The halfway point in the season seems to be an apt starting point for this page, as this is the time of year when nerds like John Clayton start making their "Midseason Report Cards" and stuff like that. As I missed the boat at the start of the season, now is as good of a time as any to get started, so the pilot episode of this blog will be thoughts from the DTLs' first 8 games, my own Midseason Grade Report, as well as a quick glance at what's in store for the team in the near future.
FIRST HALF GRADE REPORT
QB9 Matthew Stafford: A
I give Staffy an A, partly out of spite toward a friend who will remain nameless and has been heaping undeserved criticism on him, and mostly because he is off the best start of a Lions quarterback not only in my lifetime, but since the time of legendary Lion Bobby Layne. It just so happens that Staff and Layne hail from the same hometown and even went to the same high school in Highland Park, Texas, a fun fact that I'm sure the television networks will eat up when he leads the team back to the NFL Championship Game sometime in the next four years. At the midway point, not only has Staff stayed healthy (a sight for sore eyes), but his QB Rating (99.1) ranks 4th in the NFL. He is also 4th in touchdown passes (19), has thrown only 4 picks, and led an impressive 20-point second half comeback against Minny in week 3. Speaking of the Vikings, I wish *Brent had done us a Favre and stuck around for one more go-round. That would have been fun for NDom and co.
Has Stafford played a perfect season? Of course not. He threw an early pick-6 in the opener, had poor first halves against both Minnesota and Dallas, and his uninspired attempts at the two-minute drill in both of our losses were disappointing, which prompted the hailstorm of criticism from my friend, who I must add is usually a very knowledgeable sports fan. After defending Stafford's youth, pointing out that Staffy is still only 23 years old, I was told that age isn't in excuse. I reminded him that when he was 23, his job was mixing large vats of macaroni and cheese in the Central Michigan cafeteria. And he fucked that up too from time to time. So give Stafford a break.
The schedule moving forward is very difficult; we still have to play an undefeated team TWICE, for God's sake. There may well be ample opportunities in the near-future for Stafford-bashing, but that time is not now. I urge anyone who hasn't already to please acknowledge the Pro Bowl-worthy job that QB9 has done up to this point.
WR81 Calvin Johnson: A++
I don't need to spend three paragraphs extolling the virtues of Calvy (I shouldn't have needed to with Stafford either, come to think of it). Unless you've spent the last two months living in a cave that isn't as well furnished as the one the Bin Laden sons inherited last May, you had to have heard by now about the monster season that Mr. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson is putting together.
Rather than list off his 47 catches, 804 receiving yards, 17.1 yards per catch, and 11 touchdowns, I'll merely quote an old Calvin and Hobbes comic:
"He's CALLLVVIINN, the amazing great!
CALLLVVVINN!! He's the one that can't be beat,
He's the one you want to meet!
(I ought to properly cite author Bill Watterson here so that he doesn't accuse me of commercializing art, diluting intellectual property, and whatever other reasons he gave for prematurely ending the strip in 1995 and flatly refusing to consider selling the rights for a C&H movie, which if done correctly would be my all-time favorite movie and a timeless classic)
K4 Jason Hanson: A-
Before giving my brief opinions on the kicking merits of Jason Hanson, I'll interlude with a brief anecdote that contributes to Jason being one of my favorite Lions:
In 1999, I was watching a late season Lions-Bucs game at the house of one of my old teachers, Mr. ______, also a die-hard and eternally optimistic Lions fan. Despite the fact that the Lions were outplayed all game by the Bucs, slowly watching their playoff hopes vanish, Mr. ______ still could find only good things to comment on from the boys in Honolulu Blue, no matter how hard they may be to spot. And so it was, as Jason Hanson kicked through a meaningless field goal from inside the 10 yard line as yet another promising drive stalled out, that Mr. ______ smiled wistfully and said, "Ahhh, that's the Best in the Business right there." From that point on, I have referred to Jason Hanson simply as "The Best in the Business", regardless of whether it is true or not (though it often is). After 20 remarkably consistent seasons with the DTLs, when Mr. Hanson retires, it just might say on his Hall of Fame placque: He was the best that the business has ever seen.
