Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lions Season Preview 2009, Part 8: The Special Teams


Over the course of my entire life, the Lions have had only two kickers. That is astounding. Since 1980, it has either been Eddie Murray or Jason Hanson. Two. TWO! I mean, come on, that is just ridiculous, right? Of course, it says something about the Lions that the position with the most stability and the one which has given us the most to be proud about is the fucking kicker.

Murray was a very good kicker - with the exception of the first game I can remember going to as a kid when he missed a bunch of field goals and the Lions lost to Green Bay, but fuck it, that is another story for another time. For a dozen years he was one of the very few players we never had to worry about and when he finally left, it was sort of disorienting. Who would step up and take his place? Surely we couldn't find someone with his sort of consistency. Yeah, about that . . .

Jason Hanson was drafted by the Lions out of Washington St. where he was known for his ridiculously strong leg. He was the guy from the moment he showed up in Lions camp, and he has been that guy for seventeen seasons. This will be his eighteenth, and the last couple of seasons I have sort of held my breath and wondered if this would be the year when he would finally succumb to old age and his leg would break apart into a billion particles of whatever space dust went into creating it. Last year, I even called for Hanson to finally hit that wall and for us to be on the hunt for a new kicker once the season ended. All Hanson did in the year of unnumbered tears was go out and miss only one field goal - and that one was blocked - while going 8/8 from 50+ yards. It was an unreal season, almost obscene in the way its sublime brilliance stood in stark contrast to the hellfires that were burning everywhere else. While the ship completely sank and everyone else drowned, Hanson stood on an island and was damn near perfect.

The Lions have had several punters over the course of my fandom, and although there have been more than the two we find at kicker, the punters the Lions have employed have largely been solid to very good. Jim Arnold was a Pro Bowl punter who excelled for seven years with the Lions. Along with Murray and then Hanson, he gave us a tandem that we felt could match up against any other kicking duo in the league.

When he left, the Lions went with a succession of mostly competent punters, first with Greg Montgomery who ably filled Hanson's shoes. But he left after only a year and Detroit turned to first Mark Royals, who was adequate for a couple of years and then to John Jett, who aside from having an awesome name, gave us six good seasons before finally falling apart in the seventh. And when that happened, the Lions brought in Nick Harris, who has been mostly as solid as his predecessors at the position.

Look, the best thing I can say about the punters in Detroit is that they largely go unnoticed, year after year. That is mostly a good thing. Even though none of them are out of this world great, they are solid dependable players who can be counted on to not fuck up. When you're a Lions fan, that's something.

While the kicking game has been remarkably good for the Lions over the years, the return game has also produced its share of heroes. Pete Mandley was an able return man for several seasons before giving ground to the great Mel Gray, who over the course of his stay in Detroit was an absolute home run hitter, a weapon who tilted the field position in the Lions favor and who threatened to go the distance any time he got his hands on the ball. Gray is still the standard bearer by which we measure all Lions return men. It is a tough thing to live up to, and rightly so. Gray made us expect greatness at the return spot and we won't accept anything less. We are Lions fans, we deserve at least that, right?

Even Mel Gray couldn't stick around forever though. Thankfully, for several years his replacements largely lived up to the standard set by Gray. Terry Fair gave us an explosive season as a return man, and even though his flame quickly flickered and then died, Fair provided a bridge to Desmond Howard, who stepped back into Michigan and back into our hearts, showing us the same moves that had earlier won him a Heisman at Michigan and a Super Bowl MVP with the Packers. Desmond only stuck around for a couple of seasons, and when he left, surely the bottom would finally drop out, right? Well . . .

Eddie Drummond took the baton from Desmond and kept right on going, giving us yet another weapon returning kicks. And since this all went down while the rest of the team was burning alive, flailing helplessly while the failure demon and his buddies whipped them with chains made of hatred and misery, his excellence stood out all the more. But then Matt Millen, in all his infinite non-wisdom, decided that the team could afford to live without Eddie Drummond and cut him, leaving us to survive with a patchwork of players led by Aveion Cason who, uh, have not been so good. And since they are following along the path blazed so gloriously by Gray, Desmond and Drummond, they look even shittier in comparison. The last couple of seasons have been pretty fucking terrible, especially by our standards, and it is just one more indignity that we have had to deal with as the Lions collapsed into a sea of parody and blood curdling horror following years of erosion and decay.

