Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Premature Evaluations 2009 - Detroit Lions

This year, we're traveling from the bottom to the top, checking out each team's prospects, stories, and roles in the greater story of the league along the way.

Sisyphus has nothing on Calvin Johnson. Megatron, as he's better known to those who mourned him last season, was the league's fifth most productive receiver in terms of total yardage. Dude had 1331 yards, not to mention tying for a league best 12 touchdowns. Oh, and he put all that up catching passes from Fat Daunte, Drew Stanton, Dan Orlovsky, and Jon Kitna. Adjusting for that, the man should have had enough yardage to circle the globe at least once. Every play, the attention of the opposition rested squarely on Johnson's shoulders, and time after time Johnson, rather than acting as a decoy for an offense with nobody capable of capitalizing on such a plan, relied on his talents to overcome the very defensive schemes created to make them irrelevant. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald, there may not be a more thrilling player to watch than Megatron, if only because he is the rare skill player that can create plays entirely on his own.

And yet 0-16 still happened. As undeniably as last year was Johnson's breakout year as an elite receiver, it was also the nadir of the Detroit Lions as an organization. The Lions were within ten points of their opposition in fewer than half of their games. Roy Williams, for years having been the good soldier, practically wept with joy when he became a Dallas Cowboy. In fact, one can point to the beginning of the Lions' slide into despair in 2007 as the point when Megatron really emerged as a dominant player. The better Johnson has played, the worse the team has become. It's like Godzilla; he only comes out when the radiation is at its most toxic. The question, then, is whether or not reaching rock bottom can finally align a team with its greatest individual talent.

If the 2009 offseason means anything (and it probably doesn't, but Detroit needs a fever dream something fierce), the answer might be yes. Finally, after years of holding an entire city hostage, Matt Millen is gone. LT Gosder Cherilius is entering his second year of development, and with the addition of OT Jon Jansen should receive some valuable veteran help on the line. Kevin Smith returns after a rookie season in which he ran for almost 1000 yards and 4.1 yards per carry. Perhaps most importantly, Jim Schwartz, who turned the Tennessee Titans defense into THE TENNESSEE TITANS DEFENSE has his sights set on getting his team to win some battles in the trenches. Not bad, even if 0-16 means "not bad" includes a lack of obvious physical injuries.

But it's the draft that spoke volumes on where this team is going, and where it needs to go, and where its attentions and affections must remain if it is ever going to turn things around in the next couple of years. Make no mistake, as questionable as the Matt Stafford pick is, and as strange as the Brandon Pettigrew pick struck those believing that defense needed to come first, those picks were all about rebuilding the city that once was Detroit around it's new Megatron overlord. With an arm to find him anywhere on the field (whether in Stafford or in a reportedly lean and mean Culpepper, who could stun people thanks to a reunion with the offensive coordinator that made him a household name), and a legitimate threat to stretch the middle of the field and force defenses into some kind of honesty in tandem with the improving ground game, Calvin Johnson may finally have all of the pieces around him that he has so desperately needed. Forget the best player of his draft, Megatron may be the best player of the last three drafts. If the defense can provide a little support (and under Schwartz, one would have to imagine it will), then maybe, now that this offense has realized that Johnson is not a building block but instead a monolith, the Lions can turn things around sooner than anyone expected. After all, the NFC North isn't exactly a murderer's row (the best team there is still letting Tarvaris Jackson run the show…which is admirable for its commitment but the wrong move for a win-now franchise). Cliché time, but on any given Sunday, would you like to be the defensive coordinator up by less than seven and facing an offense boasting one of maybe three receivers that can ruin your day with one play? Sure, the playoffs aren't a sure thing,but are they ever? And considering that the schedule has gotten much, much easier (0-16 will do that to you), is it crazy to think that this team could win its divisional matchups and crawl into the dance?

Yes, it is crazy. But you know what, maybe crazy is excusable, considering I've been staring into the Megatron youtubes all day. Lions to the playoffs. This is the season my belief in the individual tailored system lives or dies.

And now, in two years, this will probably be an adult site.

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