The first time I typed the words Philosophy of Greatness – a phrase I am already threatening to beat into the ground – it was right after the Lions drafted Doug Hogue. I fired that phrase off in the following tweet:
armchairlb: My take on the Lions draft strategy: They're drafting for greatness, not for competence.
Okay, fine, I guess I didn’t exactly type the words “Philosophy of Greatness”, but that’s where the concept sort of took root in my head, and then it grew from there. I applied this philosophy to the Lions decision to draft Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Mikel LeShoure, but like I said, where it really began was with Doug Hogue.
You see, on the surface, there seemed to be a lot more NFL ready players than Doug Hogue available when the Lions drafted him, a lot more finished products, dudes ready to just hit the field running, who didn’t need to be coached up or told to do anything other than what they already knew how to do. They probably weren’t going to bomb out or end up running the wrong way down the field with their pants around their ankles or anything like that but they probably were never going to be anything more than what they already were, which were dudes still available to be drafted in the late rounds of the NFL Draft.
That’s kind of the point. They had already reached their ceiling, their upside, and that ceiling was a fringe NFL player. Okay, good for them. But that’s not exactly someone you get excited about, you know? Instead, what you want out of a pick like that is someone who has room to grow, to get better, maybe someone from a tiny school like Sammie Hill or someone who’s just learning the position like Doug Hogue, someone who can one day make the experts look back and say “Shit, I guess he should have been a first rounder.” Yes, in my world, Mel Kiper starts off all his evaluations on TV with “Shit, I guess . . .” He and Todd McShay then do shots after every 3 picks so by the end of the first round they are pretty deep in the bag, and then by the end of day two they are incoherent and vomiting on Chris Berman (Like that would be the first time Berman’s been vomited on by a plastic robot with fake hair and a bad spray tan. Come on.), and by the end of day three they are being carted off in an ambulance with a priest and an unsuspecting hobo and his sweet, sweet liver. By the time they got to the 7th round, Kiper would be slurring shit like “You know what, Chris? Yaknowwhat? You ain’t shit, motherfucker. You ain’t shit. I ain’t gonna tell you a damn thing - a damn thing – ‘bout this guy, ‘cause Chris, lemme tell you somethin’ Chris . . . you listenin’ Chris? Good, listen, ‘cause I’m only gonna say this shit once: I don’t give a fuck, Chris. Oh shit, lookit yer hair, motherfucker, it’s all whispy an’ shit. TJ, look at this motherfucker’s hair! How can you stand this cocksucker, TJ? All sweaty an’ gross. Nah, nah, Teej, lissen, man, I respect you ‘cause you been there. You been there. But this motherfucker right here? Thinks he’s a comed . . . comed . . . a funny guy an’ shit. But he ain’t. He ain’t! An’ we all know this shit, Teej. You tol’ me. Yeah, you did! Don’t gimme that look, TJ, you know what you said. You know . . . hey! Todd, get over here motherfucker, they gonna make a new pick. A new pick! Oh shit!!! I was not expectin’ that dude. Todd, you stupid motherfucker, you ain’t ever takin’ my job ‘cause I ain’t goin’ nowhere, but you a good kid, Todd, you a good kid, not like this fat motherfucker here. Berman. Pfffffffffffffffffff. Awwww, shit, someone get me a bucket.”
I’m sorry that things had to get derailed like that, but that was some serious business that needed attending to. Back to the main point – ideally, you want guys at that position with room to grow, as players and, hell, even physically if you get lucky. It’s all about having faith in your own ability as a coach to find that perfect lump of coal that you can squeeze and shape into a flawless diamond. Fuck your chipped stones, let me make my own gems. That’s the mindset that the Lions coaches seem to have and I commend them for it.
There is a tendency to swoon over name players when Draft time comes along. Most fans would rather see their team draft someone like, say, Greg Jones, the Michigan St. linebacker, because they know who he is. But they know who he is because he’s already a finished product. What you already see is what you’re gonna get and that’s that. And while there’s a sense of safety in that – a reassuring devotion to competence which, let’s face it, is something we’ve lacked for a long, long time – there isn’t much upward mobility in such a sentiment. It’s a philosophy that strives for 9-7 and a first round playoff knockout. Could someone like Greg Jones help a decent team? Yes. Probably. Could someone like Greg Jones be a key piece on a championship team in the NFL? No. Probably not. And that’s the whole point. If you can’t eventually say yes to the latter question when you’re evaluating a player in the Draft than why even bother?
