Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
On a day where most Lions fans are still basking in the afterglow of a very strong free agent haul, venerable left tackle Jeff Backus announced his retirement after 12 seasons. Into every life a little rain must fall, even under the roof of Ford Field.
Backus had a decidedly star-crossed career. He started right away after being the first round pick in 2001, the beginning of the Millen Era. Being forever tied to Millen as his first-ever draft pick has always cast a long shadow on Backus, effectively wiping out the goodwill he had from being a Michigan Man when that still meant something. Backus was immediately an average starter, which represented an upgrade in Detroit from the Stockar McDougal/Ray Roberts experiment.
Backus continued to be a decidedly average starter for most of the next 10 years. In fact, his AV (Approximate Value) at pro-football-reference.com for each year was either 6 or 7 for every year but one in a rating system where 7 is just about the league average. Even in the regrettable Mike Martz system, where Backus was asked to play on an island against outside speed rushers while Jon Kitna took 7 step drops throwing to receivers that could never get open, he graded out as average.
In that respect I say the numbers lie a little. Backus was far from average as a pass protector against speed, and being inadequate in that facet outweighs being one of the better run blocking tackles in the league. Guys with both speed and power (hello Julius Peppers) often embarrassed Backus, and he gave up too many pressures where he was discarded like the tampon at the bottom of a hamburger tray. Unfortunately this is the lasting impression too many have of Jeff Backus.
But Jeff Backus was never as bad as some made him out to be. As mentioned above, he was one of the better run blocking tackles in the league and definitely one of the best amongst left tackles. Never mind that the Lions didn’t run the ball enough; Backus did his part. For as much as fans complained, the Lions never really sought to replace him. Having a strong leadership presence that never got hurt was important, and the team knew it even if the fans did not. That durability was invaluable and truly remarkable, something the NFL might never see again. Backus often played at less than 100% but you would never know it from his effort or intensity. That blue collar work ethic and durability should mean more than it did for a city like Detroit.
It actually allowed Backus to improve as his career progressed. I would argue that 2010 and 2011 were the best years of his career, and he was on the high side of average in 2012 as well. The longer he played the more little tricks he learned and mastered, things like pulling the chair on a leaning bull rusher or feigning a cut block on the edge to buy an extra half-second before the speed rusher could attack full bore. His intensity and competitiveness never waned with age. Curiously, his pass protection improved while his run blocking declined. That kept him with his solid, average rating, which made him the best left tackle in the NFC North for the last few years.
When the Lions made the playoffs in 2011 after all those years of vacillating between subpar and laughingstock, the team itself was happiest for Backus and good buddy Dominic Raiola. I want that final home game of 2011, when the Lions knew they were heading to the playoffs and many players basked in the raucous glory, to be Detroit’s memory of Jeff Backus.
As for the retirement itself, this caught many by more surprise than it probably should have. We all knew this day was coming, but it still strikes us with a gut blow. The question now is, where do the Lions go from here?
There are several directions to choose, as the Lions have prepared for this day. Riley Reiff could take over on the left side, though it’s fairly well-established that he will be a better right tackle than left. The coaches have consistently praised Jason Fox, and he finally appears healthy. Fox is certainly an option if he can avoid the injuries that have plagued his career. Freshly re-signed Corey Hilliard is also an option, though he’s more apt to take over at right tackle and push Reiff to right guard.
Then there is the draft. One of Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel could fall to the #5 spot. If so, they are certainly going to get strong consideration. Will it trump the pass rushing need that could come from Ezekiel Ansah or Barkevious Mingo? It might. The Lions will have options at the top of the 2nd and 3rd rounds as well, and this is a very deep tackle class. DJ Fluker and Menelik Watson are possible picks at #36, though Fluker is strictly a right tackle and the raw Watson is not ready to play right away. Going down another round and guys like Jordan Mills, Terron Armstead, and Kyle Long are all potentially in play. I slotted Armstead to the Lions in a recent mock draft in the 3rd round, though I probably prefer Mills for Detroit’s offense.
No matter which direction the Lions choose, it is going to be very strange to watch a game this September and not see #76 lined up at left tackle. Backus was a Lions institution and deserves the love and respect from the fans, something he didn’t get enough during his playing days. We all might miss him a lot more than we think.