Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lions Season Preview 2009, Part 6, The Linebackers


When I was a little kid, just before St. Barry burst onto the scene and completely ignited my Lions fandom, my favorite player was Mike Cofer. This was for two reasons. First of all, I had his football card. The second was that because of that football card, I knew that he had a lot of sacks. And since he was a Detroit Lion, which, even though I was still stupid and little and didn't really understand fully what was going on, was my default favorite team, he become an iconic figure in my mind and for years I always thought that he was better than he was. I would like to say that this is all some sort of analogy I'm using to explain my Lions fandom, where they are Mike Cofer and in my soft, mushy little mind I thought they were better than they were, but, well, no. I've always known the Lions were a gigantic flaming pile of shit, but because everyone else in my family liked them, I sort of picked up my fandom through osmosis and, well, here we are. At least I had my delusions about Mike Cofer and a horde of other players to keep me from escaping into the cold, terrible night like some kind of child werewolf.

Anyway, all of that rambling is my way of saying that my first real memories of genuine Lions fandom center around a linebacker, and even if all Mike Cofer really happened to be was a slightly above average player, in my mind he still remains something more, and I always wondered what happened to him. In my mind he tragically disappeared, leaving the Lions defense bereft of his greatness, when in reality he probably just got older and then faded away into a comfortable retirement selling used cars or raising pigs or teaching winos how to behave themselves in public. I don't know what happened to him, and really it doesn't matter.

But while Cofer was my first favorite player, it became abundantly clear fairly early on to me that the dude lining up next to him, at inside linebacker, was the real deal, not some fabricated hero born in the mind of some idiot child, but a real live honest to God football star. His name was Chris Spielman, and for years he was the heart of the Lions defense, starting in 1988 when he was thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie and played well as a 3-4 inside linebacker. Spielman was a Pro Bowler by his second season and peaked in that glorious 1991 season when he was named first team All Pro.

But by the time Spielman started to slow down, I was a cynical, although still kinda dumb teenager, and I realized that he had simply slid past his prime. There was no Coferesque legend in my mind, and no tragic scenes where he was run over by a lawnmower or hit by a clown car ran through my head to explain why his time with the Lions ended. No, he was just a player, a great player, but still just a player, and when he left, it sucked, but I understood and I awaited the next great Lions linebacker to take his place.

Yeah, about that . . .

Stephen Boyd tried. He did. And for a few years, as the centerpiece of the Lions new 4-3 defense, he looked like he might ably carry on the tradition. A two time Pro Bowler, Boyd was a good player, but he wasn't Spielman, and he lacked the sort of natural ability that made fans feel like our defense was safe with him leading it, especially since he was always seemingly battling injuries. Spielman was the man. There was no doubt in any of our minds. Boyd was always overachieving, and there was the sense that he wasn't actually as good as what he seemed to be. Which is incredibly unfair. The guy was a second team All Pro in 2000 for fuck's sake. But it was the perception in my head, fair or unfair, and that's just the way it is. Maybe he is opposite of Cofer in that respect, I don't know. And maybe Boyd suffers because while Spielman was present during - and instrumental in - the Lions rise to respectability, Boyd was stuck being cast in the role of the band playing their poor little hearts out while the Titanic sank. His best seasons came during that short time after St. Barry was dragged away by the failure demon and before the Lions collapsed completely. The stink of inevitable decay was on those teams, and they are always tainted in my mind with the malaise that overtook the fanbase in our grief after St. Barry's untimely demise. Of course, in retrospect, maybe I need to cast Boyd in a better light. After all, as soon as he disappeared from the scene, his career cut abruptly short by a chronically bad back, the Lions completely went in the shithouse and the failure demon and all his buddies ran wild.

Once Boyd was gone, and the wailing moans of the dying drifted high above the bloated corpses of the already dead which were stacking up at a dizzying pace, the Lions tried in vain to find a capable linebacker to helm the moribund defense. Perhaps it's not completely the Lions fault. After all, before Boyd's untimely retirement, the Lions suffered another absurd setback as promising outside linebacker Reggie Brown almost died on the field after a weird hit left him temporarily paralyzed. With those two future lynchpins of the defense gone, the Lions scrambled to field a competent unit but never quite got there.

There were some promising prospects, including Chris Claiborne, Barrett Green, Teddy Lehman and Boss Bailey, but one by one they either left town or failed out of town, and every year it seemed like the Lions were left with a huge hole in the middle of their sorry ass defense and we were all left to weep bitter tears and tear at our hair, beat our breasts and scream into the heavens, wondering when the terrible pain of it all would finally end. But it never did, and as the terrible days gave way to the apocalyptic days, we found ourselves with Paris Lenon filling the shoes once worn by Spielman and Boyd while an athletic but undersized group of outside linebackers tried in vain to make plays.

Of course, in the midst of all this chaos, a new player emerged, one who would take the crown originally worn by Cofer and proclaim himself not only the king of all lizards, snakes, birds, and, yes, monkeys, but also the king of my heart. Ernie Sims, that glorious nobleman, burst onto the scene, tiny and fast and he ran and he hit and he played the game like an out of control missile. I loved him from the start, and I held my breath as I waited to see whether he would actually be, you know, any good. After all, I had seen too many terrible things and had my soul crushed too many times by too many would be saviors. And so it was with terrible sadness that I watched The Lizard King, Cinnabon Sims struggle through last season's abomination. It was clear that his highness had tuned out the idiot words of the dudes calling the plays and had decided to try to make every play himself. But, even though he is a noble freak of an athlete, Sims was caught up on the killing fields of Ford Field along with the rest of his teammates, and he, well, he kinda sucked. But then, word started trickling out of camp that Sims was back and he was ready to make a huge impact this season in a new scheme built by all new - and for the first time, competent - coaches. I began to get excited, and as that excitement was building to a crescendo and I began to wonder if I should put my pants back on, I watched as it was revealed that Ernie Sims has a monkey and in that glorious instant, all was forgiven and like Mike Cofer long before him, Ernie Sims had become a champion of my heart and an immortal in my mind.


