Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Lions Season Preview, Part 7: The Defensive Backs


Confusion, panic, people running blind through the streets, terrified and afraid as the bombs rain down. A mother screams as her child catches on fire and then burns alive in front of her. She herself chokes, deprived of oxygen, mere moments later and collapses dead in the streets. The living trample the bodies of the dead and dying who are piling up everywhere. Pieces of bodies, arms, legs, fly everywhere, buildings crumble and then collapse and the streets burn. A terrible thing.

That is either a description of the Lions pass defense or of the firebombing of Dresden. I'll leave it to you to decide which.

It's been a long time, a long time filled with misery and despair as we have watched our secondary struggle to keep up with opposing offenses who lick their lips like wolves staring at a baby when they see what they are up against, a long time that we have watched, befuddled, as our team has tried to convince us that a collection of retreads and fringe players would be the ones to finally reverse this unrelenting storm of hellfire and pain.

Not once in my twenty plus years as a Lions fan have they had anything resembling a lockdown cornerback. Some might point to Dre Bly, the only Lions cornerback to be elected to the Pro Bowl during that time, but the truth is that Bly was always a very good second corner, never the guy you want to build your secondary around, and the plays that he made came more from his gambling style than anything else. There was never really the sense that his side of the field was off limits to the opposing quarterback, which is the hallmark of a true lockdown corner. He was a good player for a couple of years. And that's it.

Some other desperate souls might throw out Bryant Westbrook's name. And they might have a point. Westbrook was having a tremendous season in 2000, surely the best by a Lions cornerback in a long, long time, and since he was a blue chip prospect, chances were good that he would develop into a perennial Pro Bowl cornerback and give the Lions their first real building block at the position since, well, Lem Barney back in the dark ages. Unfortunately, the failure demon peaked his head above the horizon, scurried along the turf and cut Westbrook's Achilles, and that, as they say, was that.

Other than that, the landscape at the cornerback position has been stark, a bleak and depressing flatland whose bland monotony causes weak men to reach for their pistols. It is the North Dakota of NFL defensive backfields. No offense to the one dude from North Dakota who could possibly be reading this.

The safeties have been a little bit better. But that's primarily because of one man. Bennie Blades swaggered off of the sidelines of the University of Miami and became the lynchpin of the Lions secondary. Teamed for several seasons with the less heralded but still solid William White, Blades made sure that the middle of the field wasn't an open savannah for opposing gazelles and cheetahs to lope through at will.

Blades stands as the highpoint for this wretched unit, and when he left, the Lions were forced to rely upon the same strategy that they had employed at corner, relying upon retreads and fill-ins to hold down the fort until a franchise player arrived to save the day. Only, that superhero never came.

Last year, in the season of unnumbered tears, the Lions were left to reap the consequences of repeatedly failing to shore up the defensive backfield, and Ford Field burned as the overmatched collection of stiffs and broken spirits in the secondary fell down and watched helplessly while opposing quarterbacks rained down death from above. It was a terrible thing, just awful to watch, and both the cornerbacks and the safeties were to blame in this fiasco.

The Lions and Bly had an acrimonious divorce, and aside from being responsible for bringing both Lennie Small and the Underwear Thief to Detroit, his trade left a hole that the Lions were completely incapable of filling. They tried Leigh Bodden, but his style was woefully unfit for Rod the Terrible's beloved Tampa 2 defense. They then tried Brian Kelly, who had excelled for years in that very defense while playing in, wait for it, yes, Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, it seems that in the time he left Tampa and the time he arrived in Detroit, Kelly was cursed by a gypsy or ran afoul of an angry genie, because when he put on that Lions uniform he was an old man, beaten and finished. It was just one more indignity at a position that had been so awful over the years that we wouldn't have been surprised if the team just dressed an outhouse in Honolulu Blue and stuck it in front of an opposing receiver.

