Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mikel LeShoure

Seriously, like half the action shots of LeShoure involve him running wild against Michigan, which . . . sigh.

In the hail of OH GOD WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CORNERBACKS THE CORNERBACKS PEEEEEEOOPPLLLLLLEEEEEEE gibberish which followed the Lions draft, what was lost and forgotten was that last year the Lions running game was fucking awful. That might sound a little bit harsh, but these are vicious times and none of us can afford to be naïve. As much as the Lions need help in the back seven on defense, it wasn’t like the team could afford to pretend that everything was fine at running back with a dude who spent the whole season having his toes eaten by demonic weasels and a career backup carrying the load. Oh, and Aaron Brown too I suppose, but following training camp – or whatever the hell passes for training camp this summer or fall or in 2028 or whenever all this labor bullshit gets sorted out – Aaron Brown will likely be placed on top of his spirit horse to be carried to Valhalla so he doesn’t really count.

Ty had an eye-opening look at the running backs from last year and if you need some evidence to back up my wild eyed ranting, well . . . here you go. The one thing I would add to that is that although the Lions running game rebounded a bit over the last half of the season, this wasn’t so much because the Lions running backs found their rhythm or anything like that, but because Scott Linehan put on his wizard hat and found ways to run the ball using smoke and mirrors and potions made from baby newts and the tears of the damned. Of course, luckily for Linehan, in Detroit the tears of the damned are so plentiful that they run from every kitchen tap, they flow through the Detroit River and they bottle that shit and sell it as a soft drink to inner city teenagers and hipster jackoffs intent on sampling the True Detroit Experience. It’s a little salty and when you drink it you get a head rush and you hear the frightened howls and screams of 50 years’ worth of Lions fans and then you go into a weird trance and Henry Ford starts yelling at you about Jews and it’s horrible, horrible, and . . . where was I? Oh yeah, tears of the damned, Scott Linehan, blah blah blah. Anyway, the point is that Scott Linehan had to tap into some seriously weird places in order to find any semblance of a working running game last season. He had Drew Stanton grittin’ his way down the field on quarterback draws, he had Stefan Logan Smurfing his way down the field like one of those scenes from Lord of the Rings where the hobbits are running in between horse legs and Orc arms and giant elephants and all manner of crazy shit to avoid getting hoisted on the end of a spear. He had St. Calvin running reverses and once I think I saw Stephen Peterman dress up as a pregnant lady and when he faked going into labor, the EMT’s strapped him to a gurney and after they pulled him down the field 15-20 years, he popped up and revealed that it wasn’t a baby but a football hidden under his jersey. I might have just imagined that last one in some sort of weird fever dream, but then again, it might have actually happened because, you see, Scott Linehan had to resort to some weird, wild shit in order to run the ball last year.

So . . . yeah, the Lions needed a running back, someone who could share the load with Jahvid Best and even take over the load should Jahvid’s toes join Aaron Brown in Valhalla once again. The only question was whether the Lions would find that dude in the draft or whether they would drag some bum off the street and hypnotize him into thinking he was Jim Brown. While the latter would have been fucking awesome and entertaining as all hell – and since we have already established Scott Linehan is a wizard, that scenario was totally in play – the saner path was to find a young dude with what the ancient Incans called “Upward Mobility” (It was either them or an ‘80s yuppie who coined the term. Who can say for sure?), someone who could do more than just fill in an emergency, someone who could potentially kick down the doors to hell itself and shake off the tackles of the Failure Demons and run to glory and salvation while a chorus of angels cheered him on. They weren’t going to get that from Random Free Agent #207856. They just weren’t and you all know it. They were going to have to invest in the position in a real way if they were going to see dividends. They couldn’t just throw five dollars in a piggy bank along with hopes and wishes and unicorn dreams. They needed to do something that would set them up for the future, something that would let them move on from a life of living paycheck to paycheck, from crawling the back alleys after every season in search of just another body to ride into the maw of hell itself, stale bread for the starving and the desperate, the hellish struggle for survival of the perpetually damned.

