Friday, August 25, 2006

2006 Detroit Lions Preview

Restore the Intrigue

I’m going to make two predictions right off the top about the Detroit Lions' season. 1). The Lions will be closer to terrible than good and…2). From a fan perspective, this will be the most enjoyable and satisfying season to watch since Barry Sanders ripped our souls out. Fans will put up with a bad team if the sole reason for losing is simply a lack of talent. It’s entirely possible to be bad without making a mockery of the city and franchise. Unfortunately, the Lions have been “mockery” bad under Matt Millen thus far. This season, the Lions will likely not be “mockery” bad. They have more talent and better coaching than in previous years. They will play better defense. They will score more points. Winning games, however, is another story all together. The Lions will struggled to win eight games this season but, unlike the last seven years, this season will be a step towards respectability much like the season the Tigers had in 2004. The ’04 Tigers were not good but it was the first time in 15 years that the Tigers had a season that foretold something positive for the future.

I don’t foresee much success on offense this season. Kevin Jones is not the ideal back for a Mike Martz offense and vice versa. Jones is a big, powerful runner with above-average speed. He can catch the ball out of the backfield but that is not his strength. Martz’s “Greatest Show on Turf” offense in St. Louis was made in large part by the presence of one of the most versatile running backs in NFL history in Marshall Faulk. Jones is no Faulk. Much has been made of Martz’s ability to mold any quarterback, regardless of talent, into a Pro-Bowl quarterback. Little has been made of Martz’s good fortune of having two of the premier wide receivers in the NFL (Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce) to go along with Faulk. Even Steve Mariucci would’ve had a tough time keeping that group from putting up big-time numbers. Nonetheless, Martz garnered all the credit and subsequently gained the reputation as an offensive mastermind. If he truly is a mastermind, he should have no problem taking a serviceable NFL quarterback in Jon Kitna, an elite wide receiver in Roy Williams, and a talented running back in Jones and turning them into a proficient offense. I’ll believe it when I see it.

In all likelihood, Kitna is the best quarterback the Lions have had in my lifetime. That doesn’t necessarily say much but it is something to look forward to. He is the typical “gunslinger” QB that throws caution to the wind. He has had his fair share of brilliant moments as well as a fair share of bonehead moments. He is, for all intents and purposes, a playmaker. Yes, you read that correctly. For the first time in 30 years, the Lions actually have a playmaker at the QB position. It remains to be seen how this will translate on the field, but at the very least, Kitna is an upgrade over Mr. Happy Feet.

The most bizarre mystery entering the 2006 season for the Lions is easily the wide receiver position. As the entire world is well aware of, Lions GM Matt Millen spent three straight first round draft picks on wide receivers. Roy Williams is a legitimate star-in-the-making. There is little suspense as to whether he’s going to show up this year. He will. Chares Rogers and Mike Williams, on the other hand, could be in the starting lineup or playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Rogers has been sidelined by a combination of injuries and the coaches’ reluctance to give Rogers repetitions in practice. I have a feeling that Millen is doing everything he can to send Rogers out of town. Remember, Millen went after Rogers’ signing bonus last season. There can’t be much affection on either side. Regardless of Rogers’ past indiscretions, he is a first round talent who will help an NFL team some day. I would hope that Millen would put his personal opinions of Rogers behind him and see what Rogers can do in the starting lineup. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and it likely won’t happen. All of this leads me to believe that Millen is OK with the philosophy of buying high and selling low. Rogers’ value was at an all-time high when he was drafted in 2003 and it’s at an all-time low right now. Unless Millen wants to make the Lions’ version of the Darko Milicic trade, he might want to think twice before giving Rogers away. Mike Williams is a slightly different story. From all accounts, Williams just can’t get it done on the field due to a lack of conditioning. As soon as his quickness and agility improve, I expect to seem him playing meaningful minutes. The WR picture is muddled at best. The Lions signed Corey Bradford in the off-season but it remains to be seen how many reps he’ll actually get. One thing is for sure, the Lions have talent at the receiver position. I don’t know if it’ll all come together on the field this year but a “genius” like Martz should have no problem molding this group together. I’m just not so sure there’s a genius present to do the molding.