The Draft is your opportunity to acquire the raw material with which to build your killing machine. The spare parts that keep it running can be found in free agency or plucked off the waiver wire. But the raw material, the fuel, the heart of that killing machine, comes from the Draft, from the guys you pick out of the crowd and mold into what you need them to be. But that takes confidence, that takes guts and it takes a leap of faith - that you believe in your own fans’ willingness to cut you some slack and give you the benefit of the doubt because you are their head football coach and you know what you’re doing. Rod Marinelli never could have gotten away with that shit because he was Rod Marinelli and deep down we all knew he was a meathead and kind of an oaf, and even worse, that he was hysterically over his head. Even if you were one of those kindly souls who believed in Marinelli for a while, I think that deep down you had to know that he was swimming with sharks in the deepest part of the ocean, only he wasn’t so much swimming as furiously doggy paddling with water wings on his arms. Jim Schwartz, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s doing. I firmly believe that – and while five years from now someone else might be writing about me being a poor, naïve soul, I think that I’m right about Schwartz and if there’s one thing I’ve learned to trust in my many years wandering in the fan wilderness with the rest of you, it’s to always trust my instincts. I can spot a stink cloud from a mile away. I can pick out the Failure Demons in disguise. These many brutal years have given me that unfortunate gift. And when I look at Jim Schwartz, I see the real deal. I see a man who can lead us out of this valley of darkness and into the Promised Land and so all I can do is trust him and try to understand his ways.
That may sound like senseless cheerleading, and in a sense it is. Cheerleading anyway. But it’s not senseless. It’s very much sensitive. The whole reason I’m cheerleading is because my senses tell me to, because they tell me that this is the right guy at the right time. At some point, you just have to take a leap, otherwise what’s the point? I don’t wanna be one of those dudes who’s sitting back and saying “Yeah, well we’ll see . . .” and scoffing and mocking his fellow fans and missing all the fun. I don’t want to look back after it’s all over and like a drunken Mel Kiper say to myself “Well shit, I should have known.” I trust myself and so I’m trusting Jim Schwartz. You can point out all the reasons why this is illogical but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a fuck. (It’s 2011, Rhett Butler, “damn” doesn’t quite carry the same weight as it did during your Puritan days.)
I don’t mean to turn this into a Rah Rah post or a defensive gibberfest about why I feel the way I do. I really don’t. But I felt that all of that was necessary in order to fully get across where we are as fans, and why Jim Schwartz does things the way he does. He does things like draft Nick Fairley or Doug Hogue because whether he knows it or not, he has a mandate to do so. He has been given a mandate to reach for greatness instead of for settling for competence. Every time Lions fans shake his hand and buy season tickets and high five and write breathless love notes to him on the internet, that mandate is strengthened. We’re all in this together and we’re all in this to the glorious end. We don’t want to settle for Purgatory, for that wandering plain between heaven and hell that so many fan souls occupy. No. We want paradise. We have known the fires of hell and now we will accept nothing less than the milk and honey of the Promised Land. And the only way to do that is to reach for it, to draft for greatness instead of competence.
Which finally – finally! – brings us to Doug Hogue. How does he fit in with this Philosophy of Greatness? Well, I’ve referenced him several times already – which makes sense given that this post is, you know, about him and everything – and so by now you should have kind of a sense of how he fits in with the overall plan. He’s raw – really raw – maybe not so much as, say, Sammie Hill but raw nonetheless.
Hill, if you’ll remember, played at some tiny, tiny Southern School that sounded like it was a made up school from The Cosby Show or A Different World and while I can’t say for sure whether this means that Sammie Hill ended up banging Denise Huxtable in the broom closet of Professor Cornell West’s office underneath a blacklight poster of Martin Luther King, what I can say for sure was that this meant that Sammie Hill was playing football against dudes who were probably worse than the average high school player in a city like Dallas or Orlando or, yes, Detroit. His technique was nonexistent, his knowledge of advanced schemes as mystifying to him as advanced theoretical physics, and yet he ended up on the field a lot as a rookie and, honestly? He wasn’t that bad. He certainly showed enough to convince everybody that he could one day be a real force and although his playing time was tempered a bit by the arrival of Corey Williams and The Lord of the House of Spears, our man Suh, whenever he was on the field there was still a sense of calm, and that everything would be alright because Sammie Hill was already a pretty damn good football player.
