Friday, September 4, 2009

Lions Season Preview 2009, Part 2: The Running Backs

A quick note before we get on with this: I plan on posting stuff this weekend because it's the only way I can get this epic beast done in time before the season starts. So for those of you who don't check the site on the weekends, well, there will be stuff here, and if you don't want to look at it then, fine, it will still be here when you come wandering back to your computers, no doubt hung over and wreaking of sex and ill memories you fucking degenerates. Okay, I'm sorry about that last part. I'm certainly not one to judge when it comes to, uh, shenanigans. Anyway, I will be writing and posting a lot, this weekend included, so stop by regularly. And with all that said, we can get on to the running backs.


Barry Sanders. Barry Sanders. Barry Sanders.

Okay, that might be a little extreme, but when you say running back and Detroit Lions that is the first, and in most cases the only thing that runs through everyone's mind. Sure, sure, before St. Barry there was Billy Sims, but Sims was devoured by the beast under the stairs or fed to the Ford's rancor pit or came down with AIDS of the feet, knees and ankles or whatever you want to allow your warped little minds to believe, but regardless of the reason, Sims' career never took off like it should and so, sadly, he is most thought of by Lions fans as a sort of prologue for what was to come when that 5'9" magician juked and spun his way into town.

And, oh Lord, what a fantastic decade St. Barry gave us. In the last half century of unyielding pain, excruciating torment and unnumbered tears, the decade which saw Barry Sanders run into our lives stands as the highpoint, the brief moment when we were finally able to get our heads out of the shit and above the clouds, breathe the fresh air, bask in the sun and know what it was like to cheer for something worth our adoration. That little dude was magic and we all took immense pride in the knowledge that there was nobody quite like him, that there probably never would be, and that he was ours.

But, seeing as how we are talking about the Detroit Lions, we couldn't bask in the glow of the joy he brought us for very long. No, like all stories connected with the Lions, this one also came with a fiendish failure demon lurking behind the scenes, greedily rubbing his hands together, licking his lips, waiting for the opportunity to jump out of the shadows and club us over the heads and spit bile in our faces. Yes, we all remember the day that horrible demon whispered in St. Barry's ear, infected him with Lions Disease, and then forced us all to watch as St. Barry wept and juked and spun his way out of town in a whirlwind of sorrow and broken dreams. And in the wake of the cyclone of Barry's departure, we were left a shattered fanbase, our rock broken, the only thing we held valuable whisked away in the dead of the night, leaving us shorn of pride and bereft of hope. It was an awful thing.

Somehow, our team managed to pull it together and drag itself towards mediocrity without St. Barry there to drive them, but whether it was Greg Hill replacing him in that first shell shocked year or James Stewart after that, it wasn't the same, and it felt like we were cheering on a franchise on the verge of collapse, a franchise whose core had so thoroughly rotted that it's face, the heart and soul of the team, had fled in a flood of bitter tears. They held on for a couple of seasons, but then Matt Millen rode into town on a river of blood and failure, the bottom dropped out and the last decade of stark terror and bleached skulls and horrible wailing happened.

And in that decade, the position of running back remained problematic. There were always more pressing issues to work through when it came to the Lions(oh Lord were there ever), but the running back position was never at a level we were comfortable with. Of course, we had been ridiculously spoiled by St. Barry but it still always seemed as though we could do better, even if we weren't holding the new backs up to his impossible standard. There was Stewart, whose blue collar approach was a stark contrast to Barry's legendary artistry. And then there was Kevin Jones, who burst onto the scene and gave us hope that the Lions had finally found the man to take at least a flicker of the torch from Barry. Of course, a few years later, the running game had eroded to the point where Mike Martz was run out of town despite the offense being generally capable, and Jones found himself cast aside after a series of knee injuries had cast a pall on his once bright future. Oh well.

Last season, the bumbling fools running the team decided to do away with Martz's pass happy style in favor of a power running, ball control offense, despite the fact that the Lions found themselves heading into the draft with a terrible offensive line and no running backs. And that all worked itself out about how you would expect, with everyone's face melting like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark while Jesus wept and that evil failure demon cackled and shrieked like some terrible banshee dealing it's final awful death blow.

But, in the midst of all the terrible chaos, Kevin Smith, a rookie out of Central Florida whose rushing yardage his final season in college was second all time only to a certain sainted former Lions running back, emerged. As the season went on, Smith began to assert himself more and more at the position until, finally, in the last game of the year, he made a valiant run at the 1,000 yard mark, finishing just shy with 976, and his 4.1 yards per carry was head and shoulders above anything else the rest of the shit merchants in the Lions backfield were able to cobble together behind an apocalyptic offensive line. And finally, after all the chaos and all the tears and all the horrible taunting by the failure demon, and after 0-16, we can look at the man carrying the ball 20 times or more a game, and say finally. Finally, we have some hope.