And that’s why they traded up so they could draft Mikel LeShoure, so that they could secure the future and the promise of the running game once and for all. Now that the philosophy behind the decision to draft a running back instead of a cornerback or a linebacker or an exorcist has been explained, we come to the man himself: Mikel LeShoure. (And by the way, I am going to hate typing that name because it’s a weird fucking name. The first name is all jacked up – there is no K in Michael goddammit! – and the last name is one of those infernal ones with a capital letter in the middle of it, only I’ll never remember if it’s supposed to be capitalized or not and . . . fuck! I’m getting annoyed just thinking about it. Okay, tangent over.) Given what I just blathered on about, is LeShoure capable of being that guy, that final piece of the running back puzzle that has confounded us for the last decade? Well, let’s find out, shall we?

I have to admit, my impressions of LeShoure are colored a bit, tainted if you will, but in a good way – at least in terms of my perceptions of him anyway. You see, I have enduring memories of him absolutely demolishing the defense of my precious Michigan Wolverines. The dude looked like a combination of Jim Brown and a cheetah on angel dust. Then again, the Jim Brown of today – and remember, he’s a 75 year old man – would have looked like a combination of Jim Brown and a cheetah on angel dust against that horrid defense. It was like watching Superman beat up a baby. It was awful. The people of Nanking put up a better defense against the Japanese than the Michigan defense did against Mikel LeShoure. The French resisted Hitler better than the Michigan defense did against Mikel LeShoure. The midget villagers from Willow would have a better chance of defeating a gang of those rampaging roided up mutant wolf-dog things than the Michigan defense did of stopping Mikel LeShoure. Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley would have a better chance of surviving in a house made of needles and shotguns than the Michigan defense did of surviving against Mikael LeShoure. A retarded baby with no arms and legs armed only with a poop filled diaper would . . . okay, okay, that’s enough. I think you get the point, which is that based on what I saw with my own two eyes, Mikel LeShoure is a destroyer of worlds but the sad reality is that world was just a lame one, like Disney World or Pluto, so maybe I shouldn’t take too much away from what he did in his two games against Michigan.

Fine. But it wasn’t just Michigan that Mikel LeShoure bedeviled during his time at Illinois. There was the game against Northwestern in which he went absolutely apeshit, running for 330 yards and 10 yards per carry or the 184 yard, 3 touchdown game he put up against Baylor in the Texas Bowl or the 184 yards on only 11 carries that he put up against Fresno St. in 2009. All told, last year, LeShoure ran for 1697 yards and scored 17 rushing touchdowns, ripping off an average of 6 yards every time he touched the ball. The year before, as a sophomore, he ran for only 734 yards in limited duty, but he averaged 6.8 yards per carry. 6.8 yards! So, uh, yeah, Mikel LeShoure is pretty good.

Of course, a lot of times, players run up inflated stats in college playing against shittier competition or they do so even though their particular skills don’t really translate to the pro game. They’re either fast enough to dominate at the college level but a step too slow to do anything worthwhile in the NFL or they’re just big enough to handle the pounding of a shorter season against smaller players in college but they get murdered by the vicious animals of the NFL over the length of a grueling season. Or, they play in a gimmicky offense which accentuates all of their strengths but hides all of their weaknesses, offenses that fly in the college world where defenders are smaller and slower but which are rendered irrelevant by the wild super beasts who fly sideline to sideline in the NFL. There are a lot of ways in which college numbers lie and don’t translate to the next level. The good news, I think, is that most of these concerns don’t really apply to LeShoure.

First of all, from a competition standpoint, yeah, LeShoure did some damage against some crappy teams. But here’s the thing: Illinois was a crappy team too. Just awful. It’s not like he was running behind a juggernaut of an offensive line or picking up the scraps from a Heisman candidate quarterback. Illinois sucked, yo. And they sucked hard. Despite their inexplicable ability to rain fire down upon the heads of the people of Ann Arbor, the Illinois offense was largely a butt during LeShoure’s time with the Illini. His quarterbacks, Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase (Fuck you, I’m not looking that up to make sure it’s spelled right.) were both so awful throwing the ball that defenses could stack the line of scrimmage whenever they felt like it. The Illini’s biggest downfield threat was prayer. Plus his head coach was Ron Zook, who could be outcoached by a retarded lemur and maybe even by Rod Marinelli. (Yeah, I said it. Officially it goes Retarded Lemur > Rod Marinelli > Ron Zook.) So, really, you can’t say that LeShoure was just feasting on overmatched teams because he was on the overmatched team most of the time.

