Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
This has been a pretty eventful last few days in the Motor City. With just one game left, several forces are at play that will impact the Lions going forward.
Brandon Pettigrew on IR
The starting tight end was placed on injured reserve this week, ending his season. He was hurt making a great catch and run against the Ravens in Week 15 and has not played since.
The immediate impact is that the Lions are perilously thin at tight end. With Dorin Dickerson suffering a concussion against the Giants, his availability for the Minnesota game is in question as of press time (Thursday AM).
That leaves Joseph Fauria, an undrafted rookie, as the only healthy tight end. Fauria played very well in his first extended duty versus New York, proving he could be more than just a red zone receiving target. The Vikings game will be another prolonged look, and it could prove quite critical for how the team handles Pettigrew this offseason.
If Fauria demonstrates he can capably handle being the starter, the necessity to bring back impending free agent Pettigrew diminishes. Nobody will ever expect the tall rookie to be as strong of an in-line blocker as Pettigew, but if he shows he can be adequate the Lions have more flexibility.
Fauria was better than just adequate against the Giants. Minnesota provides a good proving ground, as Jared Allen and Brian Robison are both strong presences at defensive end.
That’s not to say the Lions would simply move on from Pettigrew even if Fauria turns into a pancake machine in the Metrodome. The former first-rounder had a very strong 2013 campaign, at one point catching 17 consecutive passes thrown his way. He showed toughness as both a receiver and a downfield blocker. While his in-line blocking is inconsistent, Pettigrew has a proven track record far beyond what Fauria can offer.
Don’t forget about Michael Williams, Detroit’s 7th rounder last April. He is a de facto extra tackle at 280ish pounds, and he clearly enjoyed the dirty work at Alabama. Williams is good at chipping the end and releasing out into the short range as a secondary target, something he did very well in the red zone both at Alabama and in the Senior Bowl. He missed his rookie season with a broken hand, a preseason injury that made him more of an IR stash than anything debilitating.
It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see the Lions go forward with Fauria as the starter and Williams in the in-line/red zone role. The question becomes, is Pettigrew going to be affordable enough to be nothing more than a co-starter that catches about 45 passes? I know the Lions–especially if some of the offensive staff carries over–would love to have him back, but his market value likely exceeds what return he would provide Detroit. They can get better bang for their buck by letting him walk, unless Pettigrew is amenable to a cap-friendly, incentive-laden deal. Given that this is his first shot at free agency, that seems highly unlikely.
The Coaching Question
It seems a foregone conclusion that Jim Schwartz will be fired immediately after the season. From what I’ve been able to gather from Allen Park, the staff is aware of its likely fate. They don’t want to think about it (who would?), but they’re neither blind nor ignorant.
So who is going to be the next head coach? I offered my wish list a couple weeks ago, but since then a couple of other names have surfaced.
The most prominent is former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk reported that the Lions might have already spoken with Whisenhunt about his interest in the position.
Here’s why Coach Whiz is intriguing: he got the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals. You know, the one franchise which challenges the Lions for historic ineptitude. Also, he spent this season in San Diego actively resuscitating quarterback Philip Rivers, who had gone from Pro Bowler to embattled stiff over the last couple of years. Rivers got back to being a very good quarterback under Whisenhunt (and coach Mike McCoy).
There is no doubt the focus for the next coach of the Lions is the ability to maximize the investment in Matthew Stafford, and to a lesser extent Calvin Johnson. Stafford is going to make more than $67M over the next four years as the starting quarterback in Detroit. The Lions committed strongly to building around Stafford. Now they need to make sure he’s worth building around.
Whisenhunt had success with Kurt Warner in Arizona as a reclamation project. People tend to forget that Warner fell out of favor in New York after his early Rams success. Whiz had his issues with truly awful offensive line play and a carousel of crap at running back, but those problems are already solved in Detroit.
The other name that keeps coming up when I talk to people around the Lions is Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Three different people in varying capacities have brought up Kelly, who has never spent a day in the NFL.
That lack of experience is a major concern. While some will point to Chip Kelly’s success right off the bat in Philadelphia, Brian and Chip are vastly different Kelly’s. I got to see Brian Kelly up close and personal at Grand Valley State, where he molded a national D-II powerhouse.
