Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. – Confucius.
When the time had finally come to bring down and demolish the Pontiac Silverdome in the suburban Detroit town last December, there’s no doubt that many long suffering Lions fans were very happy to see the former home of their beloved Lions demolished. As hundreds of people watched, a series of explosive charges raced around the building almost as fast as great Detroit running back Barry Sanders did in the 90’s. The detonation had happened but when the smoke cleared, the stadium was still standing there.
I recall initially thinking how the error was so emblematic of the failed Lions teams that had played in the building and also the misfortunes the city has endured with it’s economy over the 42 years it stood there. Then I looked at the flip side of that coin.
In a city where they currently have an art form dedicated to its abandoned theatres and other historic buildings, it struck me how symbolic it was that the stadium didn’t crumble after the attempted demolition. It was a symbol of resilience that the Lions and the people of Detroit have began to demonstrate over the past few years in a city that’s trying to rebuild. The Detroit Lions are a huge part of that rebuilding process along with its other sports teams. I firmly believe in the political power of sport and how it can galvanize a city and its people and no city needs or deserves a championship more than Detroit.
The relationship the organization has with the city is a great one and every organization is built on relationships. The team was purchased by the late William Clay Ford of the Ford motor family just prior to the NFL/AFL merger and the Ford family love this team. Mr Ford’s wife, Martha Firestone Ford is currently the sole owner and all of their children grew up around the franchise and all have administrative positions in the front office. Of all the teams that entered the league at the merger, the Lions are the only team to never appear in a Superbowl.
The most important relationship in the Lions organization is the one between General Manager and Head Coach. In recent history, the Ford family has given the keys of the franchise to three consecutive General Managers after years of allowing Head Coaches full control of football operations. The first General Manager to crash was Matt Millen. He was GM when the Lions hit rock bottom during the winless 2008 season. Millen, a hall of fame linebacker and four time superbowl winner admitted he was in over his head as a GM after he was fired. He was thriving as a broadcaster before he took the position in Detroit. His Lions teams had a win/loss record of 31/81 during his tenure with Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli as his head coaches. He had a series of terrible drafts where he missed on some incredible players. Mr Clay Ford loved Millen and stuck with him despite an outcry from the fan base for his release. Eventually, his struggles were impossible to overlook and he was fired. Before Millen left, he asked Mr Ford to strongly consider his assistant Martin Mayhew to replace him. Mayhew, a law graduate and superbowl winner as a defensive back for the Washington Redskins was poised and ready to take over so the keys were handed to him.
Mayhew would serve as GM up until 2015 and left Detroit with a record of 41/63. He took the Lions to the playoffs twice where they lost in the wild card game on both occasions. I thought Mayhew really changed the attitude and mentality of the franchise when he brought in Jim Schwartz who was then a defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.
With Schwartz came defensive coach Gunther Cunningham and a certain toughness that was so desperately needed in Detroit. They drafted players like Matthew Stafford, DeAndre Levy, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and brought in tough veterans like Kyle Vanden Bosch and really turned everything around. He brought much needed respect back to the city and franchise.
I saw the turn around in person as I witnessed almost empty stadiums in the 4th quarter of games and fans calling for the head of quarterbacks like Joey Harrington to a jam packed, hope filled stadium at the opener of the 2011 season when they blew out a talented Kansas City Chiefs team. Myself and Sport city chefs co-host, good friend and die hard Lions fan Tyrone ‘Tymeless’ Powell knew we’d witnessed something special after that game. Mayhew definitely did some amazing things during his tenure but was fired during the 2015 season on the heels of a 1-7 record at the time. Sadly, Mr Clay Ford passed away around this time and Coach Schwartz left for Philadelphia and back to his best as a defensive coordinator. Another blow came when Calvin Johnson emulated the great Barry Sanders and retired unexpectedly early. That was a tough blow for the fan base as he was such a fan favorite and a great person and player. It was a difficult time for the franchise.
Meyhew is currently in the front office of the San Francisco 49ers as a senior personel executive and I’m not surprised we’re seeing a shift there with people like him and GM John Lynch in that front office.