Onto the analysis now after that bizarre look at the past. I mean, come on, that was kind of weird, right? But fuck it, you know what you are getting by now. If you are new, and just stumbling onto this for the first time, well, I don't really know what to tell you, other than it can get much, much weirder. And if you are still here(and well, you are reading this, so . . . yeah), you are too far gone to save and you might as well just hang out here, with me, and we will journey through this fucked up maze of sadness, pain and occasional redemptive joy that is Lions fandom together.

Okay, okay, actual analysis. Here we go. I promise. We'll start with Sims, who promises to have a breakthrough season under new coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Sims should be freed up in this new defense to do what he does best, which is run really, really fast at the ball carrier and hit him really, really hard. I expect him to have a terrific season, and by the end of the year we will all be raving about him while his monkey cheers him on from home. I am so happy that I am optimistic about Sims. Every time I write about him, it all threatens to turn into an incredibly weird string of gibberish, but I don't care. He is the best and I hope he plays for a thousand glorious seasons.

Sims patrols the weak side, and for the first time in a while, he promises to have a capable counterpart on the strong side. Julian Peterson comes over from Seattle with a mouthwatering pedigree. A multiple time Pro Bowler, Peterson has been a play maker his entire career. He excels at getting to the passer and then knocking him down, hopefully while he still has the ball in his hands. He will struggle a little bit in pass coverage, but his overall soundness as both a pass rusher and against the run more than makes up for any small weaknesses in his game. Unfortunately, Peterson is on the wrong side of 30, and it says something that Seattle was apparently eager to part with him. Sure, his bloated contract was a huge factor in their decision to trade him, but the fact that his production declined just a bit last season also had to play a part. We might be rolling the dice a little bit with Peterson here, but it's a risk the Lions had to take. They simply need playmakers and the only ones they are going to get right now are ones who other teams might not think are up to the task anymore and who have something to prove. Hopefully, Peterson sets out to prove to everyone that he still has what it takes to be an elite NFL linebacker, and hopefully the Lions reap the benefits.

Lining up in between Sims and Peterson is another veteran who was cast off from his former team in favor of younger talent. Larry Foote comes home to Detroit after having spent his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers where he was a key part of two different Super Bowl winners. He's an athletic and solid player in the middle who promises to give the Lions their best middle linebacker in years while offering solid leadership in the locker room. He's a nice, nice pickup, and since he is playing with only a one year contract, he has a lot to prove, and again, hopefully the Lions reap the benefits of his desire to earn one last big contract.

Backing up Foote in the middle is DeAndre Levy. Levy was an outside linebacker in college, best known for having excellent straight line speed. I was skeptical about him when he was drafted though, both because I didn't like the idea of drafting a guy who played on the outside and moving him to the middle, and because despite his excellent speed he was kind of stiff and to make matters worse he was a little undersized. But, the coaches apparently love Levy and he played well during the preseason. I am now cautiously optimistic that he will be a solid player for the Lions.

Backing up on the outside are Darnell Bing and Jordan Dizon. Bing, a converted safety, has been a fringe player in the NFL for a few years now. He was incapable of cracking last year's horror show of a lineup and so there isn't a whole lot of optimism now that he is the primary backup at strongside linebacker. To make matters worse, Bing's spot on the roster meant that Zach Follett was expendable and much to everyone's chagrin, including mine and I'm sure my boy Mr. Rose's, Follett was waived. Fortunately, the Lions were able to add him to their practice squad and maybe, just maybe, Follett will eventually have his day.

Dizon is an interesting player. He was a second round pick a year ago, which everyone considered a reach with the exception of the gang of fools scratching themselves in the Lions war room a year ago. And, sure enough, Dizon completely flamed out as a rookie, falling out of favor with He Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken(okay, I can't do that, I mean, there are so many dudes who would qualify for such a title - this one was balding and loved ex-Buccaneers). By the time the season ended, I speculated that Dizon's future resided in ditch digging, but he has seemingly made a positive impression on the new coaching staff and there is new optimism that he might end up making it as a viable player in the NFL after all.


There is life here. For the first time in a long time, there is life, and it is strong. The starters are all good to potentially great and the backups look promising and solid. It's a nice situation. Clearly, the new dudes in charge made upgrading the linebackers a serious priority and they appear to have succeeded. The big challenge now is in keeping blockers from overwhelming these guys before they even get a chance to hit the ball carrier. After all, the defensive line has been overrun by Col. Kurtz and the linebackers will have to be absolutely heroic if the defense stands a chance of being even marginally decent. I think there will be games when they make enough plays to give the Lions a real chance to win, and I think there will be games where they are frustratingly taken out of the game due to the line's inability to control the opposing offensive line. Sims should be great if he can get to the ball with regularity, and if he plays in control. Peterson should give the Lions an edge rusher they sorely need and hopefully Foote provides a steady hand in the middle of this potentially apocalyptic defense. The linebackers are our only hope, and if they rise to the enormous challenge, we might be pleasantly surprised. If they are mere mortals, well, we're probably in trouble.

GRADE: A-. This might be slightly generous, but fuck it, Ernie Sims has a monkey.

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