Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Lions Season Review, Part 4: Yes, the line was Offensive
The offensive line has long been an Achilles Heel for the Lions. I won't say the Achilles Heel, because unlike poor Achilles, the Lions can be, and have been, killed in many different ways by many different teams exploiting many, many different weaknesses. But, it says a lot about the offensive line that every single season begins and ends with Lions fans bemoaning the team's lack of protection up front. With as many problems as this team has it is amazing that one unit can be consistently singled out for being the vanguard of the shit parade that is the Detroit Lions.
It is often tough to quantify the success or lack thereof of offensive linemen. Unlike virtually every other position on the field, there aren't a whole lot of stats that you can just look at and get a quick picture of how a dude might have done. There are a couple though which can be useful in determining whether or not a team's offensive line was able to function well as a whole, or whether they spent the season floundering in the pits of deepest darkest hell.
First off, you can look at the number of sacks given up over the course of a season in order to get a general sense of how well the line protected the quarterback. In the wretched 2008 season, also known as The Year of Unnumbered Tears or The Year that God Forgot, the Lions offensive line gave up 52 sacks, an average of 3.25 a game. In 2007, they gave up 54, or an average of 3.375 a game. Not much difference, really. Both bad - really bad actually, but what they don't tell you is that the Lions at least made an attempt to run the ball more this season in order to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Clearly, this strategy failed and failed rather spectacularly. In addition, noted sack addict John Kitna was MIA for most of the season. Had he remained in the lineup throughout the year, chances are very good that his propensity for hanging onto the ball for too long would have caused that number to climb even further.
In 2005, the last year of the Joey Harrington era, and the last season before Mike Martz took over as offensive coordinator, the Lions gave up 31 sacks, or slightly less than 2 a game. The next year, the team gave up 63. So, clearly, some combination of Martz's system and Kitna's sadomasochism played a large part in the line's inability to protect the quarterback. This past season's horror show, when Kitna was out for most of the season and when the team made a concerted effort to run a more conventional sort of offense that allowed for more max protect sets, the line still gave up almost the same amount of sacks as the year before. The upshot? That the line was fucking terrible this year, just awful, and if there was any justice in these strange and terrible times, they would all be shot into space . Okay, that's not fair. They could just be shot here on Earth instead. I am a fair and practical man after all.
The other side of the protection coin is run blocking. And the one measurement of a line's success in the running game can be found in the yards per carry average of the team's backs. In the Year of Unnumbered Tears that just occurred the line paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged a pedestrian 3.78 yards per carry. Ideally, you want a line that can get you 4 yards or more a carry. That's kind of the magic number and it shouldn't be all the surprising that the Lions fell short of this line. Add into this the fact that the Lions wanted to instill a power, ball control, running game, and the number looks that much worse. The Lions also had the best running back they have had since St. Barry split town on a river of tears, Kevin Smith, and so any boost in that number can be put less on the offensive line and more on Smith.
But was there even a boost over the year before? Let's take a look. In 2007, the Lions averaged 3.975 yards per carry. Wait, so you mean that in 2007, when the Lions running game was basically shit, that it was actually better on a per carry basis than this past season? Startlingly, yes, and excuse me a moment while I reach for this bottle of drain cleaner . . .
All thoughts of suicide aside, it is stunning that a team that openly expressed a desire to run the ball more and with greater success ended up being slightly worse. And, here's another stat that just condemns that whole shit heap we call a line. The Lions only ran the ball 28 more times in 2008 than in 2007, less than two more times per game. If the Lions had any confidence in their line, given their stated desire to run, then run, then run some more, that number would be waaaaaaay up over the year before. So, the Lions pass protection was likely even worse than the debacles of the previous two seasons and the newly reborn running game was markedly worse. JESUS CHRIST. Dudes and lady dudes, I give you the offensive line for the 2008 Detroit Lions.
And with that horror show of stats and woefully unmet expectations out of the way, let's go over the bandits responsible for this gross theft of our collective souls. We'll start on the outside and work our way in, because, well, who cares? Any way we do this it's going to both start and end in utter misery.
At left tackle, also known as the position most responsible for protecting the quarterback's blind side, was franchise mainstay Jeff Backus. Backus has long been a fairly solid player, a little undersized, but solid enough - at least for a Lion. But every year it seems like he gets a little bit worse than the year before, and after the past couple of seasons it feels like he is on the verge of teetering from marginally decent player to outright sieve. There seems to be some chatter that the Lions are still okay with Backus being the left tackle, others say the team might want to take someone like Andre Smith out of Alabama with the first pick. This might be one of those unfortunate positions that the Lions just have to hold on and hope that the incumbent, in this case Backus, doesn't fall completely apart, and in the process unleash all the forces of hell just waiting to drag this team down with them again. I like Backus, I do, but he's not getting any younger, and if his play slips any more, well, behold the pale rider, you know?
