Friday, September 05, 2008

Detroit Lions 2008 season preview: On second thought...

If you visited SideLion Report while I was still blogging for Fan Sided (if you were wondering, there are some problems with their network redesign, but MVN is busy designing the "new" TWFE. You'll be the first to know when the move is imminent.), you may have seen the Detroit Lions season preview I wrote for Yardbarker. I did the best I could, given the restrictions in length and format.

But there was the unavoidable issue of having to write it so damn early in training camp. It went live after the first exhibition. I had to assume a few things, and guess at others. The Lions have also made a few unforeseen personnel moves. If I was writing the preview today, I might come to different conclusions. In other words, as is the right of chicks and bloggers everywhere, I reserve the right to change my mind.

So I've changed my mind about a few things I wrote in the preview. I've posted the Yardbarker original, with my new/changed/WTF commentary below each section.

Let's preview away...

Team MVP:

Quarterback Jon Kitna.

Anything the Lions will try to accomplish on offense will revolve around their bible thumping QB. He can put up the numbers, as 8000+ yards the past 2 seasons attest. But the reasons I call Kitna the Lions' MVP are due to the intangibles.

The Lions success or failure this season fully depends upon the health of Kitna. The backup QB situation is dire. With the unproven Dan Orlovsky, and the even more unproven Drew Stanton, who's yet to play a regular season game, behind Detroit's Holy Roller, Detroit's season ends if they have to take the reins for a significant amount of time.

Say what you will about Kitna, he's an average QB at best, a turnover waiting to happen, tries to do too much given his limited talent, they are all true. But something else is undeniably true. Kitna is the acknowledged leader of the Detroit locker room. Head coach Rod Marinelli backs him unconditionally. Kitna brings a swagger and confidence the team desperately needs. This team would follow him anywhere.

To put it simply, with Jon Kitna under center, the Lions have at shot at a decent season. Without him? The Lions would be in the hunt for the 1st overall pick.

Big Al: There's no change in my opinion when it comes to Jon Kitna. The Lions will go as far as he can take them. I can only hope we see more of the Good Kitna, than the Bad Kitna.

Good Kitna: Plays within himself, thus keeping turnovers to a bare minimum. A team leader who may be the toughest player, pound for pound, on the Lions. I know it's a cliche', but Kitna's more effective when managing a game, rather than forcing the action.

Bad Kitna: When he forces things, really, really bad things happen. Will go for the high risk, low percentage play, when a lower risk, high percentage play is preferable. Takes unnecessary risks when throwing, and running with, the ball. If he gets hurt while taking one of those risks (making like a running back, diving headfirst, rather than sliding), the Lions are up shit creek.

Break-Out Player:

Defensive tackle Shaun Cody.

For a player whose career has been almost as disappointing as the "career" (term used loosely) of his USC classmate, Mike Williams, the Lions are expecting big things out of the 2005 2nd round pick. On a team devoid of defensive playmakers, and in desperate need of a tackle capable of giving an inside push; Cody has the talent to develop into that player.

Cody was motivated ordered by Marinelli to come into camp at the lightest weight of his career, 295 lbs, hoping the extra speed will mean extra sacks. (Not a hard feat when you have 1.5 sacks 3 seasons) The playing time is there for him as well in '08, as former starter Shaun Rogers was traded to Cleveland. Everything is in place for Cody to have a big season.

There's one more reason for my picking Cody as the Lions' breakout player. He's in the walk year of his contract, and playing for a new long-term deal. Cody does not want to leave money on the table, so expect big things from a player who has only shown flashes of his considerable potential.

Then expect the Lions to vastly overpay to keep him in 2009.

Big Al: OK, I'm going to tell you guys something, but keep it on the down low. When I went with Cody, I was going for Sports Illustrated's patented "Make an outrageous, attention getting prediction in order to generate extra attention." I picked an out of the blue player for shock value. Plus there was a little voice telling me Cody just might just step up his game with it being his walk year, ala Cory Redding.

