Thursday, June 9, 2011

Johnny Culbreath

For years, Lions fans have bitched about the state of the offensive line, and, well . . . they’re not wrong. It has been a big problem for way too long. But at the same time, they’re not exactly right either. I know, I know, that sounds confusing and kind of stupid, but I think that it’s true. It comes down to a patience issue more than anything else, I think. People want the quick fix. They want some 9 foot tall behemoth with a dragon’s head and the body of a grizzly bear to descend from the sky and eat Jeff Backus before settling in as our starting left tackle for the next thousand years. And so, every year, when the draft comes and goes and the Lions fail to take an offensive lineman in the first round, those people throw up their hands, gnash their teeth and start muttering about breaking out the torches and pitchforks. It happens every damn year.

I suppose the real crux of the issue is the human lightning rod named Jeff Backus. Now, I’ve written a bit about Jeff Backus here – feel free to search around the site for some of this delightful gibberish – and so I won’t beat the holy hell out of the argument yet again. But here’s the thing about Backus which is important to understand if we’re going to move forward here: he’s both massively underrated and massively overrated. This weird discrepancy is the natural byproduct of arguing in these strange and terrible times, especially when that argument has been going on for a solid decade. Both sides become entrenched and become obsessed more with proving their point than with actually being smart and reasonable and honest about the whole damn thing.

To Backus’ detractors – a group which includes probably the majority of Lions fans - he’s the devil himself, a miserable shit demon made of goo and failure who conspired with the Failure Demons and Julius Peppers to murder Matthew Stafford’s poor shoulder. He is the living symbol of the offensive line, for good or bad, and most people think he should be slung up on a cross and pelted with rocks in order to pay for the offensive line’s many terrible sins.

To Backus’ supporters – a group which includes scouts and his own coaches – Backus is the paragon of excellence, the lone glorious soldier doing all he can to win an unwinnable war, his heart and soul a shiny exemplar for all true warriors the world over. He’s been called the best offensive tackle in the NFC North by this group. He’s been touted as a Pro Bowl caliber player and the stalwart of the Lions offensive line.

Both of these sides are full of shit.

Now, I’m not a fan of the one sentence paragraph, but in this case I think it is justified. I want everybody reading this to internalize that sentence before we move on. Jeff Backus is a B- player who’s managed to hold on for a solid decade at left tackle because the Lions can’t find anybody better to do the job. He’s not the messiah but he’s not the devil either. He’s just a guy who’s a little bit better at his job than the average player would be. That’s not saying much, admittedly, but what people fail to realize is that the number of people who could do that job better – who could do it exceptionally well – is astonishingly small. Elite left tackles are like diamonds wrapped in platinum and blowjobs. If you find one, you should hoard it like Gollum did that goddamn ring.

That’s the real issue here. It’s not whether Jeff Backus is any good or not. He’s not the best but he’s not the worst either and the sooner people come to terms with that on both sides, the better off as fans we’ll all be. No, the real issue is that finding a guy who is obviously better than Backus is at best challenging and at worst almost damn near impossible. There are a lot of tackles drafted in the first round. Every year. And people freak out when the Lions don’t draft one of them, but the thing is, is that the reason why there are so many tackles drafted early is because people league wide have become victims to the same mass hysteria which drives the “Let’s tie Jeff Backus to a boulder and then roll him into the ocean” mindset. Nobody is happy with their starting left tackle, which only reinforces my point that those dudes are really, really hard to find.

That’s the lesson that everyone should learn – that elite left tackles are rare beasts like unicorns or happy Lions fans – and that reaching for one just to reach for one is a fool’s errand, which will inevitably only lead to more heartbreak and folly. But people don’t learn that lesson. Instead they go the other way. In their desperation they grab any tall bum off the street, slap some pads on him and tell him he has to stop Julius Peppers from legally murdering their quarterback. It’s the whole “Well, this sucks, so the alternative has to be better” trap. And the reason it’s such a terrible trap is because when it comes to offensive tackles, no, the alternative isn’t better, it’s usually just more of the same, and in a lot of cases, it’s actually worse.

