Is Detroit's Only Hope in the 2009 NFL Season to Play for Pride?

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Is Detroit's Only Hope in the 2009 NFL Season to Play for Pride?
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In 2008, I wrote an article as to why the Miami Dolphins could contend that year. They did. I predicated that argument on the idea that the Dolphins needed to incorporate all of their running backs into the offense, and for then-Miami quarterback Josh McCown to play like Trent Dilfer.

Strangely enough, the Dolphins would sign castoff quarterback Chad Pennington and trade McCown to Carolina. The Dolphins would also install the Wildcat offense in order to utilize running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.

I am not taking credit for what Tony Sparano and Bill Parcells did. However, in retrospect, I feel prescient in what I opined, and that I was thinking the way a Hall of Fame coach would think.

In a random aside, I have also taken Wonderlic practice tests and earned a perfect score. The meaning of that is highly questionable, but I could not resist the chance to say it.

Anyway, the Detroit Lions are currently in a similar situation as the Dolphins were after 2007. 

A struggling team that did not win more than one game that will go into the subsequent season with a quarterback controversy that commonly does involve a castoff quarterback from the Raiders (Culpepper and McCown played for the Raiders in 2007).

In 2008, I compared the 1-15 Dolphins to the 1-15 Panthers of 2001, because that team went from 1-15 to 7-9 in 2002 and then appeared in the Super Bowl in 2003.

In this article, I will compare the 0-16 Lions to the 2-14 Bengals of 2002. After all, the Bengals revitalized in 2003 with quarterback Jon Kitna and a record of 8-8.

Cincinnati Bengals and the 2003 NFL Draft

In the 2003 draft, the Bengals selected QB Carson Palmer, G Eric Steinbach, WR Kelly Washington, FB Jeremi Johnson, CB Dennis Weathersby, LB Khalid Abdullah, DT Langston Moore, OT Scott Kooistra, and DE Elton Patterson.

In 2009, only Palmer, Johnson, and Kooistra remain with the Bengals.

Nevertheless, in 2003 the Bengals went from 2-14 to 8-8, only by addition of two rookie starters, Steinbach and Johnson. Washington produced promising numbers as a third receiver, but other than that, the Bengals did not rely on rookies as starters, and yet, they improved dramatically.

Why?

When the Bengals selected Palmer in 2003, they choose to sit him and start Jon Kitna. Kitna led the Bengals to a record of 8-8 in 2003 after being the league's worst in 2002. Thus, Kitna helped remove the psychological funk in the culture of losing in Cincinnati, which gave momentum to Palmer.

I do believe that the main reason why the team finished with a .500 record was that then-new head coach Marvin Lewis understood his personnel, and understood that he had talent to work with. 

Moreover, that his main challenge was the psychological cloud that hovered over the Bengals as an NFL joke with fans that no longer cared.

 

With so many Johnsons in the NFL, no wonder Chad became Ochocinco

The difference-makers for Cincinnati were mostly offensive youth that "stepped up," such as WR Chad Ochocinco, WR/RS Peter Warrick (replaced in 2004 by T.J. Houshmandzadeh), RB Rudi Johnson, rookie FB Jeremi Johnson, LT Levi Jones, rookie LG Eric Steinbach, veteran C Rich Braham, RG Mike Goff, RT Willie Anderson, DE Justin Smith, and LB Brian Simmons.

Moreover, the Bengals also filled holes with scrappy players like DE Duane Clemons, DT John Thornton, LB Kevin Hardy, CB Tory Holt, CB Jeff Burris, and S Rogers Beckett.

In 2004, the Bengals gave the reigns to Palmer who went 8-8. Palmer would then lead Cincinnati to the postseason in 2005 with a record of 11-5. That was Cincinnati's first playoff appearance in 15 years.

Now, Bengals fans have started to care again, because the Bengals passed that threshold of winning, where staff, players, and fans start to crave more. 

Rather than just cross their fingers each week, even if the Bengals suffered a lousy season in 2008, they had averaged eight wins per season until 2008.

The Bengals went from total joke to middle-of-the-pack, which overall, is a triumph for the Bengals.

Enter Detroit

Call me crazy—plenty do.  It is merely because I am willing to say what I think existentially. I argue hard, but I do not always invest my emotions into the argument (except on issues of bigotry).

With Detroit's group, I think that the Lions have at least a puncher's chance of an "interesting season."