And at safety, the Lions found themselves with two young promising prospects for a change. Daniel Bullocks impressed early on his career before a serious injury knocked him out for the season a couple of years ago. In his place, Gerald Alexander stepped in as a rookie and performed admirably. So there was some optimism here, because we found ourselves with two young, talented playmakers in the secondary. Of course, Bullocks' injury had robbed him of his talent and Alexander soon was hurt and lost for the season too. And when all the dust was settled, it turned out that both were essentially ruined by their injuries, leaving us drowning in a river of shit not unlike the slime rivers in Ghostbusters 2. I don't know, perhaps there is some evil dude like that Vigo trapped in a painting somewhere causing us this never ending misery. Maybe he just needs a baby to transfer his spirit to and then everything will be okay, so long as that Peter Venkman doesn't get all uppity and make with the jokes and with the saving of the day and all that.

Okay, sorry, my mind decided to take a well deserved trip out of town for a few moments there. These things happen and we must learn to live with them.

Anyway, with those two off to the glue factory, the Lions were forced to rely upon more retreads and fringe players to get through the season, which, uh, didn't work out quite so well, and when the year was finally over and we tried to sift through the ashes and the still smoldering rubble, hoping that those terrible bombers wouldn't fly again overhead while old ladies wept in German and old men looked on, their faith shattered and their hearts split in two by the cruel revelation that a long, industrious life could be so meaninglessly swept away, we wondered how in the hell we would ever be able to rebuild this shit heap. We have been bereft of hope and joy for so long that we barely even know what it will be like to have a functioning secondary. We have heard stories that it is a comforting thing, a wonderful thing, to be able to trust the last line of your defense. We wouldn't know. We would like to, but, fuck it, we are Lions fans, we are used to not getting what we want.


Anthony Henry was picked up by the Lions from Dallas when Jon Kitna was exiled. A veteran corner who has had success starting in the NFL, Henry is starting to show signs that his expiration date might be quickly approaching. There was a lot of talk before he was traded by the Cowboys about moving him to safety, which as he winds down his career will probably be where ends up. But for now, the Lions need him to play cornerback. As I write this, I am getting horrid flashbacks to Brian Kelly and the abomination of a season that he had last year, and then I am remembering all the failed retreads and fringe players that the Lions have tried to get by with over the many years of interminable failure and I kind of feel like I need a nap. Henry looked okay in the preseason, but the potential is there for him to flame out like Kelly, a horrifying prospect given the Lions spectacular lack of quality talent at the position.

Phillip Buchanon has had an up and down career. A promising speed demon(not to be confused with the failure demon)out of college, Buchanon was expected to be a dynamite return man who could also develop into a potential lockdown cornerback. I can already hear Harpo laughing at me as I write this. Buchanon's early days with the Raiders can be safely classified as a bust, but he seems to have stabilized somewhat and has developed into an adequate starter. He's still fast, and he has the sort of playmaking ability that no one else at the position has. Hopefully, this season is more up than down, and hopefully, Buchanon can hold down the fort with Henry until fresh troops arrive to be slaughtered, er, I mean to help. Yeah.

Louis Delmas is the bright, shining star of the rebuilt secondary. Of course, that's probably because he's the only one who doesn't carry with him the stigma of being damaged goods. Everyone else has either flamed out somewhere else, not lived up to their potential or been deemed expendable by their old teams. Delmas is the one homegrown dude who hasn't been smeared with the stink of the failure demon. Thankfully, he seems like a good one. He's fast, he's instinctive and he loves to hit. That's exactly what you want to hear when talking about a safety. He might struggle a bit early. He is still a rookie after all, and thus far he seems almost over aggressive, intent on making the huge knockout hit instead of just wrapping his guy up. But as the season progresses, he'll hopefully calm down a bit and when he does, both his pass coverage and his run support should improve. He's a natural leader too, something the Lions have been missing back there for a long time, and if he ends up living up to his potential, the Lions might have finally found the replacement for Bennie Blades. A dozen years too late, but what the hell, to quote the great Cheech Marin in, yes, again, Ghostbusters 2, "Better late than never." Indeed, Cheech. Indeed.

