Monday, March 29, 2010
2001 brought us the Matt Millen years. Millen was brought in from William Clay Ford Jr., Vice Chairman of the Lions, and son of the owner, Bill Sr. When Millen came in, he spoke in plain words, that the days of finishing 9-7 aren't good enough anymore. His first decision as Team President and GM was to dismiss Head Coach Gary Moeller.
Moeller had just come off the previous 9-7 season where then-Coach Bobby Ross quit after going 5-4. Moeller went 4-3 and the Lions were knocked out of the playoffs by the Chicago Bears in the final game of the regular season. Ford Sr. offered him a new contract just before hiring Millen, but once Millen was in, Moeller was out and a new coach was hired, Marty Mornhinweg.
Millen's tenure lasted almost eight years. His record while on the job was 31-84, the worst of any NFL team in an eight-year span. To be fair, the team he left when he was fired was 0-3 in 2008, but the remaining thirteen losses translated into a 31-97 record.
2001: The very first draft selection for the Lions under the new Millen regime was a local guy, Left Tackle Jeff Backus from the University of Michigan at No. 20. He was the third consecutive T taken in the 1st Round, but due to the failure of Aaron Gibson and eventually Stockar McDougle, the Lions felt they had no choice but to fill that void.
I will be the first to say that Backus is not an elite LT. Compared to other LTs who played over 100 games, Backus has given up more sacks on average per season (7.47), and gave up 67.25 sacks through 133 games. He is known for some blown calls like getting called for false starts.
According to Tom Kowalski, his reputation isn't as bad around the league as it is in the media and among Lions fans. To Backus' credit, the Mike Martz years (2006 and 2007), he played hurt, and he played in a pass-oriented blocking scheme, and Martz's offense wasn't geared toward running the ball a lot (it was use the pass to set up the run, as opposed to the opposite being standard NFL convention). Then in 2008, Offensive Coordinator Jim Colletto installed a zone-blocking scheme which was more like O-linemen pushing defensive players to the side, neither which played to Backus' strengths.
Nonetheless, Backus is average. He is the most consistent starter, second to Jason Hanson (but he's a Kicker), having started every game since 2001 at that position. But he hasn't lived up to the value of a player signed for six years at $40 million.
2002: With the No. 3 pick, the Lions took Quarterback Joey Harrington out of Oregon. Harrington, a Heisman runner-up in 2001, is the most controversial player of the decade. When Harrington was drafted, Matt Millen declared him "the savior of the franchise." Harrington was a bust, but debate rages whether it was because of his character, because he was a "system QB," or because he simply didn't have the talent around him to succeed, said Troy Aikman and Dan Marino. (I'd take Aikman's word over anyone else since he's prone to just tell it like it is).
Harrington was going to sit in his rookie season, but the play of second-year QB Mike McMahon was so painful to watch, Harrington started his first game in Week 3. Much speculation remains today if the Fords had anything to do with him starting before he was ready. 2002 was the grand opening of Ford Field; did the Fords really want the inaugural game to be started by a player who probably wouldn't be there next year?
It's apparent that neither Head Coach Marty Mornhinweg, nor his successor Steve Mariucci wanted him. Millen's way of managing was to pick the popular player and if things didn't pan out, throw the coaches under the bus. Mornhinweg was fired after Harrington's rookie year and Mariucci replaced him. No one was on the same page, and Harrington was often the scapegoat for the team's troubles.
Harrington left Detroit after a tumultuous 2005 campaign, where he was benched twice by Jeff Garcia, a QB past his prime and one who performed far worse than Harrington. Harrington's four-year stint in Detroit ended with an 18-37 record, 79 Touchdowns, 85 interceptions, and a rating of 68.1. After signing with the Miami Dolphins in 2006, Harrington played against the Lions in the annual Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field. He lit up the Lions for 213 yards, 3 TDs, a QB rating of 107.4, and a 27-10 victory over his former team.