After watching 4 exhibitions, it's obvious Cody isn't stepping up anything, let alone his game. He's going to play, but will be pushed by the Lions' 2 interior d-lineman draft picks Andre Fluellen and Landon Cohen.

So the Lions' true breakout player in 2008 is going to be Megatron, Calvin Johnson. The was a man amongst boys during his limited exhibition action. CJ makes everyone around him better, especially Kitna and Roy Williams. Kitna can throw jump balls, harking back to Scott Mitchell throwing Herman Moore circa 1994-1997, knowing Johnson is going to come down with the ball 99 out of 100 times. Williams is going to get beatable single coverage as CJ gets double teamed.

If he (and for that matter, Kitna) can avoid injury, Johnson is going to have a 1300+ yard, 10+ TD, All-Pro style year. I'd definitely call that a "breakout" season.

Biggest Disappointment:

Matt Millen avoids getting fired...AGAIN.

Players and coaches come and go, the losing records don't, but there is always one constant. Matt Millen. Millen's tenure in Detroit has historically bad, legendarily bad. If there was a Hall of Fame of bad, Millen would be a charter member, in on the first ballot. He's been the sort of bad that will be talked about for generation after generation of Lions fans. When the apocalypse hits, the only things to survive will be cockroaches and Matt Millen.

Yet he does just enough to keep his job as GM and President of the Detroit Lions. What that is, I have no idea. Unfortunately, I see no reason to believe the '08 season will be any different. We fans know the drill. The Lions will struggle, but Millen will somehow convince octogenarian owner William Clay Ford he's "this close" to turning things around.

Then the never ending Detroit Lions circle of pain begins anew.

Big Al: Wouldn't change a thing. I don't care if the Lions make the playoffs, even win the Super Bowl. MILLEN. MUST. GO. He can take Stan "Not so special teams" Kwan with him.

Fantasy Stud:

Running back Kevin Smith

I know you would expect me to pick a wide receiver, either Calvin Johnson or Roy Williams, but I just can't do it. Why not? Because the turnover machine known as Jon Kitna is throwing to them, they'll split opportunities, meaning you won't get the consistent week to week production you do from a back and the Lions are committing to the run this season.

Why Kevin Smith? When the defacto number one back is Tatum Bell, you know the Lions 3rd round pick from Central Florida is being groomed to carry the load at running back, much sooner than later. With Marinelli and new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto vowing to revamp Mike Martz's pass first, last and always offense into a more ground oriented attack, expect Smith to have the best all-around season by a Lions back since Barry Sanders retired.

I'm not saying Smith is the next coming of the greatest back ever, but he's the most promising young running back the Lions have had on their roster since Barry's heyday. Trust me; Smith will be a middle round sleeper fantasy pick.

Big Al: I wasn't bullshitting anyone, I genuinely thought Smith would make for a great middle round FF pick, get you something close to 1100 yards and 8 TD's. That would be a great #3 RB or a swing W/R player. I even took my own advice, and took Smith as my 3rd running back in the one money league I'm in, The Ghosts of Wayne Fontes Blogger Invitational. (I did hedge my bets, grabbing Earnest Graham a round earlier. Hell, I went RB heavy, with Steven Jackson, Ryan Grant, Graham, Smith and Fred Taylor, as if you wanted to know...) Then the Lions had to go and sign Rudi Johnson. "Poof!" went my fantasy sleeper dreams.

Smith still should have a nice season, and I think the Lions success depends upon it. But it won't be as big, fantasy points-wise, as first expected. We all know the Lions are going to use Rudi Johnson as a co-lead RB with Smith, for better or worse, thanks to Rod Marinelli's fetish for veteran players. I'm leery of that strategy, as Johnson has been in decline for 2 seasons now.

Offensive Outlook:

The last two seasons, with Mike Martz in charge of the offense, the Lions would often have games with rushing attempts in the single digits. A dozen rushes in a game would be considered Martz's "committing"" to the run. That's going to change in 2008. With Colletto now calling plays, the days of giving up on the run before the game even started are over.