Back in Detroit, it was left to Mrs Martha Firestone Ford and the administration to find the next General Manager. To lead the search they brought in legendary GM Ernie Accorsi. I thought this was a genius move as I love Accorsi and his knowledge of the game. Accorsi has been suffering with ill health himself in recent years so it’s obvious how much respect he had for Mr Ford and how much finding a new General Manager for Detroit meant to him. He has so much respect throughout football and the necessary experience and contacts to find a great GM for the franchise. The search took Accorsi to New England and his friend Bill Belichick who’s success has branched off so much in the NFL since he started coaching. Coach Belichick suggested that Bob Quinn become the next GM to Accorsi and that’s the road they went down. Quinn had spent 16 seasons in the Patriots front office and knows what it takes to build a championship winning franchise. Quinn was given the keys and Accorsi was hired as a permanent advisor to team president Rod Wood. The late Mr Clay Ford would be happy with this arrangement I think.
The team now wears the initials W.C.F proudly on the jerseys in honor of Mr Ford just as the Bears do for their great owner George ‘Papa Bear’ Halas.
With Quinn in place as GM and Jim Caldwell in as head coach, I felt they did so well to have a winning record and make the playoffs in 2016 and it says so much about Jim Caldwell as a coach. Going into last season I felt there were decent expectations after 2016. The team was fantastic in the division and finished 5/1 within the NFC North. They swept the Packers who were missing Aaron Rogers and the Chicago Bears were re-building but it was still a great season in the division and a repeat would be so welcome.
The Vikings got to the NFC championship game last season and look good again with a Quarterback upgrade in Kirk Cousins. Aaron Rogers is back and healthy in Green Bay and Coach Matt Nagy has been appointed in Chicago. With Nagy comes his ‘run/pass option’ (R.P.O) offence for Mitch Trubisky and with Mack traded for it promises to be a much better season in Chicago. I think the NFC North has become the most competitive division in the NFL. Unfortunately the Lions didn’t do as well outside of the division last season and finished with a record of 9/7. The same record as 2016 but unfortunately missed the playoffs this time. Coach Jim Caldwell did great to have two winning seasons after all that happened in 2015 I thought but I also think there was a plan in place when Quinn took over with the direction he wanted to go in with his head coach. The franchise decided to fire Caldwell and bring in Matt Patricia from under Belichick in New England after another superbowl appearance and spread his branches wider throughout the league. It may take a rocket scientist to bring the Lombardi trophy to Detroit and now the Lions have one. If there’s a stationary shop in downtown Detroit then the owner is rubbing his hands due to the amount of pencils they’re about to sell. His sales in pencils for Patricia may balance out the economy alone. You may never see coach Patricia without a pencil behind his ear and his attention to detail is legendary. I really liked the hire and understood the direction taken by Quinn. Patricia certainly has a few Belichick traits but he’s definitely his own man and one of a kind as a person. It’s an appointment the fan base can get behind and it definitely brings hope to the franchise despite what happened on opening night against the New York Jets and rookie Quarterback Sam Darnold. I was really impressed with the process taken after the hiring of Ernie Accorsi.
Within days of his arrival, Coach Patricia addressed a huge offensive issue and replaced offensive line coach Ron Prince with Jeff Davidson and his assistant Hank Fraley who were both former NFL linemen. Coach Davidson has a history of turning around running games and had success in Denver and Carolina before being appointed. He coaches a man blocking scheme. It’s a more physical scheme to the zone blocking scheme that Prince was coaching. This coaching change was the only one on offense as the foundation of the Lions success has been this offense. It’s been so productive under Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and Coach Patricia is smart enough to know that you don’t fix something if it’s not broken. The running game is the big issue but the rest is in good shape. Coach Patricia specializes on the defensive side of the ball and with him comes new schemes and concepts and thus, new coaches. As his Defensive Coordinator, Patricia went back to the start of his coaching career and hired the coach that give him his first job at Syracuse university in Paul Pasqualoni. Pasqualoni’s experience in both college and the NFL will be so valuable to Patricia in his first season as a Head Coach. He’s just turned 69 years old and was previously coaching the defensive line at Boston College. As his Special Teams Coordinator he retains one of the all time best in Joe Marciano. Marciano has had some great special teams units and again gives Patricia vast knowledge with his experience. Marciano came to the Lions in 2015 and entered the league in 1986 with the New Orleans Saints.