The running game, like the typical Martz ground attack, will be dependent on the success of the passing game. Considering the uncertainty described in the above paragraph, this is not a good thing. The Lions have “serviceable” offensive linemen at every position on the line. However, I must stress that there is a sizeable gap between “serviceable” and above-average. I feel bad for Jeff Backus. He and his agent bamboozled Millen for top-ten money when Backus isn’t anything close to a top ten tackle in the NFL. I can’t blame Backus for taking the money but I hope he understands that he will be criticized mercilessly by Lions fans when he inevitably plays like the top 25 tackle that he is. That is a bad situation in the making. Damien Woody, Ross Verba, Rex Tucker, and Dominic Raiola have all had mild success in the NFL. All five guys are good enough to not be considered liabilities. However, none of the five are difference makers on the offensive line. Without difference makers on the line, the running game will have no chance at sustained drives. I do not have much optimism for the Lions ground attack this season. The holes for Kevin Jones to run through will be few and far between. Any success the Lions will have on the ground this season will be entirely dependent on the passing game. With two of the best running backs in the NFL in Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk at his beckon call in St. Louis, Martz ran the ball as little as any team in the NFL. Even then, his running game was based on the pass. Let’s just say there are a lot of bad things and few good things that could happen this year with the running game.

The defense is the sole reason for my expectations of a quality fan experience this season. The defense hasn’t been awful over the last few years but it certainly hasn’t been good. Certain players have been good (i.e. Shuan Rogers and James Hall) but the entire unit has definitely not been productive enough to be called good. However, there is new talent to go along with new schemes that could change all of that. Rod Marinelli cultivated one of the best defensive lines in the NFL while he coached the defense for Tampa Bay. The Lions have lacked any semblance of a pass rush as far back as I can remember. There have been occasional talents like Robert Porcher but nobody has been dominating and I think a lot of that has to do with a lack of innovation by the coaching staff. Marinelli will finally give the Lions some innovation. James Hall may take the next step in his development which may end with Hall becoming an All-Pro defensive end. Hall doesn’t have the physical attributes as some of the elite defensive ends like Simeon Rice but that shouldn’t keep him from making a name for himself as a formidable threat. Rogers will be back plugging up the middle which is good for the Lions and bad for everyone else. Shaun Cody takes over for Dan Wilkinson which could go either way. I still can’t understand why Millen couldn’t keep Wilkinson around. Maybe Millen got the impression that Wilkinson didn’t want to play for Detroit. If that’s the case, then Millen had no choice. Cody is a Luther Ellis-type tackle which should be a sufficient compliment to Rogers. While Hall and Rogers are excellent tackles, the true strength of the D-line comes from the depth. Marinelli will have his hands full trying to get snaps for Kalimba Edwards, Jared Devries, Bill Swancutt, Cory Redding and Tyoka Jackson. Marcus Bell is one of the better back-up tackles in the NFL. All of this depth is great news for a team that always has injury issues.

Before I say too much about the LB’s, I’d like to say that I'm done waiting for Boss Bailey and Teddy Lehman to a) start; b) make an impact; and c) stay healthy for more than three minutes. Bailey has played in 11 of the last 32 games. Lehman has played in 12 of the last 32 games. That probably explains why I have absolutely no idea how good either will be. They could be pro-bowl caliber or toilet-bowl caliber for all I know. All I can say right now for sure is that they’re both fast and more injury prone than Jose Canseco on the mound. Fortunately, the Lions don’t need Bailey and Lehman to play in order to be better this season. For at least one game, the Lions will have the services of First Round draft pick Ernie “the Walking Lobotomy” Sims. When conscious, Sims is a cannon ball. He throws his body around like he’s a decedent of Gumby. He immediately becomes the best linebacker the Lions have had in my lifetime, which again, isn’t saying much. James “Dirty as he wants to be” Davis and Alex Lewis give the Lions some insurance when the inevitable injuries/concussions to Sims, Bailey and Lehman take place. There is a lot of uncertainty with this group. They could finally come together as a unit or it could be business as usual. I’m guessing that this will be the best LB unit of the post-Barry Sanders era.