That’s why so many left tackle prospects are drafted in the first round, because people are desperate to replace their average or shitty left tackle, not because so many of them are actually worthy of being picked that high. Now I’m not saying that you should never pick an offensive tackle in the first round. That would be dumb. (And by the way, that’s the same sort of polarized I MUST PROVE MY POINT AND SO I WILL TAKE THE MOST EXTREME POSITION AVALAIBLE kind of arguing and thinking that I mentioned earlier, which ends up just being only so much dumb noise in a wilderness already filled with the braying idiocy of the dumb and endlessly foolish.) If a guy who you know will actually be better at left tackle is there, then by all means, draft him. If Orlando Pace or Tony Boselli or some dude like that is out there, it would be dumb not to take him. But if that guy isn’t there, don’t turn to the nearest tall, fat dude who managed to play college ball and try to make him that guy. That’s all I’m saying and that’s the trap that too many fans and too many teams fall into.

It’s with all that as the backdrop that year after year Lions fans howl and shoot rifles at the moon and write their Congressman because the Lions passed up yet another possible replacement for the Devil Backus. It’s ridiculous. I mean, all you have to do is take a look at the Lions own history of drafting offensive tackles. Since drafting Lomas Brown in 1985, which worked out pretty damn well, the Lions have drafted 5 offensive tackles in either the first or second round. The list: Juan Roque in 1997, Aaron Gibson in 1999, Stockar McDougle in 2000, Backus in 2001 and Gosder Cherilus in 2008.

Take a moment and let that sink in. Okay, done? Good.

Jeff Backus is the best player on that list. Taking an offensive tackle just to take an offensive tackle because that’s what you’re supposed to do is dumb and those names bear that shit out better than anything I could say. Sure, sure, some of that speaks to the Lions own ineptitude when it comes to scouting and development, but let’s face it, all those players were going to be drafted by somebody early in all of those drafts. It’s not like the Lions were the only team out there willing to take a shot on Aaron Gibson. The names on that list typify the average first round tackle. Most of the time, you’re going to end up with Stockar McDougle instead of Orlando Pace or even Lomas Brown.

Which finally – finally! – brings us to Johnny Culbreath, the Lions 7th round pick in this year’s Draft. It would seem to me that the Lions coaches and scouts understand all too well everything I just wrote. They are smart guys, guys who pay attention, who understand better than most that you have to draft the right guy at the right time, and that most of the time the tackles who are drafted in the first round are the wrong guys at the wrong time.

Look, it would be great to have a cyborg at left tackle, someone who can show up at camp and shotput Jeff Backus off the field, but if you can’t find the guy who can do that, why bother drafting someone in the first round who’s just going to give you the exact same thing? Or worse, someone who is just going to waste away on the bench because he can’t beat out Backus? That’s pretty much the definition of a wasted pick. And the worst part wouldn’t even be that the dude failed to make the improbable impact fans dream about but it would be that the Lions would have picked him and ignored some other potential impact player. Why draft a dude who’s not really going to improve your team in any meaningful way when you can draft a guy who can immediately improve your team?

I know, I know, I still haven’t talked about Culbreath, but all this horseshit is really about him so hang on. The point is that Jim Schwartz knows that he can’t get a dude who can just step onto the field at left tackle and be demonstrably better than Jeff Backus right away. He just can’t. And he has other needs all over the field, and there are dudes available in every draft who can step in and be demonstrably better right away than the dudes who are playing their positions and so he drafts one of them instead.

