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Restoring the roar: how the Lions can battle back

June 8, 2009

The Detroit Lions sure have some committed fans. They sat through one measly playoff win in half a century. They sat through decades of horror and countless rebuilds. They sat through the worst season in NFL history. They sat through the godawful Matt Millen era. They sat through watching multiple first-round draft picks suck their way out of the NFL. Sure, they also sat through 10 amazing years of Barry Sanders, but it would seem the Lions’ fans are due some good news. And with the complete renovation of the front office (and a minimally altered logo), perhaps they can take a small step on the road to redemption in ’09.

So how can the Lions possibly hope to rebound from 50 years of bad luck and worse play? Here’s the 3-step plan the Lions should follow to restore the roar and finally give Ford Field something to cheer for.

Culpepper: Will throw for food.

Culpepper: Will throw for food.

Step 1: Trust your veterans

This is something the Lions have not done for the best part of 2 decades. Instead of grounding the roster in experience, they turn the keys over to the first rookie they see and set the franchise back 10 years. Andre Ware and Joey Harrington are just two of a number of high-profile busts in Motor City (see also: Williams, Mike and Rogers, Charles) in recent times, and the drafting of Matthew Stafford might indicate they’re going to once again trust the inexperienced hand rather than the savvy one of NFL vet Daunte Culpepper.

The percentage of QBs in the NFL who started from day one and made it work is minscule, so new coach Jim Schwartz should learn from others: the likes of Romo, Rivers, Palmer and Brady all sat for a while before starting and have developed into stars, whereas the likes of Leaf, Couch, David Carr et al have started day one and flamed out spectacularly. Detroit cannot afford to start Stafford only for him to get snapped in half in year one and lose all confidence.

However, it would seem that Schwartz (and new GM Martin Mayhew) are not being rash in their personnel decisions, but adhering to this concept by adding veteran defenders like Julian Peterson and Larry Foote instead of trying to draft their way out of trouble. Rebuilding is (more often than not) a marathon, not a sprint, and the Lions seem to only now be acknowledging this.

Step 2: Establish continuity

Megatron Johnson: enemy of short cornerbacks. And Optimus Prime.

'Megatron' Johnson: enemy of short cornerbacks. And Optimus Prime.

The Lions are now on their sixth head coach in the last decade, and every position seems to have been permanently fitted with a revolving door. A young nucleus has begun to emerge – Kevin Smith, Stafford, Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson and Ernie Sims – and Detroit needs to build around this talented group if they are to succeed. Although I don’t think they should start Stafford this year, trying to establish an off-field chemistry between him, Johnson and Smith would seem prudent in the hope that they can become the hugely talented triple threat they have the potential to be.

The franchise must give its new staff time to acclimatise to new surroundings because even if it takes 2 years before the team is challenging in the division, surely it’s worth the wait? The Lions gave Matt Millen a five year contract extension (not a typo, a five year deal) after not winning on the road for an NFL-record 3 seasons in a row. If he can swing that, then Jim Schwartz should be able to buy himself a few years on the job before his seat heats up.

Step 3: Don’t be reactionary

The average NFL fan (no offense to all of you out there, I’m one too) is the most knee-jerk critic in the known universe. Every time our QB throws a pick, we want him benched, and every tackle our linebackers miss is like a dagger to our souls. Teams who listen to fan hoop-la often end up benching players just because they had a bad game, and don’t see the bigger picture.

Take Philadelphia as an example: Eagles fans bayed for Donovan McNabb’s blood to the point that he was benched during a game (allowing Kevin Kolb to throw Ed Reed a record-setting 108-yard interception TD return), but Andy Reid stuck with to his quarterback and put McNabb back under centre the following week. The result? A 48-20 crushing of the Cardinals and an eventual NFC championship berth. Reid saw what happened without his offensive catalyst, and was able to revert back to the formula that works before too much damage was done. Instead of benching starters because of a bad play or two, stick with them, and see how much player trust can gain you in the win column.

NFL fans may be a hugely important part of the game, but the minute a GM or coach starts letting fan hype get in his head, he needs to pack his bags. The Ford Family, Jim Schwartz, Martin Mayhew and the whole Lions franchise needs to keep a cool head or risk having (yet) another decade of disappointment. The key to success is patience, and if the Lions want to succeed, they should follow this virtue.

Oh, and don’t let Matt Millen come within 400 miles of Ford Field.

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