think I’m gonna draft another wide receiver in the first round. This Mike Williams guy hasn’t played football for 18 months but I still think he’s worth the #10 overall pick”

All across the league coaches and executives envy the Detroit jobs because they know its almost impossible to get fired by the Fords. Matt Millen got a decade to build the worst team in NFL history and ensure the Lions go down in history with the only winless season in a league that forces parity out of its teams. Then, when they finally fired Millen they brought in his right hand man (Martin Mayhew) to succeed him and continue the legacy of ensuring that the Lions have one of the most talent depleted rosters in the league.

bilde (2) “No ma’am to be honest I’m not sure why I got the job either. I would have fired me too”

Anyway, this same loyalty that makes Detroit an allegedly attractive destination is also a weakness. The franchise seems to struggle to move on from bad decisions. Fast forward to this season. Detroit has very much moved on from its abysmal past since the Jim Schwartz era began. When Schwartz was brought in I  could not have been happier. I was convinced that for once in my life Detroit had made the right hire with a coach. Schwartz was an up and coming coaching commodity from the distinguished Jim Fisher coaching tree. And you know what? That was all right. Schwartz rescued this team. But noone seems to see it that way.

Jim-Schwartz-red-flag

The penalties were agonizing to watch every week and it was no fun for any of us to be considered a team of thugs (roll the Suh tape) but when you were as low as Detroit was the franchise NEEDED some fire. Schwartz may have been a meathead and he may have egged players on to aggression rather than containing them, but he saved this franchise. Not to mention he really is the single greatest defensive line coach in football. What he did drafting and coaching up these guys has been amazing. The fans, however, had almost unanimously given up on the Schwartz era, and even I can’t defend the guy after the horrendous collapse this year (Cutler and Rodgers out, you sweep the bears, finally win on thanksgiving AGAINST the packers and yet you finish THIRD in the division?) but losing him means this defense, and specifically the D Line, will definitely take a step back.

10153941-large “C’mon coach lets go quiety” “Mayhew you sonuvabitch I’ll end you! DO YOU EVEN LIFT BRO?!”

Ziggy Ansah was a horrendous pick for 31/32 teams, but Schwartz made him into a real football player. I can’t see any scenario where this kid doesn’t end up lost the next couple seasons, only to resurface with another franchise and become great. Maybe Suh and Fairley can coach him up, but if everything everyone tells me is true, Suh isn’t a leader. (Bullshit, but negative press does what it does…). Moreover, I’m terrified that Fairley will eat his way out of the league, and Suh’s forthcoming contract extension will remove a lot of other options for improvements.

So anyway, I was sad to see Schwartz go as I really do see him as the guy who started the turnaround in Detroit, and I think the team will be worse without him. But speaking of contracts, Stafford’s massive extension (along with this year’s collapse) is one of the major reasons I was able to get behind the change this offseason. When Schwartz first got canned everyone was saying the Lions wanted to go in an offensive direction. This makes sense considering the money you paid Stafford, and the fact that you have the best receiver of all time (shut up Jerry Rice, you are not nearly the physical specimen Calvin Johnson is) on your roster. Moreover, when I heard that Ken Wisenhunt was the guy Detroit was looking at to fill this role I seriously considered being optimistic. (can’t say I was happy… whenever a Lions fan starts to feel joy, 30 acres of rainforest start to burn and Japanese sailors harpoon a whale in retaliation)

Anyway, after I got over the initial disgust of hiring a retread who washed out of Arizona I remember that the Cardinals are one of maybe only 5 franchises run as poorly as the Lions and Wisenhunt STILL managed to take them to a Superbowl. This could have been the guy to take Stafford to the next level (look what he did for Phil Rivers this year!) and do for Johnson what he did for Fitzgerald. Moreover, with a few choice picks in this years draft we could have plugged a few holes on defense and tried to duct tape a playoff team together. And then Wisenhunt went to the Titans… Everyone was talking about the far superior Detroit situation … “best job available” “playoff team already constructed” yada yada…. whatever… its the Lions… bad things happen… but then it got worse…

TheManyFacesAndEmotionsOfJimCaldwell(from theSportsGeeks.com)

We go from firey Schwartz to emotionless Jim Caldwell. Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Jim Caldwell has never shown anyone that he is a good coach. He got the Indy job because Tony Dungy named him as successor and Peyton Manning accepted (knowing the Caldwell was secretly a balloon animal, not a human, meaning Peyton would really be coaching the team). Moreover, once Manning got hurt, the Colts were 2-14 and Caldwell was out. The only reason he got this Detroit job is because of that Superbowl run Manning held his hand for, and the fact that Tony Dungy called the Ford family on multiple occasions to argue Caldwell’s case (Caldwell would have done so himself, but, again, he is in fact a balloon animal, drifting along wherever the winds take him, not a human being).

The issue is further compounded by the aforementioned Ford Family Loyalty. I think Caldwell is the wrong coach for this team. Detroit will hover around 6-9 wins while he’s here. We’re gonna be bad. The Defense Schwartz built will erode more and more the longer he’s here and the offense will stagnate and get older, thus causing Detroit to lose any allure it may have had this year. If the Ford Family Loyalty holds true they’re probably going to give Caldwell a 4-5 year window to win here. Which he won’t do. The team will be unexciting and bad. Moreover, this core probably only has a 2-3 year window anyway. Once you pay Stafford, Johnson, and Suh thats your team. Not much else you can put in place around those 3 massive contracts (which MUST get done). Now, those are 3 great players, but the problem is there are still a lot of holes elsewhere on the team.

I feel like this Caldwell hire wasn’t just wrong, but it slammed the door on the Schwartz Era of Lions teams which I honestly loved. Those teams made me really love Lions football again, even when they were losing. Johnson and Stafford made sure you were always in it even when we couldn’t run the ball to save our lives. Suh, Fairley, and Vanden Bosch played the only good pass defense I’ve ever seen in Detroit in spite of the face that they all play on the D- line. Moreover, the games were just exciting. The secondary was so bad we were always down, meaning we got to watch Stafford and Johnson go off. And if we ever had a lead late you knew Schwartz was gonna blitz the hell out of the other QB because 1) its the only thing he knew how to do  and 2) his secondary can’t stop anyone anyway so a sack is the only hope. That was exciting football to me. Much better than watching Joey Harrington attempt to play dead so as to avoid predators. Or watching Dante Culpepper fumble the ball with his comically tiny hands.

Heartbeat-sidelines-Harrington “Thats right Joey. If you sack yourself they can’t hurt you any more. Good job buddy”

daunte-culpepper-of-the-detroit-lions1 “seriously… does anyone remember how tiny his hands were? Look at those things!!! Its like the baby hands Burger King commercials but in real life!!!

So anyway, I don’t want to Fords gone, I know Schwartz had to go, and at the end of the day we still have some great players on this team. I just hope we didn’t just undo all the good things Schwartz did, just because people thought he was a jackass. I’m really not in the mood for another 10 year rebuild.