With the passing offense being scaled back, Jon Kitna may not throw for 4000 yards again, but won't throw 20 picks either. With less to do, and a more conservative mindset, he should be a much more effective QB.

The strength of the Lions offense still revolves around the wide receivers, but rather than Johnson and Williams being used as decoys (explaining why Shawn McDonald was the leading receiver in '07), the Lions plan on using the run to set up the pass. A foreign notion in Detroit, I know. They will then look to break games open by throwing to their talented wide outs, but only after softening defenses with the legs of Smith.

Big Al: Nothing I've seen so far changes my opinion...too much. The Rudi Johnson signing actually confirms it. The Lions are going to run more than last season, as Marinelli has laid down the law. Then again, if the Lions averaged 12 rushes a game, they would literally be running the ball more. If the exhibition season is any indication, 25-30 rushing attempts seems to be the Lions' goal. Sounds like a solid plan to me, especially if Johnson can find the fountains of youth and health.

Regardless of what Marinelli would prefer, the passing game, riding on the arm of Kitna, and the hands of Williams and Johnson, is what will make or break the Lions' season.

To really "make" the season, it's going to be all about the offensive line. The fact 1st round pick Gosder Cherilus is still backing up the overpaid Jeff Backus and the underwhelming George "Insert any joke referring to yellow flags, stupid penalties and/or snap counts here" Foster is not a good sign for the o-line. In fact, it's a MASSIVE FUCKING RED FLAG!

I want to buy into Marinelli's and Jim Colletto's revamped offense. But the o-line gives me pause...and a rug burn on Kitna's back.

Defensive Diagnosis:

There were big changes made in the Detroit defense this past offseason. The Lions, sick and tired of tackle Shaun Rogers and his overweight and under performing ways, traded the former Pro Bowler to Cleveland for Leigh Bodden. Bodden immediately became Detroit's best cornerback. That trade spurred the rebuilding of the defensive backfield, accomplished by the signing of 3 former Buccaneers (CB Brian Kelly, S Kalvin Pearson and S Dwight Smith) in free agency.

Linebacker Ernie Sims led the team in tackles, and is considered Pro Bowl material as an outside linebacker. He'll be joined by 2nd round pick Jordan Dizon, who is your prototypical Tampa Two middle linebacker, small and fast. Marinelli is loathe to give much responsibility to rookies though, meaning Dizon may move outside while the incumbent, the better suited to special teams Paris Lenon, remains as a weak link in the Lions defense.

The defensive line will be anchored by tackle Cory Redding and end Dewayne White, though it'll take more than one player to replace Rogers. They took 3 d-linemen in the draft, in hopes of plugging the might big hole left by the trade. In fact, the Lions may end up keeping 10 linemen, as Marinelli likes a deep line rotation, keeping his players fresh.

Going into the 3rd season of the Tampa Two, Rod Marinelli's job depends upon the defense improving. He was hired for the Lions job much thanks to his defensive guru reputation in Tampa. We've yet to see it translate on to the field in Detroit.

Big Al: From what I've seen to this point, the defensive backfield changes have been for the better. Much, much better. The defensive line is deep. 11 damn linemen deep, which is insane depth chart, and has the Lions short handed at a couple of other positions. The question I have is, if you have to keep that many linemen, how many are really any good?

Other than Ernie Sims, linebacker is, as always, a question mark. Jordon Dizon is a backup, and Paris Lenon is starting. Anyone else see something wrong this this picture? Lenon is not a starting MLB on a playoff team. I hope Marinelli realizes it sometime this season, the sooner, the better.

"Red Letter" Game:

Tennessee Titans on Thanksgiving Day

In Detroit, Thanksgiving Day is our Super Bowl, our only day to shine. It's been the only game nationally televised in recent years, a game the entire city and state points towards. With a relatively soft early schedule, with a win on Turkey Day, the Lions could be midst of a playoff run. The more likely scenario will be similar to '07, when a Thanksgiving Day loss accelerated what was becoming a massive late season collapse. But hey, it's our Super Bowl!

