I’ve spent most of the last two weeks relocating from my 3-year sojourn in Houston back to the Grand Rapids area. Along the way I’ve stopped in New Orleans, Nashville, Louisville, and Indianapolis after also spending a couple of recent weekends in Dallas. As I am almost always wearing a Lions hat, I am privy to a lot of unsolicited opinions about our beloved team. And there is a real discernible difference between how Lions fans see the team and how “outsiders” perceive both Detroit and the Lions.
The biggest divergence is in how people see the offensive line. Lions faithful have a pretty solid grasp of the offensive line situation; the unit lacks any real Pro Bowl talent but has generally solid performers. The pass protection is far and away the best in the NFC North, even with Jeff Backus now enjoying retirement. Most local Lions fans possess confidence that Riley Reiff will at least be as good as Backus at left tackle. The connected fan base is gaga over Larry Warford, an enthusiasm which I believe will be validated quickly. Rob Sims is a solid all-around guard. As most Lions fans will attest, the biggest question is right tackle, where Gosder Cherilus will be replaced by either Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox. Yet most Lions fans are cautiously optimistic and won’t miss Cherilus’ penalties and inconsistent run blocking.
The national perception is that the Lions OL is a pig with a lot of lipstick. As one Canal Street reveler opined to me, “Who you got up front? Raiola, man he sucks. They ain’t sh**”. A friend of mine from Dallas was more diplomatic about it but raised similar skepticism. There is very little confidence, or awareness, of Riley Reiff. When I tell people how effective he was in his one start against Houston and how well Reiff played as an extra tackle I get the same look as when I try to discuss the sonic brilliance of Finnish folk metal with my wife. I point out that the Lions finished 5th in the league in sack percentage (number of sacks/pass attempts) and I get stares of incredulity. The Lions had a better yards per rush average than the Texans until the final week of the season, but there is a grand and sweeping presumption that the Lions are terrible at running the ball. Tangent: the Texans aren’t nearly as successful at running as the national perception, and certainly not as good at it as Texans fan believe, but that’s for another piece…
Here is where perception becomes reality. Detroit actually ran the ball pretty well. They just didn’t run it often enough to prove their acumen. Few team were better at running the ball in the red zone and in short yardage situations. Other than the (mercifully) departed Stephen Peterman, the Lions run blocking was no worse than adequate at the point of attack. The problem, and this is something that both Lions fans and backers of other teams both know, was the lack of big plays from the run game. The Lions struggled to break off long gains. Some of that was a lack of explosive ability of Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell. Some of that stems from an inability of the offensive line to get out to the second level capably. Reggie Bush should remedy the former, and Warford can only help the latter. I strongly believe that the Lions will rank in the top half of the league in yards per carry, and if Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan was telling the truth in Mobile during Senior Bowl week, the Lions won’t finish dead last in rushing as a percentage of plays again. It’s unlikely Detroit finishes above about 20th in that category, not with Stafford & Megatron earning over 25% of the salary cap, but there will be better balance. The nation remains quite skeptical of that.
Speaking of Matt Stafford, it’s my strange experience that fans of other teams like him more than Lion fans themselves. On every Lions message board, on Twitter and on barstools from Ann Arbor to Zeeland, most comments about Stafford focus on the negative. He often has lazy mechanics. He throws too many balls up for grabs. He’s pudgy. He’s not developed into a vocal team leader and field general. He throws for lots of yards but they mean nothing. He can’t beat good teams.
All of those carry some degree of truth. Nobody despises the slew footed, off balance, sidearm chucks more than me. Yet I can tell you that 90% of Texans fans would trade away multiple first round picks to upgrade from Matt Schaub to Stafford. The same is true of Dallas and Romo, who is unequivocally despised by most Cowboys fans I’ve encountered. Titans fans would rather have Shaun Hill, let alone Stafford, than Jake Locker. I have many Bengals faithful as friend & family and they strongly believe that Stafford would make them the best team in the AFC without question. My hometown of Cleveland? Even his most ardent critics would admit that Stafford blows away Brandon Weeden. Jets fans? Two words: butt fumble. Other fans see the negatives but know what a weapon he can be. His arm strength is as good as any, and his downfield accuracy is often perfect. 10,000 yards and 61 touchdowns in two seasons is so far beyond what potential most teams have at quarterback; Lions fans tend to not appreciate what we have in Stafford as much as fan of other teams do.
Both Lions fans and other fans tend to see the Lions defense in a similar light. The national perception is that Ndamukong Suh is a little better than what Lions fans perceive, though that difference has flattened recently. Lions fans are much more acutely tuned into how well Nick Fairly played last season. A lot of fans from other teams are unaware of how well Fairly played and see him as an injury prone, immature, average player. Everyone agrees that the back seven needs help and that it lacks impact talent. It’s interesting that Houston fans, where new Lions safety Glover Quin used to play, tend to have the highest opinion of the secondary. There is tacit agreement that Louis Delmas is a talented but unreliable because of injuries. Nearly everyone also agrees that the pass rush must improve, and that would help the back end as much as adding better corners. I got that from Saints fans (they have the same problem), from Colts fans (they would know), from Cowboys fans (they know too), and from my rather obnoxious Jets fan neighbor back in Houston.
I also found it intriguing that so much of the general populous still associates Matt Millen with the Lions. He’s been gone for four years now, but his shadow of ignominy and ineptitude still looms largely over the franchise. Most people around here would rather just ignore his reign and purge it from the collective memory like post-Soviet textbooks simply omit the Stalin years. The fact that Millen lingers in the collective identity of this franchise speaks to the shared perspective that the Detroit Lions. Both locals and people across the country by and large see the team as promising but having largely failed to deliver on that promise.