But he’s not ignoring the tackle position either, no matter how much the hysterics rant and rave about that being the case. His strategy – since he knows that he can’t find a surefire starting left tackle in the first round – is to look for a guy with a lot of tools late in the draft, a raw player who the coaches can develop into a starter and a force two or three years down the road, so that when the time comes when Backus has to be replaced, the Lions will have someone ready and able to do it. It’s kind of like this: Backus is like an old car, reliable, not too flashy and you know eventually you’re going to need to replace it. But you know that given a variety of factors – your finances, family size, insert whatever you want here – you know that any car that you could buy right now would just give you pretty much the exact same thing. So why even bother to buy a new car that would just be the same as your old car? Why not spend the money on, say, a kickass home theater system or a fine prostitute or maybe even your own private army of highly trained howler monkeys? Or a fine prostitute howler monkey? You know, one that’s had its teeth removed and . . . too far? I’ve gone too far again, haven’t I? The point is, is that you can find other, better uses for that money than just buying another used car which is going to give you the same performance – and the same problems – as the one you already have. But . . . there’s something else you can do too. If you have the know-how – which in this case would be analogous to good coaching – why not pick up an old Mustang or (insert whatever car you want here. I know people get all riled up about cars and get weird and particular about this shit, but I’m not really a car guy, so just imagine your ideal car and go with it, okay?) and then spend the next couple of years fixing that baby up until finally, when your car is ready to go you not only have a new car waiting in the wings but a badass car you built yourself, a car that you can be proud of and show off to all your friends? Fuck buying a used Subaru. Build yourself a goddamn Mustang.

And that’s the Jim Schwartz/Martin Mayhew style: they want to build Mustangs, not buy Subarus. (Nothing against Subaru, I just picked a name out of thin air. Leave me alone, car zealots!) All that is just another way of explaining and restating the Philosophy of Greatness which I have made the central point of all of these draft breakdowns.

It’s obvious that this is their style just by looking at their draft history: in 2009, they drafted Lydon Murtha in the 7th round. In 2010, they drafted Jason Fox in the 4th. This year, they drafted Culbreath in the 7th. Not one of those players was drafted because anyone thought they would kick Backus in the ass and replace him right away. No. They were all drafted with an eye towards the future, because Schwartz and Mayhew looked at them and saw potential Mustangs. Murtha ended up getting caught in a numbers crunch and was poached off of the practice squad by the Miami Dolphins. He started four games for them last season in place of Vernon Carey and looks like he’ll at least be a serviceable NFL player. Fox is still with the Lions and is being groomed for better things. And Culbreath? Well, Culbreath gives the Lions another Mustang to work on in case Fox falls apart or never runs well in the first place.

The Lions know they have issues on the offensive line. The chicken littles running around screeching and bitching and asking anyone who will listen “Why won’t they draaaaaft a taaaaaackle?” need to understand this. I know it’s hard to have faith in the Lions decision makers after every terrible thing that has gone on in the last half century of unnumbered tears. I get it. Believe me, I get it. Just go back to my first post on this blog and start reading forward if you don’t believe me. I understand. It’s hard to accept that things are different and that there is real plan in place, and that the people in charge of this whole thing aren’t blithering idiots but rational, smart dudes who understand both the strengths and weaknesses of this roster. They know that the Lions need to build their offensive line, but they’re trying to do it the smart way, not the fast, sloppy way that most fans seem to want. People want instant gratification and at least in this case, that shit just isn’t possible.

Culbreath isn’t a perfect player. There’s a reason why he didn’t get drafted until the 7th round. But his biggest flaw seems to be that he’s a raw athlete who isn’t anywhere near being ready to play every week in the NFL. That may frustrate some people, but that’s a correctable problem, you know? If you’re going to have a flaw, that’s the one that you want in a 7th rounder.

Everything else seems to be there for Culbreath. He’s got good size – 6’5”, 320 lbs plus – he’s strong and he seems to be a pretty good athlete. He originally was headed for Florida St. out of high school but his shitty grades sent him instead to South Carolina St. where he was a four year starter, a conference player of the year and an FCS All-American. So it’s not like the dude is completely unknown. He was dominant at a lower level of football, a level which he was able to dominate through sheer size and athletic ability. He was the proverbial man amongst boys, and in that way he kinda reminds me of Sammie Hill.

