Monday, March 29, 2010

Reliving, Part IV: 2001 - 2005 = EPIC FAIL

The draft years between 2001 and 2005 were arguably the worst draft years since 1957 for Detroit. Among them, only one 1st Round pick was a Pro Bowler (Roy Williams). The first pick was the third Offensive Tackle taken consecutively in that round. Three 1st Rounders were used on Wide Receivers between 2003 and 2005.

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.

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