Unfortunately for Harrington, he was benched near the end of the year for Cleo Lemon, released, and then signed a two-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons. Harrington was supposed to play backup behind QB Michael Vick, but a felony dogfighting conviction forced Vick out of football and Harrington back into the starting role. Despite establishing a winning streak, the Falcons benched him in favor of Byron Leftwich. In 2008, Harrington signed with the New Orleans Saints, but didn't take a snap. He was cut in 2009 after the Saints opted to go with only two QBs on their roster.
2003: With the No. 2 overall pick, the Lions selected another hometown hero, Wide Receiver Charles Rogers out of Michigan State. Rogers' impact was felt immediately, for four games. Rogers caught two TDs in the home opener against the Arizona Cardinals. But a collarbone injury during practice ended his rookie season after four games.
Rogers had all the talent, but none of the mental makeup. Or luck. Rogers was known for his fragility and had issues with substance abuse. Because the NFL didn't have a comprehensive drug testing policy, Rogers was able to fail a drug test at the NFL combine without consequence (his urine test had high water concentration - a masking agent for marijuana).
On the second play of the first game of the 2004 season, Rogers broke the same collarbone and was forced again to miss the rest of the season. Having been tossed to the side by Millen and co., Rogers was no longer a value to the team. By 2005, Rogers had lost the speed he had out of college (he ran a sub-4.3 40 in the combine), and was just average. During that season, Rogers was suspended four games for violating the NFL substance abuse policy. The following year he was cut by Coach Rod Marinelli. In three years, Rogers caught fourteen passes for 196 yards, and four TDs. He never caught on to another team and in a private workout, blew a 40-yard dash with a time of 4.9.
2004: The Lions were supposed to draft No. 7, but a trade with the Cleveland Browns dropped them down one spot and added an additional 1st Round pick at No. 30. At No. 7, the Lions picked their second WR, Roy Williams out of Texas. Williams was a popular fan-favorite while in Detroit.
Easily the best receiver, Williams ran into a lot of problems in regards to his work ethic. Like a lot of talented players, Williams got bored. He was known for taking plays off and not working out hard enough during team weightlifting exercises. But he was also known for making some spectacular catches and being a crowd pleaser.
Williams had often spoke about one day playing for the Dallas Cowboys, as they were his hometown team (Williams was from Odessa, TX). In 2008, during the 0-16 campaign, new Lions GM Martin Mayhew made a fire sale trade that sent Williams to the Cowboys for a 1st Round pick in 2009 and a 3rd Round pick. He has yet to meet expectations since joining Dallas.
At No. 30, the Lions picked Kevin Jones, a Running Back out of Virginia Tech. A steal, the Lions got what many analysts thought to be the best WR and RB in the draft. Jones didn't disappoint in his rookie campaign, rushing for 1,138 yards. He was the top rusher of the second half of the season with 908 yards.
Injuries plagued his career in Detroit. In 2006, he suffered a high ankle sprain resulting in Lisfranc surgery. After a grueling rehab, Jones competed with another RB Tatum Bell; Jones was clearly the superior of the two. His 2007 season ended with another foot injury and the Lions released him in April of 2008, figuring that Bell was the better of the two (Bell was cut midway in the 2008 season).
Jones signed on with the Chicago Bears and was expected to play behind RB Matt Forte. His 2009 campaign ended in the preseason after another ankle injury, this time to his left ankle and it was on a hit after he ran out of bounds. The Bears released him after signing RB Chester Taylor to run behind Forte.
2005: In what counts for a "What the hell were you thinking?" kind of move, Matt Millen selected WR Mike Williams out of USC at No. 10. Williams could be considered the worst pick of all the Millen picks. It seemed like all Williams wanted was the money. Williams was chronically late for meetings; overweight and out of shape, Williams should have never been taken so high in the draft.
Williams had opted to enter the NFL after playing two years at USC. The federal court had recently ruled in favor of another college player, Maurice Clarett that would have allowed him to enter the NFL Draft early, but a federal appeals judge reversed the Clarett decision. Williams had already declared for the Draft, hired an agent, and submitted paperwork to be draft-eligible. He was declared ineligible to play NCAA Football in 2004.