If the Lions coaches can develop Culbreath anywhere near as well as they’ve developed Hill, then there’s a good chance that one day Culbreath will be the Mustang the Lions coaches hope he can be. Of course, that comparison isn’t completely fair. After all, while Hill was even rawer than Culbreath is now, and played at even a lower level in college, he also seemed like he had a higher ceiling. Like I said, Culbreath is limited. There are concerns about his feet and his punch coming off the line, but those concerns seem like ones that could be corrected with good coaching and I’m glad that we have a group of people in charge who are confident in their abilities to provide that good coaching. I’ll say again what I said about Doug Hogue: if this were Millen and Marinelli, then I would think this was a lousy pick, a dude who couldn’t possibly pan out because the idea of player development as part of a central, unifying plan was beyond absurd, like the idea of monkey nuclear physicists or, well, Matt Millen as anything other than a giant pile of failure. But with Mayhew and Schwartz, I’m willing to believe what they believe: that they have the ability to build a Mustang out of spare parts and one kick-ass body. (I swear I didn’t mean that to sound as homoerotic/disturbing as it came across. Also, I apologize for using the phrases “homoerotic” and “came across” in the same sentence. Shit, I’ll be right back. I need to get all this out of my system. Maybe I’ll take a break and write some Willie Young erotica. You know you want it! No? Okay, fine.)

And that’s the whole point here, I think – that we need to trust the dudes in charge and believe what they believe. I know that’s a huge leap of faith for some of you to take and I can respect that, but from what I’ve seen from these guys, they get it. They understand how to coach guys up and bring out the best in them. They believe in a Philosophy of Greatness and so do I. I see a pattern in the way that they work and the way that they draft. I see it. And there’s no way I can really explain that without devolving into weird psychotic gibberish and wild grunts and dumb howls that would just leave you shaking your head in disdain. I can see patterns, man, and I know that sounds like the fractured ravings of a loon on mushrooms or with a head full of acid, but goddammit, I can see them. I can. And I like what I see. I see how Johnny Culbreath fits into the bigger plan, how he factors into this new Lions universe. I hope I’ve managed to explain that at least a little bit in this post. I know I keep rambling on about the Philosophy of Greatness and I keep sliding away from the point to explain things that don’t seem like they need to be explained, but they do. They do. Because to me, that’s the whole point here. This Lions universe of ours is complex and bewildering and someone needs to be here to try to make sense of it all and for whatever absurd reason, I have taken that upon myself. I don’t want to just explain Doug Hogue or Johnny Culbreath’s strengths or weaknesses in a vacuum. I wanted to explain them in the context of that larger universe and I hope that I have – at least a little bit.

I’ve begun to ramble (begun???) but what I really wanted to say is that thanks to Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew, I can finally make some sort of sense out of the Lions universe that isn’t just a screaming blue light of pain, misery and confusion. The noise of the past has died down a little bit and now I am just watching as the new pieces of this universe slide into place and it makes me smile, like a retarded little kid watching balloons float overhead it makes me smile, because in this universe Johnny Culbreath isn’t just some nobody the Lions picked simply because they had to pick somebody. He’s a part of that universe and I see how he fits – or at least how he’s supposed to fit if everything goes the way it’s supposed to – and that makes me glad.

Of course, I might be drifting too far towards the optimistic, but so what? I recognize that Culbreath may never pan out. I recognize that he might just end up being a practice squad player who gets cut when nobody’s paying attention. I get all that. But then again, maybe he will pan out. Maybe he will one day be that Mustang that we show off and brag about to all of our friends, and really, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That it’s possible, that even a 7th round pick like Johnny Culbreath is worth getting excited about because there’s a pattern to it all, this universe is finally starting to make sense and even the smallest details, the smallest picks, even a 7th rounder like Johnny Culbreath, could be the ones that one day take us to the playoffs and beyond, to an endless horizon where the only limits are our own imaginations and confetti falling from the sky as Roger Goodell hands Old Man Ford the Lombardi Trophy. This may be the dream of the perpetually foolish, the delusions of a broken and shattered and ruined mind, savaged by the unknowable realities of 0-16, but fuck it, what a dream.

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