So with that in mind, "The Best in the Business" is once again having a very solid season. In my opinion, the new kickoff rule was added simply to level the playing field with the number of touchbacks that Jason can kick. As a side note, I strongly believe that 1 point should be awarded to teams when the kicker is able to put a kickoff through the uprights.
RB44 Jahvid Best: B-
Oh, the curious case of Jahvid. For the second straight year, he has shown flashes of his sprinter's speed and explosive big play capabilities, only to have them come in inconsistent intervals and then have them halted by injuries.
Jahvid turned a benign screen pass into a momentum-changing 60-yard play in the Minnesota comeback. He gave us our "Saints punt block" moment in the Monday Night game, with an 88-yard scamper to put away the Bears. But he can't seem to stay on the field long enough to be a consistent threat. After a second concussion, he's been sidelined lately and will likely miss the Bears game this weekend. On a positive note, the DTLs signed former RB Kevin Smith a few days ago. Though only a painfully average running back, Smith is a very likable player and it's great to have him back home.
DL90 "Dom" Suh: B (Probably should be a B-, but gets some extra credit at the end of the term.)
The idiots at ESPN give Dom about 98% of the credit for the turnaround of the Lions franchise. Since he is controversial, he gets all the media coverage. After all, in the world of news media "If it bleeds, it leads", and Suh has certainly made some opponents bleed in his short tenure in the NFL.
My feelings about Suh have been kind of similar to your friends recounting all of the hilarious things you don't remember doing when you were drunk the night before. As you sit there listening to the laughter of your friends as they tell you tales of how "awesome" you were on the previous night's misadventures, you simultaneously have feelings of both pride and embarrassment. That is Ndamukong Suh.
In 24 career games, Suh has been named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, collected double figures in sacks, and is the poster child for the resurgent Lions defense and blue-collar mentality of the city of Detroit.
In 24 career games, Suh has been named Dirtiest Player in the NFL in a poll of his peers, been fined three times for rough play, collected numerous personal foul penalties, and is the poster child for a Lions defense that is fast developing a reputation for being a dirty team.
Therein lies the rub; how does a Lions fan reconcile these contradictions? If we keep winning, does that make it okay? I may be in the minority here, but I certainly don't subscribe to that school of thought. And as evidenced by his recent meeting with Roger Goodell to discuss the rules and his style of play, neither does Ndamukong Suh. Yes, he's a bad-ass. Yes, the defense's beat-down and mocking of Tebow was great to watch. But I think if we're all entirely honest with ourselves, at the end of the day nobody wants to be known as a dirty player or a dirty team.
Production-wise, Suh has been somewhat average this year, likely due to an increased awareness of him on the part of other teams. From an objective viewpoint, he has been a solid player on an exceptional defensive line thus far (I've never seen a D-Line stop more 4th and inches plays than the 2011 Lions). This season, he hasn't played like the superstar that he's portrayed as, nor the villain that he's also portrayed as. Just Dom bein' Dom.
WR16 Titus Young: A-
I don't like Boise State. At all. But I openly cheered when the DTLs picked Titus in the second round of the draft last spring. Rooting against his team 4 or 5 times last season was enough for me to see that this guy can play the game. As soon as the pick was made, I marveled at what a good fit he is for this team. Good speed, great hands, and comes through in the clutch. His 55 yard catch in the closing seconds of regulation in the Nevada game last year should have saved Boise State's undefeated season ("but FINKLE missed the big KICK!!")