The year he was out of football, Williams apparently fell out of shape and his skills regressed. His rookie campaign in Detroit netted him only one TD catch. His sophomore campaign was much worse. He played in only eight games, and was inactive the first two. Williams only made 8 catches for 99 yards, and one TD, a game-winning score against the Cowboys.
Williams was subsequently traded to the Oakland Raiders along with QB Josh McCown for a 4th Round pick. Coach Lane Kiffin cut Williams half way into the season, and Williams later signed with the Tennessee Titans. It was reported that Williams weighed in at 271 pounds, a little higher than what WRs should weigh (which is about 230). He was cut the following year and among the reasons he hasn't gotten another shot in the NFL is due to his poor work ethic.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
1996: The Lions had two picks, at 17 and 23. Detroit took Linebacker Reggie Brown from Texas A&M at No. 17. In the wake of losing Chris Spielman, the Lions selected Brown who was a stud LB. The guy had all the gifts, but in the final game of his second season, Brown went to make a tackle on New York Jets' Running back Adrian Murrell and in the process, caused a spinal contusion as a result of getting his head pushed into his body. As he lay on the field motionless for seventeen minutes, both Lions and Jets players huddled together in prayer for Brown. The game was the same day Lions managed to make the playoffs, and Barry Sanders hit the 2,000-yard mark.
At No. 23, the Lions made another excellent pick, Jeff Hartings, an Offensive Guard out of Penn State. Hartings only played for five seasons in Detroit before eventually moving on to bigger success with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hartings was selected for the Pro Bowl twice and a one-time All-Pro selection. He retired in 2006, one year after winning his first Super Bowl with the 2005 Steelers.
1997: In order to address a depleted secondary, the Lions drafted Cornerback Bryant Westbrook (not to be confused with the more well-known Brian Westbrook) out of Texas with the No. 5 overall pick. Westbrook had an up-and-down career with Detroit, one of those "could-have-beens." His first year, he was named to the USA Today All-Rookie team after leading the Lions in pass defenses with twenty. Due to his partying and social habits, Westbrook fell into mediocrity the next two years, but in 2000, he managed to put it all together. After having made fifty two tackles, Westbrook suffered a devastating Achilles heel injury, and missed the rest of the season. He left the team in 2001 and in 2002, he returned to Pro Bowl form with the Green Bay Packers. A second Achilles' injury forced him to retire in 2003.
1998: With the No. 20 pick, the Lions took Tennessee CB Terry Fair. Fair, like Westbrook, had a short career with Detroit. He apparently has not been remembered fondly by Lions' writers, and an underwhelming career cut his time with Detroit short after an injury prior to the 2002 season.
1999: As luck would have it, the Lions again had two first round picks. With the No. 9 pick, Detroit first selected Chris Claiborne, LB out of USC. Apparently USC and the Lions don't mix (note Mike Williams, Shaun Cody). In college, Claiborne was an All-American, and won the Glenn Davis Award in 1995 and the Dick Butkus Award in 1998. Considered by some to be one of the best defensive players out of USC ever, Claiborne never lived up to the expectations of a No. 9 pick. He was serviceable, but he gained weight, his production decreased, and he left the Lions in 2003. You can't go as far as to say he was a total bust, but he didn't live up to the hype, either.
Before talk about the next pick, let me preface with this. There are two areas Lions fans have always "had concerns" over. First is the Quarterback. And if QB is the first, the Offensive Line is a close, close second. All through Barry Sanders' time with Detroit, that's all you ever heard. Especially after games where Sanders would carry the ball fifteen times and get only thirty yards.
When Lions fans complained about Matt Millen using three consecutive 1st Round picks on Wide Receivers, all the consensus was that you have to build teams from the inside. The O-Line, the D-Line, and then work your way back. Well friends, truth be told, they tried that. Remember taking three consecutive WRs? They took three consecutive Offensive Tackles, and you know what ? It got them nowhere.