Second, from a purely physical standpoint, LeShoure is almost the dictionary definition of an NFL running back. He’s 6’0” and 220 lbs. of muscle, he runs a 4.5 40, and damn it all, he just looks like an NFL running back. I know that “Hey, come on now, just trust me” stuff is some weak bullshit, but sometimes you see a guy and you just know. Mikel LeShoure is one of those guys. He’s big, he’s strong and he’s fast. I mean, I’m not sure what more you want, you know? Short of looking into his heart like some sort of shaman mystic or tasting his urine in order to decide if it has the tang of a champion thoroughbred (Wait . . . what?) there’s not much more evidence that we can get that Mikel LeShoure is an NFL running back.

Third, as far as playing in a wacky offense, well . . . here is where there might be a few issues. LeShoure played in the ever popular spread option at Illinois, which means that he was rarely forced to be the Here’s The Running Back Come Hit Him If You Can runner which would make most people feel confident in his ability to run in the NFL. A lot of Illinois’ offense was based on misdirection and upon opening holes in the defense by spreading it so thin that LeShoure could just waltz right on through and stop for a late night snack and a cigarette along the way. There are a couple of ways of looking at this. The doomsayers would say that this has created a running back who’s not comfortable or familiar enough with contact to succeed at an NFL level, while the perpetually erect optimists would say that this just means that LeShoure is physically fresh, and not beat up like some modern day Earl Campbell. The truth, I think, probably lies somewhere in between.

The knock on LeShoure is that despite his size and physical ability he isn’t really a power runner. His game lies in finding the hole and bursting through it. He’s really not the type to seek out a linebacker or safety and then run him over just for the hell of it. But the thing is, is that he never really had to do that at Illinois. The offense didn’t call for it. In fact, doing that would have flown in the face of the entire offensive philosophy. So, really . . . we don’t know. We just don’t. The good news is that LeShoure has the physical ability to be that kind of runner if he needs to be. But that’s the key phrase: “if he needs to be.” So far he hasn’t. He will in the NFL – at least some of the time. The reality is that he’s a player who’s been conditioned to look for the hole and then to explode through it. Honestly, he’s not that different a runner than Jahvid Best. He doesn’t have Best’s supernatural, almost Barry-like vision, but he has physical gifts in terms of size and strength that Best will never have. He’s not so much the physical counter-punch to Best’s lightning quick jab as he is just a different version of that jab.

I think the perception is that the Lions wanted the tough, inside runner to serve as a complement to Best’s explosive outside the tackles running, but I’m not quite sure that’s really all that accurate. I think it’s a fatal misreading of what the coaches and personnel dudes in Detroit actually believe. I think that they’re more comfortable than people realize with Best running in between the tackles. They didn’t draft him to be a speed back or just a homerun hitter or however the hell you want to phrase it. They drafted him to be a full-time, every down complete back. They have faith in his ability to run in almost every situation. They drafted Mikel LeShoure in the same vein. They didn’t draft him to be just a power back or the thunder to Best’s lightning or anything like that. Not really anyway. They drafted him to be a complete back, just like Best, and they drafted him not to complement Best but to reinforce Best.

They want to be able to put either guy out there in any situation and feel comfortable. They don’t want to have to say “Oh, we need a big play, let’s put in Best,” or “We need 3 tough yards, put in LeShoure.” No. That shit is entirely too predictable. It’s entry level thinking. They want Best and LeShoure to carry the load together, not separately if that makes any sense at all. The NFL is a tough, tough league and even Superman would be bitching and moaning and strapping ice packs on by Week 10. The Lions need two guys who can both handle the load if they are going to do what they want to do. They don’t need an inside and an outside runner. They need two dudes who can do both, who can storm into the breach when the other dude gets weary. They want to be able to maintain a consistent pace, a consistent style and quality throughout the game. They want to be able to insert LeShoure or insert Best without skipping a beat. They want one running back in two bodies, interchangeable hearts and souls working towards the same goal.