While the majority of the special teams play has shone like a bright star in the dark, cold night that has been the Lions over the years, the kick coverage teams have usually been pretty sub-par. This tends to happen though when the guys designated your special teams aces, like Paris Lenon or Alex Lewis, are thrust instead into the starting lineup because there are no other options, leaving you scrambling, looking for homeless people before games to dress up and run down the field during kickoffs.


One of these seasons, Hanson is going to falter, and when he does it will be a very sad day for Lions fans. We love Jason Hanson, in ways most fanbases can't really comprehend. He has been the only thing we have had to be proud of too many times, and he has been the one constant, the one good thing that we have never had to worry about since he showed up in Detroit many moons ago. He still boasts a strong leg as evidenced by the aforementioned 8/8 from 50+ yards last year, and while it may no longer be Superman Fuck You Strong(yeah I have no idea what that means either, let's just go with it), he can still be called upon to knock it through the uprights just about any time you get beyond the opposition's 40 yard line. He will struggle to get the ball really deep on kickoffs though, but that's a quibbling thing at this juncture. Even if he never makes the Hall of Fame because he is a kicker, he is a Hall of Famer to all of us.

Scarily though, Hanson was injured in the preseason, and while that was horrible, it did give rise to the hope that my man Swayze Waters would be given a chance. But then poor Swayze was hurt too, paddled to New Zealand, and we were left with Billy Cundiff. But it appears that Hanson is back and ready to go, and hopefully we won't need to hear the name of Billy Cundiff again this season. I do hope however that the Lions give Swayze Waters a job. I don't care, fire the dude who plays that stoned looking motherfucker Roary and give Swayze the job. Or better yet, just make Swayze Waters the official team mascot and let him hang out on the field at halftime while you show clips from Point Break. COME ON DO IT.

Anyway, like Ernie Sims, bringing Swayze Waters into the conversation is just an invitation for insane rambling, and so we will move on before this gets out of control.

Nick Harris returns at punter and he should give the Lions a steady presence, as he has done for the majority of his stay in Detroit. Harris gets good hang time on his punts and he's particularly adept at putting the ball inside the opponent's 20. Of course, the one time he was on national television for everyone to see last year, during the Thanksgiving game, he shanked one so horrifically that I thought he was going to be dragged away by demon spirits like the dude at the end of that movie Ghost, which of course stars the great Patrick Swayze.

The return game is still kind of a mess. The new dudes in charge apparently recognize this though and drafted both Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown with an eye on fixing this once and for all and hopefully restoring the fine tradition started by Mel Gray. Unfortunately, Williams can't catch the ball and Brown doesn't seem like he's quite got the mental part of this whole football thing entirely down, and so as the preseason wrapped up we were left with the possibility that Aveion Cason would again be the dude back there by default. After we all threw up for a bit and wept tears of blood, we pulled our shit together and saw that the Lions had claimed Yamon Figurs off of waivers from Baltimore. Figurs figures (BOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! I'm really, really sorry about that.) to give the Lions an honest to God weapon back there, as he flashed the kind of home run ability while in Baltimore that the team desperately needs. Hopefully, he can replicate his production from 2007, when he returned both a punt and a kick for a touchdown.

The kick coverage units might still kind of suck, but that happens when your overall talent level is as apocalyptically bad as it has been for the Lions over the past several seasons. Eric King is a fine special teams player and if he isn't pressed into service too much at cornerback, he should provide the Lions with some decent coverage in the kicking game. We'll probably see guys like Darnell Bing and DeAndre Levy here too. I think Levy in particular has a real shot at being good at this aspect of the game. He's fast and he can hit. This is where I would have loved to have seen Zach Follett, but he was cut, and well, that's that I guess. He's still on the practice squad though, so maybe, you know?


I can't believe I just rambled on for this long about the fucking special teams. I guess it's just nice to write every once in a while about something good and decent and right instead of having to wallow in the caverns of misery which extend deep below the Detroit Lions and all their fans.

Hanson should be his usually solid self, although I will still be holding my breath, hoping that this isn't the year when he dissolves into thin air like Yoda or some weird bullshit like that. Harris should be able to be safely ignored, and that's a good thing. Hopefully, Figurs finally picks up where Eddie Drummond left off a few years ago, and hopefully the Lions dedication to improving the overall depth of the team pays off in the kick coverage unit.

I am cautiously optimistic that, overall, this part of the team will be pretty good.

GRADE: B. This could plunge catastrophically lower if Hanson does indeed go to the halls of his forefathers and if Figurs shits the bed. But, again, we are optimists and champions in our hearts and so we will not think that way.

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