32 teams in 30-something days: Detroit

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 07, 2008



 
We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ... 
 
DETROIT LIONS
It pretty much says it all when you can't even find success with perhaps the most explosive runner ever as your marquee player.
 
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2007 record: 7-9 (346-444)
 
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 1-6
 
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 5.7-10.3
 
All-time franchise record: 488-553-32 (.470)  
 
Playoff record: 7-10 (.412)
 
Last five seasons: 26-54 (.325)
 
Best Quality Stat in 2007: Scoreability Index (16th)
 
Worst Quality Stat in 2007: Defensive Passer Rating (31st)
 
Best game of 2007: 44-7 home win over Denver (Week 9). It looked like the organization had turned a corner under second-year coach Rod Marinelli as Jon Kitna's Lions did their best impression of Bobby Layne's Lions with this thorough demolition of a traditional AFC power. It was Detroit's most lopsided victory in 12 years, and Denver's biggest loss in 19 years.
 
Kitna completed 16 of 31 (51.6%) for 252 yards, 8.13 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT and 100.5 rating to pace the offense, and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers had a career performance with 2½ sacks while returning an INT 66 yards for his first career touchdown.
 
All seemed right in the Lions cage: "This is real," bubbled DT Cory Redding after the game. "This is a different team. It's not the same-old Lions anymore."
 
Ahh, but it was the same old Lions: Detroit bumbled through a 1-7 record after its triumphant mid-season destruction of Denver, snatching another losing record – the organization's seventh in a row – from the jaws of respectability.
 
Silly-season activity: The Lions have been one of the more active teams during the free-agency period and the 2008 team will look a lot different than the 2007 team.
 
With Rogers fresh off the best season of his career, the Lions naturally got rid of him, trading him to Cleveland as part of a deal for CB Leigh Bodden. With six picks last year, Bodden should certainly provide some much-needed help to one of the worst secondaries in football (31st in Defensive Passer Rating).
 
The Lions axed Kevin Jones, who led the team in rushing each of the past four years but with consistently declining production after a promising rookie year, and let Damian Woody, their most high-profile offensive lineman, go to the Jets in free agency. They also lost LB Boss Bailey to Denver and RB T.J. Duckett to Seattle. Duckett, with Jones, accounted for almost the entirety of Detroit's ground game last year. They also cut Kenoy Kennedy, a three-year starter at safety, as part of a purge of its pathetic defensive backfield.
 
Detroit has re-signed many of its own free agents, including RB Tatum Bell, who looks like he'll be expected to pick up a great deal of the load out of the backfield. But they've yet to make any kind of big-name splash in the free-agent market.
 
Strength: Acknowledgement that radical changes are needed. Let's not pretend the Lions actually have any on-the-field strengths, or any off-the-field strengths. They don't. They're in the bottom half of the league in virtually every regular stat and Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stat. Hell, the big story of the year in Detroit was Jon Kitna and the seemingly explosive passing game. But at the end of the year, they weren't even in the top half of the league in this stat, placing 17th in Passing Yards Per Attempt (6.05). But with so many changes, it seems that the organization realizes it must do something radical to shake off the lethargy and ineptitude that have been hallmarks of the organization for the past 40 years.
 
Weakness: Ownership. Management. Lack of talent. Institutional apathy. Poor attitude. Playing in a dome. Coaching. Quarterbacking. Poor draft choices. There are probably a few others. But those seem like the major weaknesses. Oh yeah, and a pass defense that was so frail and weak last year it needed help getting out of bed in the morning. The Lions set an ignominious record in 2007, as the first team in history to allow opposing passers to complete more than 70 percent of their throws.
 
Most underrated player: MLB Paris Lenon. Weakside linebacker Ernie Sims is probably the best-known name on the Detroit defense. After all, he was a high draft pick (No. 9 overall) out of a big-time program (Florida State). He's also been one of the few high picks that have actually panned out for Matt Millen's Lions. Sims has led the team in tackles in each of his first two years in the league.
 
But Lenon, his partner in the middle, has been fairly productive during his two years with the Lions, too. He joined Detroit in 2006 after four fairly non-descript years with Green Bay, and, by almost any measure, had the greatest season of his career in 2007. He was second to Sims with 118 tackles, while notching two sacks and a pick that he returned 61 yards for the first and only TD of his career. The score proved critical in a 25-20 win over Kansas City – Detroit's lone win in the second half of the year.
 
It was a career highlight for a guy who's certainly chosen an unheralded path to NFL starter. He was undrafted out of a small program (Richmond) and even spent time with Amsterdam in NFL Europe before landing a reserve roll with the Packers in 2002.
 
Unit on the rise: Secondary. Well, it can't get worse, can it?
 