POSITION BY POSITION
Starting Quarterback Matthew Stafford ended last season with 4,446 passing yards, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. It was his seventh consecutive season with at least 4,000 passing yards. He’s truly been the life blood of this team and I truly hope the days of relying solely on Stafford are over. No player has been more valuable to their team than Stafford has to Detroit and he was rewarded with a 5 year $135 million contract last season, making him the highest paid player in NFL history at the time. Aaron Rogers just signed a bigger contract but both are elite and the rivalry is incredible. Stafford was the first pick in the 2009 NFL draft out of Georgia and attended Highland Park high school in Texas, the same high school as former Lions quarterback Bobby Lane. Lane was part of the championship winning team of 1957 against Jim Brown, Lou Groza and the Cleveland Browns just before the merger. Stafford has started 113 consecutive games and is as tough as they come. What he’s never had is a reliable running game to help him and he was sacked a career high 47 times last season. Both of these issues were addressed in the off season so I’m expecting another great year for Stafford in Cooter’s offense. The Lions have a habit of winning late and Stafford has made twenty six 4th quarter comebacks in his career so far. I think that statistic says everything you need to know about him as an individual and a quarterback. To back him up they brought in veteran Matt Cassel who’s familiar with Quinn and Patricia from his time in New England as Tom Brady’s backup. It would be a disaster if Stafford got injured but a good move to have a veteran to steady the ship just in case. Position coach George Godsey has a dream job coaching Stafford. He was ranked 31st overall by his peers in the coveted top 100 players list last season. Stafford can take this team all the way but he needs help.
MADE THE CUT – Matthew Stafford / Matt Cassel..
The Lions haven’t had a running back rush for 100 yards since Thanksgiving day in 2013 when Reggie Bush did it in a rout of the Packers. That’s 69 games. Just 3 shy of the Redskins 72 game streak in the 60’s. I think it starts with the offensive line and I also think this ridiculous streak will end this season. What they’ve seemed to be doing is trying to find another Barry Sanders style of running back with backs like Reggie Bush, Jahvid Best, Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah all starting in recent years. All very talented and elusive but none has come close to a Sanders like season. One of the first moves in free agency was to get power running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount reunites with his coach of two seasons ago when he and Patricia won a superbowl together in New England. He also won it last year in Philadelphia so he’s a great omen and brings some great experience and a winning attitude to the motor city. He scored one of the greatest rushing touchdowns ever as a Buccaneer and was extremely effective with the Steelers. The Reason he’s moved around so much in free agency and trades has more to do with the position value than him as an individual I think. The lifespan of a power back in the NFL is very short but Blount has stuck about well. He was a little immature coming into the league but he’s grown up a great deal and he’s turned into a good leader. He’s so good on short yardage. He comes to Detroit with 1,341 carries, 5,888 yards and 51 touchdowns. He’ll be one of the leaders of this team this season. They will feed off his attitude I think. With the second pick in the draft they took Kerryon Johnson from Auburn in the second round. Johnson also has good power. He’s a very well balanced back and it’s going to be great seeing him in the NFL after a fantastic college career at Auburn. I though getting both of these backs made a huge statement along with offensive lineman Frank Ragnow with the teams first pick in the first round. Expect some smash mouth football in Detroit this season. I think the new attitude will benefit Ameer Abdullah also. I loved Abdullah in college at Nebraska and I won’t be shocked if he was the back to break the 100 yard mark first and end up having a career season. The new blocking scheme and attitude will make them all better running backs. Theo Riddick can also benefit and he’s so valuable in the passing game.
7th round pick Nick Bawden is a full back from San Diego State. He suffered an injury in camp and is on injured reserve. Former linebacker Nick Bellore is the current full back but is mainly used on special teams. The position coach is David Walker. Walker is one of the great Syracuse running backs with Ernie Davis, Joe Morris, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka and the great Jim Brown. He came to the Lions in 2016.
MADE THE CUT – LeGarrette Blount / Kerryon Johnson / Ameer Abdullah / Theo Riddick… FB/ST Nick Bellore.
Former first round pick Eric Ebron will be catching passes from Andrew Luck in Indianapolis this season so the starting tight end spot is pretty much up for grabs. With a new incentive on the running game the Lions brought in free agent Levine Toilolo from Atlanta. He’s a decent run blocker. Luke Willson is probably the most natural receiver and Michael Roberts was a 4th round draft pick last season from down the road in Toledo. Hakeem Valles has looked good during the pre season and has the great story. He’s currently writing a book. I think we’ll see a lot of tight end by committee this season. Position coach Chris White will be emphasizing run blocking all season no doubt. I liked the Toilolo addition. I loved what he did in the run game for the Atlanta Falcons and with his height of 6’10’’, he’s a great red zone target. I’m expecting him to be a valuable piece of the jigsaw this season
MADE THE CUT – Levine Toilolo / Luke Willson / Hakeem Valles / Michael Roberts.