Starting with the No. 27, Aaron Gibson, a Right Tackle out of Wisconsin. Gibson had a remarkable 5.35 second 40-yard dash in the combine, and was a massive figure, standing at 6'6" and weighing 375 pounds. Pretty fast for a fat guy. But Gibson never played his first season due to injury, and only ten games his second year. After six games in 2001, Gibson was cut. He eventually played for other teams like the Dallas Cowboys. Gibson has an historical first in the NFL: he is the first ever 400-pound player in the league.
2000: At No. 20, the Lions picked Left Tackle Stockar McDougle out of Oklahoma. McDougle was more NFL-ready than Gibson, but the Lions weren't aware of injuries he had that would have probably made them consider taking another player that year. McDougle managed to play five years with the Lions, before leaving after 2004.
As one can see, the draft from Brown to McDougle got progressively worse for the Lions. While I'm no defender of Matt Millen's regime in Detroit, I am a believer that his first year when Detroit when 2-14 is due more to previous front office decisions than his, despite that he hired Marty Mornhinweg as the Head Coach. The subsequent failures afterward are on him.
Monday, March 22, 2010
You might say that these 1st Round picks were their best crop of players taken in a five-year span.
1991: With the 10th pick the draft, the Lions selected Wide Receiver Herman Moore out of Virginia. At the height of his career, Moore was an elite receiver, in the company of other receivers like Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, and Tim Brown. A four-time Pro Bowl Selection, Moore was also a three-time All-Pro First Team selection between 1995 and 1997, and an All-Pro Second Team selection in 1994. Moore, along with WRs Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton, was considered the best 3-WR tandem in the NFL until the Minnesota Vikings drafted Randy Moss (they already had Chris Carter and Jake Reed). Moore led the NFL in receptions in 1995 en route to the Lions having the No.1 offense that year (that included of course, Barry Sanders at Running Back).
1992: The Lions were No. 28 in the draft order that year, an unusually late draft pick for the Lions because they went 12-4 the prior year and came within one game of the Super Bowl. With that pick, the Lions took Defensive End Robert Porcher out of South Carolina State. Porcher was a stud DE, a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro selection in 1997, 1999, and 2001. He easily could be considered the best defensive lineman, if not the best defensive player the Lions picked in the past twenty five years.
1993: The Lions decided to go with defense again, as they picked Linebacker Pat Swilling out of the New Orleans Saints. Okay, so he wasn’t exactly a draft pick. He was only the worst trade the team had made all that decade. The Lions had the seventh pick in the draft, and they traded away a 1st rounder to New Orleans for a guy who was clearly on the downside of his career. On top of that, Swilling publicly vented that “Pat Swilling don’t do pass coverage!” No one would question that in his time, Swilling was one of the finest LBs to play the game. In fact he played quite well in the 1993 season, helping the Lions win their last NFC Central championship. But in 1994, his production fell off and he left to play for the Oakland Raiders in 1995.
Adding insult to injury, the Saints drafted Lincoln Kennedy, one of the best offensive linemen of the 1990s, a position the Lions have struggled with to this day.
1994: Picking at No.21, the Lions selected WR Johnnie Morton out of USC. One could say that Morton was an odd pick; he was selected to be the Lions’ No.3 receiver. While Morton proved valuable in his role and just as valuable as a No.2 receiver when Brett Perriman left in 1997, Morton never got picked up for the Pro Bowl. Nonetheless, he was still a productive receiver, catching for over 1,000 receiving yards in four seasons.