On the right side of the line, the Lions started the year with George Foster, who I quickly dubbed Lennie Small, due to the fact that he is a large, large man who I also believe to possibly be retarded. Now my man Lennie is well known for the number of mistakes he makes, and in his first year with the Lions, in 2007, he was responsible for maybe the most false start penalties that I have seen from one player. The future didn't look bright for poor Lennie, and as soon as the Lions first round pick, Gosder Cherilus was ready - or was at least deemed ready by the retarded howler monkeys coaching this team - it was to the bench for Lennie, where he could spend his time dreaming of bunnies instead of having to worry about pesky snap counts and large men trying to kick his sizeable ass on every play. The only problem was it was obvious that Cherilus was a rookie. In a mostly forgettable season, the one thing that he did that stands out over anything else was his cheap shot of Jared Allen against the Vikings, a shot to the knee which caused temporary injury for Allen, and which then caused Jared to charge Cherilus like an escaped vampire ape while Gosder backpedaled his way to safety. Needless to say, it wasn't the best start for young Cherilus, and yet, poor Lennie languished on the bench, and you know what? It was the right thing to do. We know what we're getting with Lennie, a bunch of dumb mistakes and critical fuckups sandwiched around a player who's somewhat talented. It's not like the Lions were going to do better with him in there, so might as well get the young dude some experience, even if that experience threatens to taint him and send him spiraling downward in some sort of post traumatic stress disorder deal. But this is the NFL, and the young dude took the monumental ass whipping that came with being a Detroit Lion in 2008, and now it is time for him to leave that behind and play like the first rounder the team desperately needs him to be.
At guard, the Lions were beset by two problems: first of all, the guards couldn't stay healthy, and second of all, well, it didn't really matter if they did because they are either old or not any good.
Edwin Mulitalo, the team's left guard, has been a very good player in the NFL, a big tough road grader type who excelled at pushing the pile, which is something that is perfect in a division where you are playing against the Williams Boys twice a season. Unfortunately, when the Lions signed Big Ed, they signed a guy who was already on the decline. Past his prime, he couldn't provide the consistent run blocking that they thought he could. A big part of this is because the big guy can't stay healthy and it looks like he'll be trying to stay healthy with another team next season because he won't be with Detroit. And while that may work out if the Lions have someone who can step in for Big Ed, the problem is that, well, they don't. When he was injured the Lions turned to Manny Ramirez, who is little more than a fringe player, plucked off the scrap heap, and while I suppose the dude didn't completely embarrass himself, the thought of him starting a whole season is kind of frightening, like where the hell is that drain cleaner again kind of frightening.
On the right side, the Lions went with Stephen Peterman, a limited player who is essentially just another dude. But he's tough and he's coachable, and Rod Marinelli has wet dreams about those two attributes put together. I don't know how many nights old Rod probably woke up in a sweat, panting and moaning the name of Stephen over and over again while his wife huddled, frightened in the corner. You might laugh, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened at least once. Look, Peterman is probably not a bad backup, but as a starter? No thanks dude. He's a free agent, so he might not be back, but it's not like the Lions have anyone else. And the thought of the Lions going into 2009 with Peterman/random scrub and Ramirez as their starting guards? Here comes that screaming sound again, eh Mr. Zappa?
Anchoring all this mess is the dude who's been here since Matt Millen was installed by the devil as his ambassador in Detroit. Dominic Raiola is an athletic, good player who on the right team would probably get more positive attention. But with that athleticism comes the drawback that he's a little too small to be a real grinder in the run game. Still, he's decent enough, and given what little else the Lions have to work with, Raiola is probably the one guy on the line who year in and year out Lions fans worry the least about. Of course, this past season, what he was best known for was finally losing his shit like Private Pyle and flipping off the fans when their taunting became too much to take. After the incident, Raiola said he didn't regret it and that if he wasn't so scared that the fans would "bring metal" he would have given them his address so they could all settle it like men. And so that's what the season came down to for the Lions veteran center. He was so pissed off that he wanted to fight his own fans, but he was scared that they would show up and shoot him. Dudes and lady dudes, the 2008 Detroit Lions.
Andy McCollum is a tough guy and a veteran who stepped in when Raiola was injured during the season. He played surprisingly well, opening up holes in the run game that Raiola couldn't, and coupled with the addition of Moran Norris at fullback, Kevin Smith utilized these holes during his doomed push towards 1,000 yards. I like McCollum, but he'll be 39 next season, and, well, that pretty much says it all.
What We Learned: That the line SUUUUUUUCCCCKKKKKKKS. Even for a Lions offensive line, this year's edition was horrible, which is appropriate given the overall tone of the season. But it's surprising when you really step back and see how bad these dudes were. We learned that Jeff Backus is hanging on for dear life to his spot as a decent player. We learned that on a good team Gosder Cherilus probably would have been learning in practice instead of during games. Unfortunately, the Lions weren't a good team(he says in a profound understatement), and since my man, poor Lennie Small, has a bit of a problem with the old understanding and thinking, Cherilus was forced to play - let's hope not to his detriment. We learned that the guards are basically scrubs, a problem when your stated goal is to run the ball and then run the ball some more. We learned that Dominic Raiola has fucking had it with all this bullshit and is afraid of being murdered by the fans. It was a long season.
What We Can Expect: To be honest, probably more of the same. The best case scenario is that the Lions draft a decent left tackle and that Cherilus improves enough to give the Lions a solid bookend for years to come. The reality is that they will probably stick with Backus, who will continue to decline bit by bit and that Cherilus will improve but still be beset by mistakes and inconsistency. The interior is pretty much a disaster zone, and with so many other holes to fill it would not surprise me if the Lions plugged in a rotating group of scrubs and has-beens to man the guard positions. Raiola will be the man at center again, and hopefully he doesn't break down weeping on the field. He is in the final year of his contract and maybe that will inspire him to push through the insanity one last time. The line will probably be a little better next year, depending on who the can bring in, but not much, and that's a problem - a big problem, and until the Lions finally figure out how to fix the offensive line, all they'll have are the ghosts of Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover, Mike Utley, and well, Erik Andolsek's actual ghost, to remind them of a time when the line wasn't an utter embarrassment.
What I Said Before the Season: Grade: D if everything works out the way I expect, D+ if Cherilus is somehow not a total spaz, and F if someone gets hurt and we have an Apocalypse Now on our hands.
Final Grade: APOCALYPSE NOW! F.