It was heartbreaking to see Calvin Johnson retire when he did but every Lions fan has to be so proud of how this unit has responded. Last season they had 2 receivers go over the 1,000 receiving yard mark. Both Golden Tate and Marvin Jones jr were amazing. Tate had 92 receptions for 1,003 yards and was incredible running after the catch. Jones had 61 receptions for 1,101 yards and an average of 18 yards per catch. I love the dynamic between them and how they compliment each others game. I hope they stay healthy and together in this system for a while because Matthew Stafford uses both of them so well. Last years 3rd round pick Kenny Golladay showed some promise before injury last season. He had 28 receptions for 477 yards before he went down. I’m expecting big things from him this season. TJ Jones also had some impact last season with 30 receptions for 399 yards and 1 touchdown. The 3rd receiver spot is there for the taking and Brandon Powell has shown promise in the pre season so look for him to make some plays on both offense and special teams. Position coach Robert Prince has a decent group to work with. Prince joined the Lions as receivers coach in 2016.
MADE THE CUT – Golden Tate / Marvin Jones jr / Kenny Golladay / TJ Jones / Brandon Powell / Bradley Marquez.
The starting offensive line stayed intact for just 2 games last season. It was together for just 95 of Detroit’s 980 offensive plays and only Graham Glasgow played all 16 games. That would hurt any team. They had 10 different starting combinations so it’s obvious why they finished last in rushing and why Stafford was sacked a career high 47 times. The problems started when they lost Stafford’s blindside protector and former first round pick Taylor Decker to a torn labrum last summer but he did manage to make it back during the season for 8 starts. They sank $19 million annually into starting guard TJ Lang and starting right tackle Ricky Wagner only to see them miss a combined 6 games with injury. Starting center Travis Swanson left in free agency but missed 5 starts last season. They have too much invested in these guys to not have them on the field starting and they certainly have too much invested in Stafford to see him running for his life and taking hits that should be prevented on most downs. What I loved was how Patricia addressed this area almost on arrival. They changed the position coach and then drafted Arkansas interior lineman Frank Ragnow with the teams first draft pick and then former Oregon guard Tyrell Crosby in the 5th round. Ragnow can start at either guard or center this season. When they picked him I thought instantly of Brandon Burlesworth who was a first round pick for the Colts out of Arkansas in the late 90’s. There’s a film that was made called ‘Greater’ that tells his amazing story. Ragnow has a lot of his qualities and brings much needed aggression, talent and technique to this unit. A great draft pick that’ll have an immediate impact I think. With Jeff Davidson in as coach there will be a huge emphasis put on the running game. This will help everything but the health of the starting lineup is vital for success. It’s amazing how Stafford was so effective last season with what he had around him. He’s so valuable to this team. An increase of offensive line production and a running game will help him so much.
MADE THE CUT – Graham Glasgow (C) / TJ Lang / Frank Ragnow / Kenny Wiggins / Joe Dahl / Tyrell Crosby / ( G ) / Taylor Decker / Rick Wagner / Andrew Donnal ( T).
New position coach Bo Davis was A’Shawn Robinson’s position coach at the University of Alabama under the great Nick Saban and Robinson loves him. He comes to Detroit to replace the highly regarded Kris Kocurek who is now in Miami with the Dolphins coaching their defensive line. Hired within a few days of Patricia, he’s the only assistant with no direct ties to the new coach, however Saban is another Belichick disciple so there’s a bit of a link to the coaching tree. In the 4th round of the draft, the Lions picked Da’Shawn Hand who’s also from Alabama. Hand was the highest rated high school prospect in the nation and features in a documentary called ‘’ 1st and 17 ‘’. It shows his journey through his last year in high school to his recruitment at Alabama. Many thought he underachieved there but his physical traits are undeniable and a good defensive Head Coach like Patricia will help him so much at the next level.
The star of the defensive line is defensive end Ezekiel Anzah. He finished the season with 12 sacks but led the whole league in that category during the second half of the season. I look forward to seeing how he re-starts this season after an injury in week 1. Both he and Robinson will command so much attention when both are healthy and that could allow others to be disruptive in the front four.
MADE THE CUT – Ezekiel Anzah / Romeo Okwara / Kerry Hyder jr ( DE ) – A’Shawn Robinson / Da’ Shawn Hand / Sylvester Williams / Ricky Jean Francois ( DT ).