I bring all that up to show how ridiculously fast Sammie Hill adapted to the pro game. Now, whether this was because he’s simply a really, really quick learner or because the coaches are that good is up for debate. It’s probably a little bit of both. But honestly, this just lends more credence to my belief that these coaches are for real and that their philosophy is not only a good one, but one which will lead us to those places which we’ve previously only visited in our wildest dreams.
And the point – finally! – is that Doug Hogue is not nearly as raw as Sammie Hill. He played linebacker for Syracuse, a BCS team in a BCS league, and he managed to end up as an All Big East First Team selection his senior year. So, he’s already shown himself to be a capable linebacker against elite competition (yeah, yeah, the Big East isn’t exactly the SEC but it’s still a BCS league, so just go with me on this . . .), and he has good size, outstanding speed and is a big hitter. So . . . why is he someone who needs to be molded?
Because Doug Hogue has only played linebacker for a couple of years. Prior to that, he played running back for Syracuse. So what we have here is a player who is highly gifted physically who might not know what the hell he is doing. So what does that mean?
Well, to me, it’s kind of perfect. We have a player here whose only real limitations are mental, whose areas of concern can all be addressed simply by good coaching. He has the physical tools necessary to excel at the NFL level, now it’s just a matter of molding them and honing them and turning them in the direction desired by the coaches. Again, if Rod Marinelli were here, I’d expect Doug Hogue to flounder through training camp, maybe last a couple of weeks into the season and then get cut after Bonzaing his way down the field on a kickoff and accidentally tackling Roary, the Lions perpetually stoned mascot. (Honestly, just seek out a picture of Roary if you don’t believe me and look at his eyes. So fucking high.) Marinelli wouldn’t have a fucking clue what to do with him. But Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham do. A dude like this is right in their wheelhouse. They’ve already shown their ability to mold raw clay with Sammie Hill, and now they have a chance to do it with Doug Hogue.
But again, Hogue isn’t nearly as raw as Hill. Yeah, he hasn’t been playing the position very long, which has caused some problems when it comes to play recognition and the instinct which comes from sheer muscle memory, but he adapted well enough to be a first team all-league performer in a BCS conference. So obviously, the dude understands at least a little bit what he’s doing.
But even if he didn’t get it at all, the raw clay parts of him are exciting enough on their own. The dude is 6’3” and 235 lbs and he runs anywhere from a 4.5 to a 4.6 forty yard dash, which for a linebacker is – and I’m going to use a purely technical term here – fucking fast. He’s still got that running back athleticism but he’s got a linebacker build, and also an apparent desire to smash people as a human missile. That will help him - and us – immediately on special teams. Hell, Doug Hogue was damn near made to be a special teams animal. And from all accounts, Hogue has even more room to grow. He packed on an additional ten pounds in between the end of his senior season and the Draft without affecting his speed. His high school coach basically said that Hogue had never even seen a weight before he got to college. This guy is almost the living definition of raw clay.
Of course, that has its downsides too. He’s still not very strong at the point of attack, probably thanks to the lack of weight training and he struggles to get off of blocks. Ideally, Hogue would be able to play behind a dominant defensive line that occupies blockers and lets the linebackers run free and hit with evil intentions. And, well . . . have you seen the dudes the Lions are going to be lining up along the defensive line? If there was ever a perfect situation for Doug Hogue to maximize his potential while minimizing his weaknesses, it’s this one.
But even those weaknesses should smooth out over time. He’ll get more time with the weights and as he adjusts to the speed of the pro game, his instincts will only get better and better. Add in the fact that he probably has some more good weight to put on his frame and the final result has the potential to be absolutely frightening. There are no limits here other than what the coaches can teach him and what Hogue is willing to work for. That is the epitome of the Philosophy of Greatness. Chances are that Hogue will never be anything more than an ace special teams player and hey, that’s pretty damn good too, you know? But there is also a decent chance that he could develop into a true impact linebacker, a player with the size, speed and skill to punish opposing ball carriers, and the athleticism to cover tight ends and the speed to even cover the occasional slot receiver in space.
I’m not saying that Doug Hogue is the second coming of Dick Butkus or even the second coming of Ernie Sims, and I’m not saying that he’ll ever reach the full breadth of his potential, but he could and that’s the point. That is drafting for greatness, not for competence and that’s what the Philosophy of Greatness is really all about. So welcome, Doug Hogue, the future is a million miles away, but with players like you, we finally have a chance to at least imagine what that future could look like and that’s why I’m smiling and why I finally – finally! – believe in the Detroit Lions. It’s about damn time.