Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reliving, Part III: 1996 - 2000

A lot of times, great starts lead to dismal finishes. The Lions started strong in at least four seasons over the last ten years, and somehow managed to blow it. In 1999, an 8-4 start ended with an 8-8 record, and getting bounced out of the playoffs by Washington. In 2000, same record ended in 9-7, and no playoffs. 2004 - 4-2 ended up being 6-10. 2007 - 6-2 ended up being 7-9. 2008 - 4-0 in the preseason and 0-16 in the regular.

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.

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