What Detroit’s linebackers have to do is play more physical and get off blocks. I thought they addressed that early this pre season when they signed both Christian Jones and Devon Kennard in free agency. Both of these guys weigh over 250 lbs and that’s much needed with Jarrad Davis being a smaller but extremely effective inside linebacker. During the pre-season they traded for Eli Harold who was in San Francisco. He also has needed size and strength to take on blockers on running plays. Jarrad Davis has all pro potential and led all rookie linebackers in tackles last season. I think he’ll be a key player to the success of Detroit’s defense this season. Position coach Al Golden moves from coaching Tight end to linebacker after he was retained by Patricia and experience is so valuable to have around a rookie head coach and Al Golden has 26 years of it. The physicality of this group will be huge this season. They have to get off blocks
MADE THE CUT – Jarrad Davis / Christian Jones / Devon Kennard / Jalen Reeves Maybin / Eli Harold / Marquis Flowers.
This may be the best and most talented group on the team. Pro bowl corner Darius Slay had 8 interceptions last season and is becoming a lockdown corner in the NFL. Safety Glover Quinn is the group leader and the veteran has established himself as a pro bowl caliber player in a Detroit defensive backfield that’s filled with ball hawks like Quandre Diggs and Nevin Lawson. The Lions spent a 3rd round pick on safety Tracy Walker out of the university of Louisiana-Lafayette where he graduated with a degree in sports management. I expect him to start making a big impact next season but may see a low percentage of defensive plays in his rookie year as he grasps the system. A player I’m expecting big things of this year is corner Teez Tabor. He was drafted with his Florida team mate Jarred Davis last season and I expect both to be starters for years to come eventually. Jamal Agnew was an all pro special teams return man and I expect him to see many more defensive snaps this season. If that happens then it leaves room for a guy like Brandon Powell to see more kick and punt returns. Agnew adds great talent to this defensive backfield. Position coach Brian Stewart is another very experienced coach who will understand what direction Patricia wants to go in defensively. Stewart comes back to the NFL after spending the last 9 seasons in the college ranks. He has extensive experience on the defensive side of the ball with a combined 27 years of coaching experience.
MADE THE CUT – Darius Slay / Nevin Lawson / Teez Tabor / Jamal Agnew / ( CB) – Dee Virgin / Tracy Walker / Quandre Diggs / (DB) – / Glover Quinn / Tavon Wilson / Charles Washington / Miles Killebrew / ( S ).
Cornerback, Jamal Agnew was an all pro return specialist last season and took 2 punts back for touchdowns. Both Matt Prater and Sam Martin are pro bowl caliber kickers. Prater has great leg strength. He holds the NFL record of 64 yards so he has great range. Prater hit on 30 of 35 field goals last season so he’s very accurate also. I’m counting on him to bounce back after a bad game in week 1. Long snapper Don Muhlbach is in his 15th season as a snapper and is one of the NFL’s best. Legendary coach Joe Marciano has a great group in Detroit.
MADE THE CUT – Matt Prater ( k ) – Sam Martin ( P ) – Don Muhlbach ( LS )
The brand new ‘band wagon Detroit’ from Ford is almost empty after the opening Monday night loss to the New York Jets and fireman Ed now partially owns Ford Field. With a difficult away game in Santa Clara against San Francisco in week 2, the pressure has already started to sit on Matt Patricia’s shoulders. It wasn’t good when Jets defenders said they recognised offensive signals and could read the offensive plays pre snap. I give credit to Jets Head Coach Todd Bowles and Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates because both came into Ford Field prepared for everything the Lions had and rookie Quarterback Sam Darnold was great in his first start, showing incredible poise and maturity after an early interception. What I’d suggest everyone remember is that the NFL is a predatory league and the New York Jets hate the New England Patriots and anything connected to them. It’s natural that they’d over exaggerate a victory against a Matt Patricia team.
With extra scrutiny coming through reports that Patricia is working the team too hard and that Lions veterans are unhappy, I expect Patricia to emulate his former boss early and batten down the hatches to keep the noise outside the building.
I have no doubt we’ll see a much different Lions team on Sunday against San Francisco and we should all remember the parity and how performances change week to week in the NFL. I remember a superbowl winning Patriots team that looked absolutely dreadful and got blown out by a below average Buffalo Bills team in week 1 of the 2003 season, in fact, the Patriots have been to 4 superbowls the same season they lost the opening game. That’s the nature of the business. You can’t get carried away with a win but you also can’t beat yourself up too much after a loss. You can only move forward as best as you can and I expect this Lions team to do just that.
By Rhodri Jones