1995: At No.20, the Lions selected Defensive Tackle Luther Elliss out of Utah. I met Luther Elliss the year following his rookie season, so I had high hopes for this guy. Elliss did not disappoint. While not having an outstanding rookie campaign, Elliss progressed rather well in his position, eventually earning two Pro Bowl selections in 1999 and 2000. He had no sacks in 1995, but had 6.5 in 1996 and his personal best of 8.5 sacks one year later. His career was cut short due to injuries, but he still remained a solid player in a team that would transition from slightly above mediocre to NFL irrelevancy.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
With the sixth overall pick, the Lions selected Left Tackle Lomas Brown out of Florida. Dubbed, the "Great Wall of Florida," Brown was the best LT the Lions picked in the last quarter century. He spent seven years blocking for the Lions' all-time greatest Running Back, Barry Sanders. Brown went to the Pro Bowl seven times in his career. He was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre offensive line that Lions fans have complained about for years, second only to the man who always lines up behind center. His time in Detroit ended after an up-and-down 1995 campaign that saw the Lions finish the season with seven straight victories, a 10-6 record, and a guaranteed playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in the NFC Wild Card. What resulted, was a 58-37 humiliation for all of us. He ended up winning a Super Bowl at the very end of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, albeit as a backup.
The second pick the Lions selected was Quarterback Chuck Long out of Iowa, taken 12th overall. Among the four quarterbacks taken in the first round between 1986 and 2009, Long was quite simply the least productive. In four years with Detroit, Long completed 330 passes off of 602 attempts, with 19 touchdowns to 28 interceptions, and a QB rating that was never higher than 55.8. He left the Lions after the 1990 season when Andre Ware and Rodney Peete were drafted, spent one season in futility with the Los Angeles Rams, and then came back to be the fourth-string QB with Detroit again, never throwing a pass in any game.
1987: At No. 7, the Lions selected DT Reggie Rogers out of the University of Washington. Rogers, by far, was the worst pick of all the 1st-rounders in the last 25 years. Extremely talented, blessed with natural physical ability, Rogers lacked the mental makeup needed to put all that talent to good work. Things came very easy to him, which is why didn't give a 100% commitment to the team. He played in only six games in 1987, due to a series of emotional problems.
In 1988, his car fatally struck another car carrying three teenagers in Pontiac, MI early one morning. It was later revealed he had a blood-alcohol content of .15. He was subsequently released by the Lions later that year, which would be the mother of all ironies, funny-if-it-weren't-true, because he broke his neck. In 1990, he was convicted of vehicular homicide and spent only sixteen months in jail. Talk about getting off easy, he later came back to the NFL in 1991 and spent two seasons with two teams, Buffalo and Tampa Bay respectively. His off-the-field habits continued to haunt him as years later he was again arrested for another DUI resulting from another hit-and-run in his hometown Tukwila, Washington, making that his fifth in the state, going all the way back to his days at the University of Washington.
1988: In 1988, the Lions selected Safety Bennie Blades with the No.3 pick. Blades had an outstanding career at the University of Miami, where he set a new NCAA single-season record for interceptions, culminating in Miami winning the National Championship in 1987. His record was later tied by another Hurricane Safety, Sean Hunter. Blades' success continued into the NFL as he was a key player in the Lions' 1991 Cinderella season, in which the Lions made it all the way to the NFC Title game, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. He was known for being one of the hardest hitting safeties, in company with the likes of Denver Broncos' Steve Atwater. Blades spent nine years with the Lions before being released by Detroit in 1996. He spent one year with the Seattle Seahawks in 1997, playing with his brother Michael Blades, a Wide Receiver, before retiring.
1989: Again, with the No. 3 pick overall, the Lions selected Oklahoma State Running Back Barry Sanders, the winner of the 1988 Heisman Trophy Award. Sanders is by far, the most well-known Lion, and some have argued that he is the greatest RB of all-time. In ten years, Sanders made the Pro Bowl ten times. He won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 1989. He shared the NFL MVP award with Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre in 1997 after running for 2,053 yards. He led the league in rushing four times in his career. He ran for 15,269 yards and scored 99 rushing TDs.