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the differences between the two and I think you will see Best hit it up outside a little more than LeShoure and LeShoure barrel down the gut more than Best, but you’ll be surprised, I think, at how much LeShoure will pop it outside or Best will fire through the middle. Don’t look for Mikel LeShoure to be Earl Campbell because he’s not. That’s all I’m saying here.

As time goes by, I think that we’ll see LeShoure’s style evolve a little bit in order to better take advantage of his physical gifts, but for now he’s a running back who likes to burst through the hole and then try to outrun the defense. He doesn’t have elite, elite top-end speed, but like I said in the Titus Young breakdown, top-end speed is overrated. He’s fast enough and elusive enough, I think, to successfully run the way he’s comfortable running. He has physical gifts that will allow him to run differently and more physically as he matures and figures those things out but it’s not like he lacks the gifts that allow him to run the way he does now. He’s not big and slow. He’s big but he’s fast too and he has decent enough vision that he should be alright.

What the Lions got what they drafted Mikel LeShoure was maybe the best running back in the draft – the second year in a row they managed to pull this off – and that means that they didn’t just get a power back. They got a running back who is capable of doing pretty much anything. I think there will be some frustration amongst Lions fans when they see LeShoure waiting for his hole to open or dancing too much for their liking. They won’t understand why he won’t just plow ahead since the stereotype of LeShoure as the thunder to Best’s lightning has already been pretty well established and will be tough to dislodge from the minds of a lot of fans. This is unfortunate, but it is what it is.

I don’t mean to derail any optimism or anything like that. I think that LeShoure will be a fine player and I think that he and Best will kick ass for the Lions for years to come. It’s just that I foresee the bitching and moaning from the inveterate bitchers and moaners already coming on the horizon and it kind of bums me out. But fuck all them, their noise is merely the howling of the perpetually damned, the dumb wailing of the already lost, and we have to ignore all that shit if we are to keep our own sanity.

The truth is that Mikel LeShoure is a dude who’s capable of being an every down running back in the NFL. If people want to bitch about one aspect of his game just because they can’t see the forest for the trees then so be it. I will choose to see the bigger picture, which is that in Mikel LeShoure the Lions have a dude who any team in the league would love to have, a dude who’s capable of easily running for 1,000 yards in this league or any other, and a dude who will bring the Lions running game to a level that we haven’t seen in over a decade now. But he doesn’t have to do it alone, and that’s the key. Neither he nor Best will be forced to carry the load all by themselves and both they and the Lions running game as a whole will be better for it. This is one more piece in a larger puzzle, one more example of that Philosophy of Greatness I mentioned after the Draft. Mikel LeShoure might not be Earl Campbell, but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to be Mikel LeShoure and soon enough, that should mean something all by itself.


Tim in AZ said...

Hey Neil,

Thanks for taking us past the cliche on LeShoure being just the thunder. I'd gotten wrapped up in that myself. Also, loved the Cobain reference.


Neil said...

It's really, really tempting to pigeonhole LeShoure and Best as "just" thunder and lightning and I'm sure I'll end up doing it from time to time too. After all, I am only (allegedly) human.

Also, thanks, Tim.

AERose said...

Was Illinois really spread-option last year? They picked up Paul Petrino last offseason so I figured they were basically running the Petrino offense.

Ee Oulo said...

What a refreshing perspective! I love the style and more importantly what you had to say.

Fuck the bitchers and moaners cus that's what they'll do! I can't wait to see this RB combo do it's thing. Now to get McClain in here to bust open some holes for them!

Jeremy said...

I have to say, this was the pick that was hardest for me to come to terms with. It kinda seemed like before the draft, most Lions fan's solution to the running game was: get Best healthy and he and Mo-Mo will be a damn fine tandem. Then when LeShore was drafted that rationalization came flying in.

Of course, Ty's piece on our RBs did a little bit to convince me, but I'm still pretty iffy on the pick, and especially the trading up part.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend to know that LeShore is going to be a stud or a bust, because 1) I didn't do the research and 2) even if I did, I would have no idea, like everyone else.

But I'm just not sure I accept the rationalization of the pick that it was necessary. I understand that Mo-Mo only has a couple years on him, but I think a healthy Best-MoMo backfield would be just as effective for this year, and therefore didn't warrant giving up two picks for a RB THIS year.