Big Al:
Until further notice, or when we have better football team, Detroit's Turkey Day extravaganza is our Super Bowl,

But if you read the post below, I called the Lions opening day game in Atlanta a "must win." If they lose, the entire season could implode before it even has a chance to get off the ground. Atlanta is an extremely beatable team, and if the Lions want to keep what support they have with the fanbase, they need to take advantage of that fact.

Sounds like a "red letter" game to me.

Projected Record/Outlook:

Best case, 9-7. Worst case, 5-11. My projection? 7-9, and out of the playoffs.

The Lions '08 season could parallel '07 - Start fast, finish slow. Much like last season, the schedule has set up Detroit for an easy first half, with a second half full of playoff contenders. The Lions have yet to develop the depth to seriously contend, and if Kitna misses any significant time? It'll get real ugly.

If Kitna remains healthy, I think the Lions can hang around on the periphery of the wild card race, till a season ending stretch (at the Colts, home against the Saints and at Green Bay, where the Lions haven't won since the Majik-man days) ends their year on a 0-3 streak.

Big Al: The 4-0 exhibition record is meaningless. A 7-9 out of the playoffs finish still sounds about right. The Lions aren't getting much help from their draft class yet, and depth remains a major issue. The o-line, running back, linebacker and special teams are big time question marks. The Lions just don't have enough impact talent to to be considered anything more than playoff pretenders. They are getting better, but just aren't good enough to be anything more than disappointing...again.

Parting Smack:

It's tough, almost impossible in fact, to talk smack as a Lions fan, but...

Green Bay Packers: Didja hear about FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! FAVRE! I've never seen a franchise and fan base let themselves be lead on and on and on, all due to the whims of an attention whoring drama queen demigod who craves camera time more than anything else on the planet...Even winning. If the Packers think they can win without the love child of John Madden and Peter King under center, more power to them. Of one thing I'm sure. With no Mr. I Can't Make Up My Damn Mind, there's no way the Packers will get another chance to choke in the NFC title game.

Big Al: The Packers are still the best team in the NFC North, even without  "Mr. Traded To The J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets." Aaron Rogers is no "Mr. How In The Hell Is Favre Pronounced Far-ve?" but he's good enough to lead them to the division title.

Chicago Bears: If there is team with a worse QB situation than the Bears...Oh yeah, the Vikings! I'll get to them in a second. I only need to say 2 words about the Bears: Rex Grossman. Here are 2 more: Kyle Orton. What else is there to say? Other than the Bears expect their non-existent running game to be turned around by a Detroit reject, the gimp known as Kevin Jones, who would still find a way to suffer a season ending injury if  fields were covered in pillows and the NFL made all hitting illegal. Whatever happened to Thomas Jones? I know! He was traded away because the Bears thought the bust known as Cedric Benson was a legitimate NFL running back...

Big Al: The Bears have no QB or receivers. The running game is dependent upon a rookie and a Lions reject. The Bears' defense is going to have to both shut out the opposition, and do all the scoring, to have any chance at winning. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Minnesota Vikings: The starting QB in Minnesota is Tarvaris Jackson. Let that sink in for a moment. Not Michael, Jermaine or Tito. Not Reggie, Jesse or Andrew. Tarvaris Jackson. Not even Adrian Peterson can make up for that much of a handicap. It must make Vikings fans pine for the likes of Joe Kapp. What I can't figure out is Brad Childress saw Jackson flail about up close all last season...Only to make him the starter again in '08. Even Bears fans can say, "At least our QB situation isn't as bad as the Vikings!"

Big Al: Peter King thinks Tavaris Jackson can lead the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. Uh...If you say so. The Vikings make the title game only if Jackson's on the bench, and Adrian Peterson handles the ball on every snap. Hey, if you have a better idea, I'm sure Brad Childress would love to hear from you. Too much caffeine obviously does weird things to one's mind. Lay off the Starbucks, dude. It's making you write certifiable bullshit.

I'm ready for the Lions to take the field in anger, folks! Let the suffering season begin!

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