His best asset is that he has won, and won quickly, at every stop along the way. GVSU remained a national power long after he departed for Central Michigan, where he turned the Chippewas from bottom-feeder to MAC Champs. He then moved to Cincinnati, where he quickly got a long-moribund Bearcats program to double-digit wins and a BCS berths.
Notre Dame proved a bigger pool, and my fear with Kelly is that he’s found the level where the other fish are just as big as he is. He’s not a crafty innovator like Chip Kelly, though his defenses at GVSU and Cincinnati were noted for their relentless aggression and ability to produce turnovers. He’s not like Bill O’Brien at Penn State, a bedrock of calm and focus; Kelly is outwardly profane, easily agitated, and isn’t afraid to get in player’s faces.
Many Lions fans would welcome that sort of in-your-face accountability. The lack of that quality is probably Jim Schwartz’s biggest downfall as a coach. Yet it’s quite different managing college kids who are only compensated with a free education and shady side benefits (shhh!) and handling multimillionaires of varying agendas. I like Brian Kelly personally and I think he’s a great college coach, but I’m not sure I want him thrust into Detroit as a messianic successor to the similarly wired Schwartz.
Dominic Raiola returning?
After having to take a massive pay cut to stick with the Lions in 2013, the overwhelming presumption is that venerable center Dominic Raiola was in his final year in Detroit. He’d never been more than an average player in his 12 prior seasons, and it sure seemed like the writing was on the wall.
Instead, Raiola is wrapping up the best season of his long career. He added some useful bulk and didn’t lose any of his agility, which has been his best quality. Now, as Chris McCosky of the Detroit News reports, he wants to come back for more.
I applaud Raiola for his late resurgence, but expecting his unprecedented strong play to continue is a dangerous gamble. He turns 35 on Monday. He’s not likely to take another hometown discount to keep playing. But perhaps most importantly, Raiola is very tied to Jim Schwartz. More than any other player, Raiola embodies what Schwartz is all about. He’s irascible and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. His tactics are questionable and he doesn’t apologize for crossing the line into “dirty” play.
I suspect the Lions will talk with Raiola about sticking around, but I also suspect both sides will agree that it’s better for Raiola to move on. Perhaps he can reunite with Schwartz wherever he lands, such as St. Louis as the defensive coordinator under his mentor Jeff Fisher.
Raiola would also be a good fit for a team trying to mold a new offensive line, a place like Jacksonville or the New York Giants. He’s been an invaluable mentor for Larry Warford and Riley Reiff and could provide that elsewhere. With a very deep center class in the draft, it’s best for the Lions to move on.
–I would not shut down Calvin Johnson for the season, but I also wouldn’t build the entire game plan around him.
–This is a great week to see more of Jeremy Ross in the slot. He’s proven worthy of the roster spot as the return specialist going forward. Now is the time to ascertain if he can be the #4 wideout in 2014 as well.
–I have no earthly idea why Micheal Spurlock was brought back this week. None. When I asked a member of the Lions on-field staff about Spurlock, his texted response was “????”.
–If you like to keep track of the extraneous, the Lions are 6-4 in games where I’ve done a live blog for Bleacher Report this season. The only game they won without me was the opener against Minnesota. I’m doing one this week.
–Not Lions-related, but this past Saturday I went to my first-ever Pistons game. Of course I was there with my son as Rockets fans, but I applaud the staff at The Palace. It’s a great place to see a game. I’ve been to every Eastern Conference arena except Boston, Charlotte, Brooklyn and Miami, as well as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Golden State to see NBA games. The Palace experience is as good as any I’ve encountered. The fans were very good and friendly to both me and especially my son, who was decked out in Rockets gear. It was positive enough that I’ll make the 3-hour drive to go back again for a game against a team I don’t care about.
Tags: Brandon Pettigrew, Brian Kelly, Central Michigan Chippewas, Cincinnati Bearcats, Detroit Pistons, Dominic Raiola, GVSU, Jeremy Ross, Joseph Fauria, Ken Whisenhunt, Matthew Stafford, Michael Williams, Micheal Spurlock, The Palace at Auburn Hills