In 1999, Sanders abruptly retired on the eve of training camp. He left a press release, faxed to a Wichita, Kansas newspaper (his hometown) that he was announcing his retirement, and left on a plane bound for London. Without warning, the Lions were left to fill a void that they have been searching to replace ever since. He was within striking distance of breaking Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton's all-time career rushing mark. Instead, he walked away, inciting controversy which still lingers on today. Sanders was nonetheless voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2004.
Sanders was known for his humility almost as much as his athleticism. He endeared himself to fans at the end of his rookie season, when only just ten yards shy of leading the league in rushing, he refused to go back into the game at the insistence of Head Coach Wayne Fontes.
1990: Well, if one Heisman winner wasn't enough, why not try and make it two-in-a-row? That's what the Lions did when they picked QB Andre Ware out of Houston with the seventh pick overall. Ware set twenty six NCAA passing records and was supposed to be the QB the Lions would use to run their Run-and-Shoot Offense, the same system he ran at the University of Houston.
Unfortunately for Ware and the Lions, college success didn't translate into NFL success. A mix of bad decisions on his part, poor planning and executing on Lions' front office part, and finally just bad timing to join the Lions doomed his career. Ware originally held out of training camp over contract issues. Once signed, Ware had too much to catch up on in training camp, and lost the starting job to Rodney Peete. Ware played backup behind Peete and Bob Gagliano, only starting one game and compiling a lukewarm statistical record of 13-of-30 passing, with one TD and two interceptions.
In 1991, the Lions had gone 12-4, winning its first playoff victory since 1957, and losing to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Title game. Coach Fontes had Rodney Peete start the season, but a season-ending injury forced Fontes to turn to another QB, Erik Kramer over Ware. Kramer led the team and created a nice QB carousel that lasted until the end of the 1993 season.
Ware was lost in the shuffle. Aside from his holdout, he had difficulty making simple pass patterns and was a better option QB. He couldn't throw a screen pass, and his short passes were thrown with the same velocity his 50-yard bombs were launched. The man definitely had an arm, but he never learned to control it.
Fontes did not believe Ware could run the offense, but allowed Ware the opportunity to show his stuff in 1992. He went 2-1 as a starter as the season was already lost for the Lions, who finished that year with a 5-11 record. The following year, he replaced Peete and went 1-1, until again being benched by Fontes. When Peete was benched a second time, Fontes opted for Kramer, who led the Lions again to a division title and a playoff birth. Ware was correct in pointing out that Fontes messed up his development. He still went 3-3 as a starter. But the confusion from the head coach doomed his chances, not that he didn't hurt himself. At one point, Fontes told the media he was starting Andre, but that "Rodney was my guy."
Ware was let go by Detroit and signed on first with the Minnesota Vikings in 1994, the Jacksonville Jaguars win 1995, and once more with the Oakland Raiders in 1999. In between that time, he spent two years in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts trying again to restart his career, but was forced to play behind the CFL legend Doug Flutie, who led the Argos to a Grey Cup in 1997.
Now with the Super Bowl over, another NFL season has come and gone. If you’re a Lions fan such as myself, you know this only means one thing: the Lions are now on the clock.
The excessive losses have taken their toll on many a football fans in
Had that game gone the other way,
In that time, the Lions under Lewand and Mayhew have re-engineered the entire organization from top to bottom. Head Coach Rod Marinelli was dismissed the day after the season ended and was replaced by Jim Schwartz. Schwartz was given his first head coaching job after years as a Defensive Coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.
The Lions made swift personnel changes, signing free agent Linebacker Larry Foote (a hometown hero who played for
Of course, the biggest steal the Lions grabbed was a trade that sent their most productive Wide Receiver, Roy Williams to the Dallas Cowboys for a first-round pick and a third-round pick. The Lions, after obtaining the No.1 pick in the draft, selected Matthew Stafford, Quarterback out of
Time will tell whether or not
But what time has told us already is how well past draft picks have done for the organization. These next few articles will feature 25 years of draft futility and utility; how well Lions’ first round draft picks have faired in the last quarter century.