Let's hope after this season we can point back to this comment and laugh at my face.

Neil said...

"Was Illinois really spread-option last year? They picked up Paul Petrino last offseason so I figured they were basically running the Petrino offense."

Yeah, they were. More or less, anyway. These days, it's hard to find any team that is strictly one thing or the other, but Illinois ran all sorts of spread option shit.

Neil said...

Ee Oulo,

Right on, my dude.

Also, thanks for the nice words, man.

Neil said...


I totally get where you're coming from. It's just that I think the coaches weren't willing to just get by with a Best/Morris combo. They want greatness. They want dominance, and they are revealing what's important to them - on defense, a strong pass rush and obliterating the other team's ability to run and on offense, a killer running game. Those are the areas that they are overloading in order to overwhelm.

But it's like I've said before, they can't do everything at once, and so piece by piece, they are adding the guys they want not only for this season but for the next 5-10 seasons. This is about building an unshakable and unbreakable foundation and I think they saw LeShoure as a key piece in that foundation. If a surefire foundational piece was available to them at some other position - say along the offensive line - then they probably would have tried to make a move for him too. But he wasn't and there was no sense drafting a guy who's just another guy just to draft him and say you did.

That said, yeah, I get where you're coming from. It was a sacrifice, but I think they were willing to sacrifice the short term depth those two picks would have provided for what they saw as a sure thing piece of their foundation . . . and I can't really argue with them.

But like you said, we'll see how this all plays out and there's every chance that I will end up looking like a damn fool. But I hope not.

Neil said...

Just to clarify on the Petrino thing, Aero ... I think they went away from the spread option terminology and if you asked Petrino what he was running he would have told you something other than the spread option but watching them last year, uh ... that sure as hell seemed as close to a spread option that you can get.

I think the goal with Petrino is to move away from the spread option but given the sort of talent they had in place, they basically relied on the same concepts that they did in the Juice Williams days.

I might be wrong, but when I watched them last year I don't remember thinking "Oh, they're doing something different now." I mean, given Scheelhaase's issues throwing the ball and his ability to use his legs, they basically were forced to run a version of the spread option, even if it wasn't called that.

TuffLynx said...

Great job man. I like your take on the article, except for the idea that the running game was entirely screwed last season. When Best was healthy early in the season he broke some nice runs. When Peterman had his gimpy foot heal enough to plant on it the running game got better in the late part of the season. You can't really look at the total yards per game to see what I mean, look at the average yards per running play. The Lions gained 4.0 yards per rushing play. That put them tied for 19th in the NFL. So they were actually a just a bit below average.

I think Detroit Lions fans are spoiled a bit when it comes to running backs. We had Billy Sims and Barry Sanders back-to-back and that screwed up our perspective. I think Lions fans expect to see the running game perform like those two guys did and that is a pretty big expectation.

What hurt the perception of the Lions running game so much last season was the failures on third down and short. When you have to punt the ball because you can't get two yards on a run you tend to remember that.

Keep up the good work man and keep those bitchers and moaners honest.

Neil said...

Thanks for the feedback, TuffLynx. I agree with you to a point. Best was pretty great before he got hurt, but that just showed how much we need quality depth at the position.

As for the late season improvement...yes, it was certainly there, but like I said, I attribute that more to the diversified nature of the running game rather than just an improved ability to push the pile. The fact that the Lions struggled so much on 3rd and 1's and the like kind of proves my point. When it came to just a predictable "We're gonna run our RB's at you and get 4 yards here" style of play, the Lions running game was still pretty woeful. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to play that way, and that's why I think - and the coaches/Mayhew thought - that the Lions needed to do something to not only improve the running game but to bolster it significantly.

But you're probably right about us being spoiled by Barry all those years. Then again, the running game for the last decade has kinda been at the opposite end of that extreme. When your best running back over a full decade of football is James Stewart, it's probably not unreasonable to want at least a little bit of an upgrade. We all want Barry or Billy. That can't be denied, but I think we'd all take just a shadow of Barry and an echo of Billy at this point. A shadow and an echo. And hopefully, we've found at least that with Best and LeShoure.