Meaning that, they will not look like slop, but that their weaknesses will be identifiable. Sometimes, you cannot identify a team's weaknesses and thus they look like slop.

Believe me, I know. I am a Raider fan.

The Lions should start Daunte Culpepper, not Matthew Stafford.

If Culpepper can make the offense functional (but not flashy), then I think the Lions will be able to identify their weaknesses.

In Detroit, the Lions have a rising star in wide receiver Calvin Johnson as the Bengals had in the Receiver Formerly Known as Chad Johnson in 2003. 

Fortunately, for Calvin, they no longer have common initials with the same last name. Let's hope that the new C.J. does not eventuate into Calvin Ocho-uno. 

Added to that group will be wide receivers Bryant Johnson, Ronald Curry, Dennis Northcutt (also an RS), rookie Derrick Williams, and rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

In running back Kevin Smith, I believe that the Lions have a solid runner who could perform as Rudi Johnson did for Cincinnati, while the Lions added blockers in the rookie Pettigrew and fullback Terrelle Smith, as the Bengals added a rookie blocker in Jeremi Johnson.

The true stickler for the offense is the offensive line. That led many to believe that Detroit should select an offensive tackle in the NFL Draft. However, Detroit did the right thing in the selection of Stafford in order to build around his learning curve.

I do believe however, that Detroit's best chance at a cohesive and stout line is to keep Raiola, Peterman, and Cherilus where they are. They should focus on the void at left-guard. They must determine whether left tackle Jeff Backus can still play as he did in 2007, or if they need to see what free agent and fellow left tackle Daniel Loper can do.

The solution for Detroit's void at left guard could require a creative one, such as veterans LT Ephraim Salaam, RT Jon Jansen, or LG Toniu Fonoti. The Lions will eventually need to replace them through the draft, by trade, or free agency, but I think that Detroit has enough for an efficient stopgap.

 

On Defense

Like the Bengals in 2003, the Lions have loaded-up on scrappy defensive players, and even feature some promising youth.

Detroit's promising youth on defense includes rookie S Louis Delmas, S Daniel Bullocks, LB Ernie Sims, pass-rusher Cliff Avril, rookie DT Sammie Lee Hill, DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, with depth in LB Jordan Dizon, LB Alex Lewis, S Kelvin Pearson, and rookie LB DeAndre Levy.

The Lions added CB Philip Buchanon, CB Anthony Henry, LB Larry Foote, All-Pro LB Julian Peterson, and DT Grady Jackson, along with holdover DE Dwayne White.

I am not sure about the futures of DE Jared DeVries and DT Chartric Darby.

 

Lions to Bengals

The style of Buchanon does remind me of Terrence Holt, a style defined by big plays as a ball hawk but deficient tackling. 

Henry compares well to Jeff Burris; Sims compares well to Brian Simmons; White compares well to Duane Clemons; Delmas and Bullocks compare well to Rogers Beckett and Mark Roman.

Peterson is better than Adrian Ross; Foote is not as good as Kevin Hardy. Jackson is not an identical of John Thornton but plays defensive tackle; and Avril is a questionable comparison to Justin Smith.

I think those players balance out.

I think Detroit's biggest questions marks on defense are Darby and the third cornerback spot for nickel formations (Eric King, Ramzee Robinson).  DeVries seems to be blocking the chances of Allama-Francis and Avril, two ends that I think could platoon at the position.

As For Special Teams

Never underestimate the value of special teams, especially when your team has struggled. One of the best ways to stay competitive is by winning the battle of field position through punts, returns and coverage, but also by being able to score points from field goals.

All of which, are neglected.

Many people think that the "best" players should play special teams.

The reality however, is that one-dimensional players are best for special teams: Such as the fast receiver who cannot catch, or the physical linebacker who cannot cover in passing defense.

When the Baltimore Ravens gutted their roster after the 2001 season, they selected punter Dave Zastudil in the fourth round on the basis that a good punter is a "weapon." 

The Ravens surprised many in 2002 with a record of 7-9. That was surprising because they had not only gutted their roster in the offseason—they had nearly liquidated it.

The point being is that the best teams in the NFL understand the importance of special-teams.

The Lions added return specialist Dennis Northcutt by trade recently, while they also have potential coverage players in Dizon, Levy, Alex Lewis, and Cody Spencer.

I think Detroit's problem is its punter, Nick Harris. He was a middle-of-the-pack player in 2008 and should be challenged by another player.

The Lions still have time to add players by free agency or trade.

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