2007 Draft grade: F. This is the de facto grade of every Matt Millen draft until he quits (and that's unlikely, seeing he sports the grand titles of president and CEO ... we can't figure it out, either). Last year, he boasted four picks in the first two rounds and all he really got out of it that he needed was a warm body (safety Gerald Alexander) to throw into one of the worst pass defenses ever. Alexander started all 16 games and grabbed two INTs with 81 tackles.
 
No. 1 pick Calvin Johnson was fairly effective by the standards of a rookie wide receiver, hauling in 48 passes for 756 yards and 4 TD. But it was essentially a wasted pick on a team that has now devoted four No. 1 picks to the WR position over the last five drafts, mostly without success, and that has needs in virtually every other area on the team. As the Cold, Hard Football Facts have proven, the wide receiver position is one you attack aggressively only when you have confidence that your building blocks are in place at offensive line, quarterback and on defense. Detroit does not have those building blocks in place.
 
Meanwhile, last year's No. 2 pick, quarterback Drew Stanton, was placed on IR during training camp, so at least Millen can blame that likely missed pick on misfortune.
 
2008 Draft power: 1st (15), 2nd (45), 3rd (76), 3rd (87), 4th (111), 5th (144), 6th (176), 7th (216)
 
General Draft strategy: Well, you know the story. It's been an utterly failed strategy under Millen. His fixation on wide receivers – four No. 1 picks in the last five drafts – is the sign of a deranged mind that understands little about how to build a football team. How this man landed a job as general manager of anything other than a White Castle is beyond the scope of reason.
 
The true irony is that Millen has hit on only one No. 1 draft pick since he became GM in 2001 – and it was the only draft pick he didn't devote to offense: LB Ernie Sims, the closest thing to an impact player Detroit has on either side of the ball.
 
The constant failures of Detroit are deeply rooted in the draft, as failures (and successes) usually are for any NFL team. The fact that Millen went back to the wide receiver well with his No. 1 pick in 2007 is unfathomable on a team with so many other needs and shows a leader with no shame ... or pride.
 
The Lions must invest heavily in building block positions such as OL and defensive playmakers, especially in the secondary, if they have any hope of actually becoming a legitimate NFL franchise.
 
Youth/experience: By most measures the Lions are a fairly young team, which is usually good news. The problem, however, is a glaring lack of leadership from marquee players, especially the lack of leadership from marquee players who have had success in a Lions uniform, let alone success anywhere.
 
Let's put it this way, the key veteran leaders seem to be players like Jon Kitna, a journeyman QB whose been with Detroit just two years; Jared DeVries, a career back-up defensive end entering his 10th year with the Lions; and guard Edwin Mulitalo, a journeyman offensive lineman who's played just one year in Detroit. Oh, and there's always kicker Jason Hanson, who's about to don Detroit blue for the 17th consecutive season.
 
There's really not a lot of leadership there for younger players to hang their hats on as they attempt to learn about success in the NFL.
 
Coaching: Remember when coach Bobby Ross quit in the middle of the 2000 season, and Gary Moeller took over and somehow salvaged a 4-3 record to become the only coach since no less a legend than Joe Schmidt to post a winning record with the Lions? Do you remember that? And then Matt Millen fired Moeller so he could hire Marty Mornhinweg?
 
That was funny.
 
The other funny part is that Detroit's most well known coach, defensive line assistant Joe Cullen, is famous for a series of arrests in 2006, including one in which he showed up naked at a fast-food drive-thru the night before a pre-season game at Oakland. (Our own Chief Troll, by the way, played football with Cullen in high school ... that must have been one weird town.) 
 
Head coach Rod Marinelli has all the earmarks right now of J-A-G (just another guy) on the sidelines, with a 10-22 mark after two years.

It's better than the records Marty Mornhinweg and Monte Clark boasted after two seasons. But it's not as good as the early records of Steve Mariucci, Gary Moeller, Bobby Ross, Wayne Fontes, Darryl Rogers, Rick Forzano, Tommy Hudspeth, Don McCafferty, Joe Schmidt or Harry Gilmer – all of whom combined to lead the Lions to a one (count 'em, 1) post-season victory since Detroit's last championship in 1957.
 
There's also little in the way of proven coaching success working with Marinelli as assistants. He hired his own son in law last year, former Tampa Bay linebackers coach Joe Barry, to become his defensive coordinator. Jim Colletto was also hired last year to serve as his Detroit's offensive coordinator. Like Barry, Colletto had no experience as an NFL coordinator before joining the Lions. His most recent job had been as offensive line coach with UCLA, a position he also held with the Ravens for several years.
 
Overview: There really are not many encouraging signs around Casa de Ford. Building a sound NFL franchise begins with strong leadership, and the Lions seem to have none of it in any of the key areas. Barring the unexpected sale of the team by the Ford family, or the sudden decision to sack CEO Matt Millen, or a sudden influx of talent on both the field and on the sidelines, it appears the five decades of futility for Lions fans is about to embark on an equally inglorious sixth decade.

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