As most coaches/analysts will tell you, the defensive line sets the tone for the entire defense. If the d-line can stuff the run and pressure the QB, the LB’s and CB’s will have a tremendous amount of success regardless of talent. Considering the Lions will have a defensive line capable of both stopping the run and pressuring the QB, that is good news for the rest of the Lions defense. The secondary is average at best. Kennoy Kennedy brought a lot of hype with him from Denver as being a feared, hard hitting safety. However, it’s important to remember that Denver, the place that turns no-namers into stars didn’t want him. That doesn’t mean Kennedy is terrible but that at least tells me that his reputation as a hard hitter probably far outweighs his reputation as a good safety. Daniel Bullocks could be good. I wasn’t overjoyed when the Lions selected him in the second round but there is no doubt that the Lions could use help at that position. If he’s as good as advertised, then the secondary will be improved. The cornerbacks are not nearly as good as some would think. Dre Bly is nowhere near a shutdown corner despite his recent Pro-Bowl selections. He is closer to the average CB in the NFL than the best CB in the NFL. Considering Bly is noticeably better than Fernando Bryant, that is not good. The backups are extremely green in playing experience. The bad news is that this unit is the weak link of the defense. The good news is that the defensive line should help them out and injuries to a shady unit aren’t nearly as harmful as injuries to a great unit. I wouldn’t classify that good news as comforting.

The special teams have been the best unit in Detroit since 1998. Part of it is the presence of Mr. Lion (I think he has earned the title) Jason Hanson and the other part is the consistent presence of an above-average return man. Eddie Drummond is a poor man’s Mel Gray. He gives the Lions a chance to score every time he touches the ball. Since the Lions have been so abysmal over the last seven years (or 30 years if you are inclined), having an above-average special teams unit has been a waste. The importance of special teams increases exponentially when teams play close games. If the Lions are truly going to be better on defense this year, special teams may actually become a factor.

Last year, the Lions couldn’t have finished .500 even if they were good. Their schedule was brutal. Some teams ended up being worse than expected which made the Lions’ schedule a bit more manageable than at first glance. Still, they had an uphill battle before the season started. The 2006 schedule is a bit different. The Lions only play four really good teams (New England, Miami, Dallas, and Seattle). The rest of the schedule is made up of a bunch of question marks. Granted, seeing Arizona on the schedule is much less enticing than in years past. The entire NFC North is an unknown. Green Bay could be good or lousy. Chicago could be a defensive juggernaut like last year or a scattered mess like the year before. Minnesota doesn’t have any stars with the exception of Steve Hutchinson who plays guard. The Lions will have a chance in every NFC North contest. St. Louis, San Francisco, Buffalo, NY Jets, and Atlanta are all games that the Lions could win. Of course, having a chance and winning are two totally different concepts. My prediction for the Lions in 2006 is 7-9. I think 6-10 is more likely than 8-8 since it’s more than likely that I have underrated the NFC North as a whole.

When I was in middle school/high school, I couldn’t wait to watch the Lions play on Sundays. That is a feeling I haven’t felt since 1998. In fact, the only joy at watching the Lions over the past seven years has been laughing at them in an attempt to suppress my inner rage. For the first time in ages, I can’t wait to watch the Lions play football. I’m not hard to please. Like I said, I’m only looking at a 7-9 season here. The fact that I can’t wait to watch said 7-9 season should be an indication of how bad the Lions have been and how bad I’ve craved something to watch from my NFL team.

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