It is a testament to how terrible the situation remains in the secondary that the Lions have been desperately scrambling in the last few weeks of the preseason to find someone to start opposite Delmas. They apparently tried to go after Lawyer Milloy but those talks fell through and when they did, the Lions traded for Ko Simpson. Simpson comes over from Buffalo and he will apparently slide right into the starting lineup despite not having spent any time with the Lions in the preseason. Simpson disappointed in Buffalo and lost his job as a starter, so this isn't exactly a promising development.

Aside from Simpson, the Lions could go with Kalvin Pearson, a holdover from the Bad Old Days best known for being one of Rod the Terrible's Tampa Bay boys. Pearson actually played marginally well last season, but he is a fringe player as far as talent goes and you're probably in trouble if he ends up starting for you. Needless to say, we might be in trouble. Plus, his presence only makes me start shaking like an out of control junky and devolving into gibberish filled tirades laced with ridiculous obscenities and no one wants that.

Also in the mix in Marquand Manuel, a veteran who appears to be nothing more than a depth player at this point in his career. Hopefully he can give us something, but really, no one will be surprised if he's just another body being trampled by the panicked hordes as they escape the onslaught from opposing quarterbacks.

Backing up at cornerback are a collection of misfits and under-talented players that make me start casting long looks at the bottle of drain cleaner that's winking up at me from underneath my sink. You foul temptress you, stay back!

There's Eric King, a special teams standout, and when your first inclination when describing a player is to use the phrase special teams standout, well, then you know that things probably aren't going to go so well if he has to take on a prominent role in pass coverage. He might be the team's nickel back by default and like the band of the same name, he will probably cause waves of nausea interspersed with horrified laughter. We only laugh because the alternative is much, much worse.

Of course, the Lions could also lean on William James, a veteran who after some fairly solid seasons with the Giants finds himself on his third team in three seasons and who is probably closer to being dragged away by the failure demon than he is to becoming a competent starter.

And then there are the twin waiver wire pickups of the past week. Marcus McCauley was plucked from the Vikings after falling out of favor there. There is some belief that McCauley might be salvageable as a player. The Vikings liked him when they drafted him but he has mostly disappointed thus far in his career. Kevin Hobbs was picked up after being dropped by Seattle where he spent the last couple of seasons as a backup. To expect either of these dudes to suddenly explode on the scene and give the Lions anything more than a fifth cornerback would be foolish and would likely lead to you sobbing and wandering the streets, terrifying old people and children with your guttural wails and unearthly grunts.


The Lions are going to be burned alive once again barring a miracle. Unless the terrible line or a horde of blitzing linebackers can somehow get to the quarterback before he gets time to rain down fire, the secondary is likely going to find itself picked apart over and over and over and over and . . . well you get the point. It's going to be bad - dark mutterings about werewolves and Hitler bad. The depth is terrible and the starters are mostly retreads. Delmas is the lone bright spot, the hope for the future, but we have hoped before and we have had those hopes deposited in a shallow grave and covered with lime. Henry is hanging on to his time at cornerback by a thread and Buchanon has become a vagabond after being a top shelf prospect once upon a time. The strong safety spot is just a mess, and the team apparently knows it and are desperate to stabilize it. It all adds up to way too many question marks for everything to come together like it needs to. I am, uh, well, to say I'm not optimistic would be a hilarious understatement after the parade of nonsense that has marched on by in this post. Fuck it, man. Just like last year, the further I delve into this terrible jungle the more removed I feel from the hope of humanity, and the more I feel like just posting pictures from Apocalypse Now while I drink the blood of a goat.

GRADE: D for Delmas who is the only thing keeping me from embracing the terrible F for Failure. I, uh, may be slightly down on this team right now.

*laughs nervously, prepares noose*

I still believe in the future. It's just that the future suddenly feels a long way off.

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