Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
A day after releasing malcontent wideout Titus Young, the Lions made two more moves with much broader significance on Tuesday. Two longtime starters, right guard Stephen Peterman and defensive end Kyle VandenBosch, were released by GM Martin Mayhew.
On the surface, these moves are all about saving money under the salary cap. The constraints forced on the Lions having to pay over $50M of the approximately $122M cap number to just three players (Stafford, Suh, Johnson) mean that pennies must be pinched. Young’s release did little to impact that bottom line, but the Tuesday moves are a significant step forward in cap reduction.
Peterman’s release saves just over $2M in 2013 cap room. This was an easy and obvious move. Peterman graded out as the worst pass protecting guard in the league last season (per ProFootballFocus), and his run blocking was arguably even worse than that. He did a solid job in exceeding expectations for longer than expected, but that time was over. The Lions can easily find someone to do just as inadequate of a job for significantly less money. They already have two players on the roster, Bill Nagy and Rodney Austin, who can do that. Peterman had to see this coming, and he will get a chance to latch on with another team.
VandenBosch was due $10.7M for the coming season, and releasing him now saves over half that amount. I wrote extensively about VandenBosch recently, and why he needed to go. It seems the Lions chose to end the suspense quickly and unceremoniously. Honestly I’m a little surprised by that. VandenBosch was a revered figure in the Detroit locker room from the minute Coach Schwartz camped out at his doorstep to sign him at the very onset of free agency before the 2009 season. He has been Schwartz’s top lieutenant and the tone setter in practices, the film room, and on the sidelines. When I talked to a couple of different Lions staffers recently, they both led me to believe VandenBosch was being given time to consider his fate on his own terms.
That sentiment abruptly changed with the arrival of Brian Xanders as senior personnel executive under Mayhew. Xanders came to Detroit with a reputation for being calculating and unmoved by sentimentality, and the VandenBosch move confirms this. If there was any question that the Lions are moving forward in a new, bolder fashion, consider that question answered affirmatively. Xanders has no ties or loyalties to Peterman or VandenBosch, no emotional attachment. This is all about making smart business decisions and looking forward.
I commend Mayhew for jumping on board with both feet. He acknowledged that his approach was not working effectively enough, and he made changes. How much Xanders is the catalyst of change? Only Mayhew really knows that breadth. But making these moves at this time indicates that there is a new sheriff in town. He might wear the same suit and look just like the old Martin Mayhew, but his fresh new deputy and his swift, bold actions say he’s a new man.
This is unquestionably a positive development for the Lions, and for their fans. Mayhew has asserted real leadership here. He has also served notice that Jim Schwartz’s influence over the roster and future direction is, at minimum, subdued. Some will pontificate that these moves put Schwartz on notice that he must guide the team to significant improvement in 2013 or else he’ll be the next ex-Lion. That might very well be the case, and if Schwartz isn’t on board with the new direction he’ll probably welcome the severance. The Lions are now an organization that can coldly evaluate numbers and extrapolate value from statistical metrics and on-field performance. It’s a necessary and somewhat overdue step, and it might bring some immediate pain. Regardless of how fans dogged Peterman and VandenBosch, they were not far removed from being strong contributors to a playoff team.
That doesn’t matter anymore. The new mantra is not “what have you done for me lately” but rather “what can you do for me going forward”. I cannot stress how downright giddy this fundamental change of direction pleases this Lions fan, whose #20 jersey has “Sims” on the back and is not a throwback. These are the tough moves that good teams make and bad teams fumble away. These are moves that Xanders’ former team in Denver made and are why they remain legit Super Bowl contenders despite lots of turnover. These are moves that the Lions of the last 15 years have fumbled away.
The Lions are not done making moves. It is being widely speculated, though not officially reported, that longtime center Dominic Raiola is next on the chopping block. Should Raiola go, DetroitLionsDraft.com contributor JD Wenzel tweeted that tackle Jeff Backus has told a friend he is considering retirement and Raiola being let go could influence it. Cutting Raiola before the start of the league year would save $4M, and should Backus retire another $2.5M of salary gets trimmed. This is why the Lions drafted Riley Reiff in the first round and will keep restricted free agent Jason Fox at tackle. The money saved with these moves could allow Gosder Cherilus to return, the potential for which we explored recently. That extra $5.7M saved by cutting VandenBosch is more money that can be offered to Cliff Avril, who is clearly a top priority if he is truly willing to return.
We are witnessing the maturation of the Detroit Lions into a much more viable, professional football organization. It might cost the Lions a game or two in the short term, but when a team has one playoff win in over 50 years, what’s one more year of disappointment when the long-term future is so much brighter? I’m reminded of another team I avidly root for, the Cleveland Indians, who made a very similar cultural sea change in the early 1990s. They overhauled their scouting system, stopped paying mid-level veterans to win 72 games and let youngsters get experience and grow together instead. Those Indians wound up winning six division titles and made two World Series, coming one bad Jose Mesa outing from Cleveland’s first title in any sport in over 30 years. With a little luck, the Lions payoff can be even sweeter.