So far this year, Titus has had two key moments that cement him as a new favorite of mine. 1) That diving catch in traffic that he had against the Chieves on 3rd and 68 or whatever it was 2) At Denver when he not only caught a touchdown pass where he was as inexplicably wide open as I have ever seen a receiver, but then proceeded to jump into the home team’s stands to celebrate with the OPPOSING TEAM’s fans, who honestly didn’t seem too upset about his being there. Maybe they were just confused since he used to play for a Blue and Orange team called the Broncos in college.
Other than a few bad drops, Titus has had a very good rookie season and has proven himself to be a reliable third-option at receiver, which is exactly what he was drafted to do. I also like that he wears #16 instead of a boring number in the 80s like most receivers, continuing a longstanding Lions receiver tradition that includes Nate Burleson (#13), Roy Williams (#11), Eddie Drummond (#18) and Kez McCorvey (#10), whom I’d be shocked if more than 10 percent of my readers has ever heard of until now.
P5 Ryan Donahue: C
When the Lions special teams unit took the field for the first time this season, the mood in Ford Field was palpable, even 1,300 miles away through my television set. Hmm, they seemed to collectively notice. The punting unit doesn’t seem quite as annoying as in years past.
That’s right, ladies and gentleman. Nick Harris, once dubbed “the Most Annoying Punter in the NFL” by a resentful Bears fan who couldn’t think of anything better to say, is no longer with the team. Rookie Ryan Donahue has taken his place, and while not as annoying as his predecessor, he also doesn’t quite have the same power and touch to his kicks either. There have been times this season when Donahue will accidentally punt one in the Zone for a touchback, and I think to myself, “Man, ol’ Tricky Nick would’ve pinned that one down at about the 2”. Or if he weakly shoves a guy like Devin Hester out of bounds to thwart a potential return, I’ll think, “Yeah but, wouldn’t Nick the Slick have dove at his knees, or maybe caused him to step awkwardly on his ankle if given the same situation?”
He’s only a rookie, but it’s apparent that Ryan Donahue still has a long way to go towards being an annoying punter in the National Football League.
While we’re on the topic of Nick Harris, am I the only one who found it extremely bizarre that he had no placekicking skills whatsoever when Hanson went down in the Jets game last year? Yes, I know that he is a punter, not a kicker, but certainly there must be some type of carryover between the two skills. When Hanson was unable to do a kickoff, Nick was second in command, and in his time to shine he let loose what might have otherwise passed for a decent squib kick had he not been trying to kick it as hard as he could. Why was Dom Suh the second string field goal kicker? It’s not that Dom didn’t give a valiant effort in his only extra point attempt, but how was Nick not good enough at kicking to be the next in command, ahead of the 300 pound rookie D-lineman? When he and Hanson were off kicking by themselves at practice every single day in the 9 years that they were teammates, they didn’t once get bored and switch roles just to see how funny it would be? I know Nick’s excuse is probably, “Hey, but I was the holder! What, am I supposed to just hold it for myself and then kick it too?” That, however, is a piss-poor excuse. I’m sure Stafford, or Hill, or Stanton would have been perfectly capable of catching a snap and setting it ever so gently on the lush Ford Field turf as Nick barrels in and shanks it thirty feet left and into the 4th row.
That’s enough report cards for now. Time to look toward the future.
*Calm down, I know his name is Brett. In my mind, he's Brent though. Out of disrespect.
I can’t stress enough how important the game on Sunday against Chicago is, so I won’t. The Monday Night game against the Bears a month back was all about Detroit. It was a triumphant symbolism of post-recession rebirth in the city that took the economy’s free fall harder than any other in the country. It was a coronation of the reinvigorated Lions franchise, a welcome back moment for a long-struggling team, with its brightest glimpse of prosperity in more than half a century. I’ve only seen one regular season game in my life which was as emotional and electric for the home team: the New Orleans Saints’ Monday night return to the Superdome following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There are certain games, every once in a while, where even though the two teams are relatively evenly matched, you just absolutely KNOW who is going to win. That Saints game was like that, with the blocked punt early in the game that literally brought some fans to tears. The Lions on Monday night was one of those rare games, with Jahvid Best’s 88-yard run to seal the game, nearly blowing the roof off of Ford Field in the process.