Kevin Smith is the unquestioned starter. He's a powerful runner with enough shiftiness to make the guys he doesn't run over miss. He'll get five yards instead of three, seven instead of five, and those are the kinds of guys you want running the ball 20-25 times a game. And Smith has no problem with that kind of workload. He was a horse at Central Florida, and he has shown the ability to handle a heavy workload in the pros. I love this guy and I think he is primed for a big season. To say I'm on the Kevin Smith bandwagon isn't exactly accurate. I'm driving the motherfucker. Smith is confident, tough, and most importantly, good. He can catch the ball out the backfield too, especially important with the Lions offense seemingly set to throw a lot of screens every week. I may be completely irrational about this, but I think Smith can get 1200 yards on the ground, another 500 or 600 through the air and finish with double digit touchdowns. I don't think any of that is impossible. Look, I am in a couple of fantasy football league and in both of them I drafted Smith, and I drafted him a couple of rounds too high. That's how much I think he'll improve this season, and I don't care if you are all laughing and shaking your head at me.

The Lions brought in Maurice Morris from Seattle to back up Smith. Morris gradually took carries away from Shaun Alexander during his time in Seattle, and while a big reason for that was Alexander's decline, another reason was because Morris was productive when given the chance. In his seven seasons with the Seahawks, Morris averaged 4.3 yards per carry and each of the last three seasons has managed over 500 yards despite only playing part time. He's never going to be the man, but Morris can be a man back there for you. He'll run through tackles, and he'll give the Lions an alternative for when Kevin Smith needs a rest without too much of a drop off. And that's about all you can ask out of your backup running back.

Aside from Smith and Morris, the Lions will probably go into the season with Aaron Brown at running back. When he was drafted out of TCU this past April, I figured that Brown was a long shot to make the team. He was fast, but he didn't seem to have the toughness or the vision necessary to be a running back in the NFL. Of course, that was before I saw him run. It turns out that Brown is insanely fast, and he seems to have excellent vision and moves in the open field to go along with it. He's not a complete back, and he'll get beat up if you make him run in between the tackles, but get him in space and he's a big play waiting to happen. The Lions pretty much have to keep Brown because he's got a rare talent, and if they harness it, he can be a weapon for years to come.

I suppose Aveion Cason is still floating around back there, but whether he is on the team or not, he always seems to be in the discussion. It seems like he gets cut and brought back every other week, and that speaks to how shitty the running back situation has been in Detroit. Cason is a versatile back, but he doesn't really do any one thing all that well, and if there is one player who personifies the term fringe player, it's Cason. With Brown's emergence, hopefully the Aveion Cason story in Detroit will draw to a merciful close and we can all finally move on with our lives.



For a long time, Corey Schlesinger was the Lions fullback, a fan favorite who played like a throwback, a lead blocker who loved to hit and who could catch the ball occasionally out of the backfield. For a decade he was the backbone of the Lions backfield, the constant presence amidst all the turmoil and broken bodies that fell by the wayside during the Lions steep descent into the bowels of football hell. No matter how bad it got, fans could look in the backfield, see Schlesinger and sigh, relieved that at least there was someone back there they could rely upon. But then Mike Martz showed up, said what the fuck is a fullback, and Schlesinger was given a pat on the back, maybe a gold watch and then shown the door.

Of course, only a couple of years went by before Martz found himself on the same highway to oblivion, and the Lions switched gears once again, and realized that along with everything else they were missing, they needed a fullback. They drafted Jerome Felton, and while he was generally adequate, they decided midway through that disaster of a season to bring in Moran Norris, who pleasantly surprised, providing the lead blocking that the team sorely needed as the running game took on an air of competence while the rest of the team was machine gunned to death. Norris, once the season was ended, took that shred of credibility and traded it in for a job with someone else other than the Lions, and really, can you blame him? That left Felton alone and the Lions searching for another warm body to hopefully duplicate what Norris brought to the table last year.


Felton is an intriguing player, a big body who can be a capable lead blocker, but also a tough and surprisingly nimble runner who can be used well in goal line packages(insert requisite grumbling here as I realize he is going to steal touchdowns away from my fantasy hero Kevin Smith. Good Lord, fantasy hero, that sounds terrible.)

The Lions brought in Terrelle Smith, another veteran, to replace Norris. He's a solid blocker who can also catch the ball, and will probably be used to (hopefully) devastating effect as the lead blocker for Felton when Felton is allowed to run with the ball.


The Lions have a good collection of talent here for the first time since St. Barry's spirit was broken by Lions Disease. I believe that Smith will make a leap this season, and hopefully he can outrun that terrible failure demon before it drags him down and makes him weep bitter tears. Morris is a proven and capable backup and Aaron Brown is the young cheetah that every team loves to have waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, Felton and Smith form a capable and versatile pair of fullbacks. It's a nice cocktail of talent, and, gulp, these dudes might actually be . . . actively . . . good?

GRADE: B+. This could be higher if Smith does indeed take the leap I expect him to. It could also sink drastically lower if Smith doesn't build on the end of his rookie season and if Brown flames out completely. But we are optimists and champions in our hearts and so we won't think that way.

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