Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lions Season Preview 2009, Part 4: The Offensive Line


If you want to acquaint yourself with the history of the Lions offensive line, get a history book, open it up to the section on World War II and then flip to the pictures of concentration camps.

Okay, that was wildly offensive, but to simply say that the Lions offensive line has been a disaster would not even begin to tell the true story. Well, we're off to a good start, opening with a Holocaust reference, and I'm sure it will only get more ridiculous from here.

Anyway, once upon a time the Detroit Lions actually had what appeared to be a promising offensive line, set to spring Barry Sanders on million yard runs for years to come. But then Erik Andolsek made the mistake of not watching for incoming traffic while chilling in his yard, and Mike Utley decided to take it easy for a while and that legs were for suckers. It was a terrible one two punch that the Lions offensive line has never recovered from, twin tragedies that left us all shaking our heads and wondering what could possibly happen next. Would Lomas Brown be found folded in half, partially stuffed in someone's glove box? Would they find Kevin Glover's leg while a crocodile basked in the sun next to it with a belly full of Braised Glover?

Thankfully, both Brown and Glover were never picked off in a scene straight out of one of the Final Destination movies, and so the Lions offense managed to get by for several years with them as its anchors. Sadly though, the line never seemed like it could be all that it should have been and it was made all the worse in our hearts by the incessant comparisons between St. Barry and Emmitt Smith, which naturally led to constant comparisons between the line St. Barry ran behind and the one that Emmitt the Terrible had in front of him. Of course, these comparisons always made the Lions line look worse than it was, and so even when it was fairly decent, we always felt like we were somehow getting shit upon by the football gods. That last part should just be the little subtitle if anyone ever writes a book about being a Lions fan : shit upon by the football gods.

But we wouldn't understand how good we really had it until those dudes got old and split town. With them gone there was nothing standing between us and the fiery pits of hell other than a collection of giant talent deficient bodies and a failure demon dragging us to his lair.

This savage and terrible breakdown along the line surely played a part in St. Barry weeping bitter tears and running as fast as he could away from both Lions Disease and the failure demon, and when he was gone, all we were left with was the realization that our woeful inability to surround him with any help had driven away the only good thing that we had known in fifty years of Lions fandom. And then the failure demon cackled, the earth opened up and our dreams were swallowed whole by some terrible abomination who shit them out the other end as terrible twisted nightmares. 0-16 was on the horizon, and our inability to field a competent offensive line was the backbone of that terrible creature. Had we stabilized it at some point over the past decade or so, then we could have started to move forward with it protecting our young, fragile alleged stars. But since our boys in the trenches spent most of the time sobbing and shitting their pants, begging for mercy from defenses who just laughed with sinister glee and then mauled them into submission, we were left instead with a collection of young talent that wilted under the both literal and metaphorical pressure. When the dust had cleared, and our players were left standing there under the bright lights, a dazed and vacant look in their eyes, we got, well, 0-16.


The two tackle positions are probably the most set spots on the line - for better or worse. Jeff Backus is an undersized, undertalented long time starter who has somehow held a death grip on the job despite not being very good and despite constant calls for his replacement by disgruntled fans who have to watch as he gets a little bit worse every season. He has been a constant throughout this decade of interminable pain, and it is with sadness in our hearts that he enters yet another season as the Lions starter on the left side. A caveat I suppose is that scouts generally tend to speak fairly highly of him, although that has also waned more and more over the years as his inability to protect the quarterback has become glaringly obvious.

On the right side, Gosder Cherilus is a big man who plays with a mean streak. A surprising first round pick a couple of years ago by The Dark Lord, Cherilus' most notable contribution his rookie year was diving at Jared Allen's knees and then backpedaling while Allen charged him like a deranged vampire ape. It was, uh, not a stellar moment in a season filled with shitty moments. But then again, hell, it did make me laugh, and so Cherilus has that going for him I guess. Cherilus' most important contribution though was undoubtedly his emergence in the starting lineup allowing the Lions to bid a fond farewell to my man Lennie Small, and while I hated to see that goofy fucker go, it was something that needed to be done. But, even after Cherilus was inserted into the starting lineup, he still couldn't take it completely from Lennie, and Lennie, as we all know, is retarded. This is not a good sign. But, Cherilus was but a raw rookie, and thus far he seems to have the trust of the new coaching staff who have apparently dubbed him the unquestioned starter at right tackle heading into the season. This is a good sign, although hopefully it says more about Cherilus' talent than it does the available options behind him. Since there is a viable option for a change, as we will see later, I think that it does say good things.

At guard, the Lions will go with Stephen Peterman on the right side. Peterman is a mauler, a hard worker who the heretics who used to coach this team loved. We will not hold that against him - much, anyway. He has the potential to be a fairly solid, workmanlike starter. He'll never be a star, but he should be competent enough to give the Lions a little push in the run game and with the powerful Cherilus next to him, the right side of the Lions offensive line should be, at the very least, bullish enough to push defenses off the ball. His agility is another matter altogether, and he will get beaten by quicker linemen, and it is this stiffness that will keep him from being anything other than a mildly competent starter.