This time, it’s different. There is no symbolism here. The Chicago Bears are now an obstacle. An obstacle that the DTLs MUST overcome, for reasons both symbolic and logistical moving forward as a franchise. In my opinion, the word ‘opportunity’ should be synonymous with the word ‘obstacle’, because they are one in the same.
Symbolically, this is a wonderful opportunity to exorcise the demons of the 2010 season, which seemed irrefutably cursed from the very beginning until about Week 13. Soldier Field is where Stafford went down with an injury, in the first half of the opening game. Soldier Field is the venue of the disallowed Calvin Johnson game-winning touchdown catch, a blatant miscarriage of justice that ranks right up with the Tom Brady “tuck rule” game. For a cursed franchise, a victory over the Bears in Soldier Field would serve as a perfect amulet to help reverse the curse and continue the healing process.
Logistically, the game on Sunday is a wonderful opportunity for the DTLs to put themselves firmly in the driver’s seat for their first playoff appearance in over a decade. Beating the Bears would help them out in three major ways in the standings: 1) a win would put them 2 full games ahead of the Bears in the playoff race, while a loss would give both teams identical records. 2) a win would give them a season sweep over the Bears, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker edge if they end the year with identical records 3) a win would give the DTLs their third divisional win, and hand the Bears their third divisional loss. As divisional records are also used in the tiebreaker process, this would mean that the Bears cannot possibly finish with a better divisional record than the Lions (each would be 3-3 in Chicago’s best case scenario), and since the Lions would have swept the season series, the Bears could not possibly overtake them in tiebreakers if they finish the season with the same record (Unless I’m overlooking some loophole in the league rulebook, which I might be, seeing as I have never sat down and read it).
A victory on Sunday would give Detroit their 7th win. They still have home games against the 2-6 Panthers and 2-6 Vikings. They have two remaining games against AFC West teams, a very even division which they’ve already outscored 93-13 in two meetings this year.
It really hasn’t been that long since the DTLs started off 6-2. They did it in 2007, with the 6th win coming in a categorical beatdown of a shell-shocked Broncos team, eerily similar to what they did two weeks ago. In 2007, it took them seven more tries to pick up a 7th win. It took three years to get seven more wins after that. We’ve seen 6-2 before; it didn’t end up going very well. We haven’t seen 7-2. I still can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. Beating Chicago on Sunday would sure help.
The Thanksgiving game against the Patriots last year was the first time I’ve ever been to a Lions game in person. Being immediately engulfed by a dense wave of excitement as soon as I entered the building, I nearly gasped in amazement. I turned to Pops and said, as we prepared for the 2-9 Lions to take the field, “Oh man, imagine what this place would be like if they were GOOD.”
As evidenced by the nine false starts the ravenous crowd caused for Chicago in the Monday Night game, the Lions being good translates to the absolute loudest stadium in pro football. This is not by any means to say that the DTL fan base is composed of only fair-weather fans. This a testament to a dormant fan base being reawakened from hibernation after a long, long, long winter.
I’m not in the business of making predictions, and so I won’t try to do anything like that as far as the rest of the season goes. I’ll just say that I’m very excited about the position this team has put itself in and the opportunity of something very special in Detroit sometime in the next few years. I’ll end this opening post as a call to action for readers, whether it be 1 or 100 people who decide to take the time to read this. Whether you like the column or hate it, please feel free to comment and interact with myself and fellow readers (unless you hate it, of course. I don’t respond to criticism all that well). I suppose my true purpose for this blog is to use it as a means to stay connected to my friends and create a small little community of DTLs fans so I don’t become too homesick out in Colorado. The only football player anyone wants to talk about out here is some guy named Timmy.
DE-TROIT LIONS! DE-TROIT LIONS! DE-TROIT LIONS! DE-TROIT LIONS!!!