The left guard spot is the Lions weakest on the line. And when you are the weakest point of the offensive line of the Detroit Lions, well, you're pretty fucking weak. Right now, it looks like the Lions will go with Daniel Loper, a career backup who follows Jim Schwartz over from Tennessee. Loper is kind of a swing player, capable of playing both guard and tackle, although neither particularly well, who would be most valuable as a swing player who can backup several different positions. You want someone like that on your team because they afford you roster flexibility. You don't want someone like that on your team starting. When the best thing you can say about a player is that they afford you roster flexibility, well, it's time to start looking at other options. Unfortunately, with Damion Cook lost for the season and Manny Ramirez looking like nothing more than a career fringe player in his own right, there aren't any other real options. Unless of course the team decides to go with Dylan Gandy, but Gandy, like Loper is more of a swing player who the Lions need right now to back up at center, so that leaves us pretty much where we started: up shit creek.

At center resides the guy who's probably the leader of the offensive line. Dominic Raiola is a decent player who has been the starter here for a while now. He's undersized but athletic, and against mediocre or smaller competition he can do some real damage. When he's nose to nose with giant or really good defensive tackles like the Williams Wall in Minnesota or presumably B.J. Raji in Green Bay, he's going to struggle a little bit. Sadly, when I think of Raiola now, the first thing I think about is him losing his shit and flipping off his own fans during last season's apocalyptic debacle. I mean, hey, I get it, last season brought out the worst in everyone, and you had to be superhuman if at some point you didn't degenerate into some subhuman beast who stalked the streets, knuckles dragging, howling at the moon, terrifying the elderly with mournful wails and guttural barking of obscenities. It was a tough season. Still, Raiola's contention that he wanted to challenge the boo birds to a fight only he was afraid that they would show up to his house with guns and shoot him down like a dog was a particular low point in that savage season.

Other options along the line include Ephraim Salaam and Jon Jansen at tackle. Both are solid veterans who are getting on in years. Salaam will back up Backus on the left side. He probably doesn't have a lot left, having been supplanted in the starting lineup of the Houston Texans following the 2007 season, which is roughly akin to being booted out of the Lions offensive line. He's probably strictly a backup at this point in his career. Meanwhile, Jansen comes over from Washington after a solid career. He's a hometown guy after playing his college ball at Michigan, and he gives the Lions a solid backup behind Cherilus. Unlike Salaam, Jansen probably could still start, and so I think it says something good about Cherilus that Jansen is considered the unquestioned number 2 here.

Jansen could also slide over to guard and join in at that mess if he needs to. Aside from him, the picking are pretty slim. There's Ramiriez, who seems destined to be perpetually fighting for a roster spot, and there's . . . well, that's about it. Gandy can fill in at both guard and center, but since there is no other backup center right now, he's probably stuck there. The depth along the interior of the line is shockingly thin.


The one thing the line has going for it is a cohesion that has been absent for a while. Four out of the five starters return from last season. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen, but so far in the preseason the line has done a good job opening holes for the running game and they've kept the quarterbacks from getting obliterated, so that's a good thing I suppose. Obviously, I am not all that optimistic. The Lions really would have been better off shoring up the left side of their line and adding quality depth but with so many holes everywhere on the team, you can see why they would hold their breath and hope that the collection of veterans who have been through the wars before would be able to cobble together something resembling a competent unit. The Lions chose to go another season without a much needed infusion of talent in favor of shoring up other places of need. Hopefully, Brandon Pettigrew can help out the line with his supposedly vaunted blocking ability, and maybe, just maybe, when next year comes around, the team will be in position to spruce up an area that has been rotting for years in the harsh light of failure.

GRADE: D+. I was prepared to go a little higher until I realized there is no depth and the left side of the line is probably going to be pretty awful.


The Lions offense as a whole looks like it should be improved from last season's debacle. Of course, that is like saying that Police Academy 3 was an improvement upon Police Academy 2.(And really, what were they thinking? Howard Hesseman? That was a series that needed Captain Harris. Steve Guttenberg can't do it alone people.)

Sublime film criticism aside, I think that the Lions should be able to move the ball fairly effectively. So far, I like what I see from new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, a good mix of run and pass, with a nice screen pass package added as a safety valve for a group of quarterbacks who are no doubt going to be under massive pressure as the beleaguered line gives way time and time again.

St. Calvin is already a superstar and Kevin Smith is one in the making, at least in my ever so humble opinion. Stafford is the franchise, for better or worse, and thankfully for the most part, I am cautiously optimistic that it will be for the better. The line still sucks, but there are pieces here, for the first time in a while, that make me feel like we are heading in the right direction.

OFFENSIVE GRADE: C+. This doesn't sound like much, but after the F for failure or FOR THE LOVE OF GOD MAKE IT STOP HEAD FOR THE HILLS ONLY THE STRONG SHALL SURVIVE that was last season, it is a remarkable improvement.

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