After months of the draft, free agency, lockout talk, and preseason, the opening week of the 2011 NFL season is finally among us. After a 7 win improvement by the Buccaneers last year, this season is one of the most anticipated seasons in recent Buccaneer history. Another vastly improved team in 2010 was the Detroit Lions, and they look to continue their upward trend into 2011. With both teams garnishing a ton of excitement, this has the makings to be a classic opening game matchup to set the tone for the entire year. For this week’s edition of Fire the Cannons, we are joined by Al Beaton from the Wayne Fontes Experience as he answers, in my own tribute to the legend Lee Roy Selmon, 6 and then 3 questions.
Cannon Shot 1: How do you see the Lions faring in the 2011 season?
Al: For the first time in a decade, the Lions should be in wild card contention all season long, playing meaningful games in December. The Lions have the talent to go 9-7, 10-6 if they get a few bounces (and no more calls invoking the "Calvin Johnson rule."). The Lions are greatly improved, but they are not a deep team. Injures to key players (Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best, Ndamukong Suh, Johnson) could mean a 6 or 7 win season.
Being a Lions fan means believing in the unbelievable, so I'll go out on a short limb. The Lions finish 9-7, good enough for 2nd place in the NFC North behind the Packers. Nine wins gets the Lions in the playoffs, but they'll lose in the wild card round.
Cannon Shot 2: What has been the biggest factor in the Lions seemingly having turned the tables and being a franchise on the rise?
Al: Firing Matt Millen. Next question.
Well, there is a little more...
GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz took over a franchise in worse shape than an expansion team. There was little talent on the roster after the Matt Millen error...rather...era, and what talent was on the team was beaten down by all the losing. Mayhew and Schwartz needed to change the culture, weed out the remnants of the Millen era. With that done, the front office could get serious about building a contending team.
They went about by drafting well, especially in the later rounds, making smart trades, and not overpaying for free agents. The draft improvement is obvious. A big piece in the Lions' rebuilding was trading Roy Williams for three draft picks. What free agents the Lions have signed over the past two seasons were for relatively short terms at prices which will not cripple the franchise in the long-term. Mayhew's predecessor did none of the above.
Cannon Shot 3: Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy will forever be linked together by being picked 2nd and 3rd in the 2010 NFL draft. What has Suh meant to the Lions, and where do you see his career going?
Al: Suh is a once in a generation talent with a mean streak a mile wide. How mean? As he said after the Lions dominated the Patriots in the 3rd game of the preseason, "Last year, we gained respect. This year, we want fear."
In one season, Suh has become the face of the Lions franchise.He will be a perennial Pro Bowler and All-Pro. I also see a Defensive Player of the Year award in his future. Suh will be an elite player for a very long time who could very well be a Hall of Fame candidate 15 years from now.
When you think about it, I just described the career of the late Bucs great, Lee Roy Selmon. Suh could do worse.
Cannon Shot 4: Speaking of high draft picks, Matthew Stafford has looked excellent this preseason, but already has a history of injuries. Do you see him making it through an entire season unscathed, and if so, why is 2011 different than 2010 and 2009?
Al: I do believe Stafford can and will play the vast majority of the season, for a few reasons.
1. The injuries were flukey. I don't see them happening again. Playing a full season will finally shut up the idiots who think the Lions need to draft another QB because "That damn Stafford's a wuss, always gettin' his shoulder hurt an' stuff!"
2. Stafford will stay on the field because the Lions offensive line is built for pass protection. Despite having developed a bad reputation due to Stafford's injuries, the Lions offensive line only allowed 27 sacks, which tied them for 6th best in the NFL.
3. Stafford has also learned discretion is the better part of valor. He's has gotten hurt in the past trying to make a play when he would have been much better served unloading the ball. He's learned from those past mistakes.
4. Most importantly, the Lions need to get a full season from Stafford because, pure and simple, the kid is uber-talented. He has the potential to become a top five QB, something we haven't seen in Detroit since Bobby Layne was closing bars on Saturday, and winning games on Sunday, back in the 1950's.
Cannon Shot 5: The biggest matchup in my eyes will be Calvin Johnson vs. Aqib Talib. Both are extremely talented players who will be singled out throughout the entire game. What is the key to this battle, and who do you see winning it?
Al: Calvin Johnson is called Megatron for good reason. He's an unstoppable machine...when the Lions can get him the ball. A healthy Stafford will get him the ball.
Even if Megatron doesn't have a big game, he serves as a kick ass decoy. Being Johnson pretty much demands double teams, it means single coverage for Nate Burleson (who had a marvelous preseason), and open seams for the tight ends (who combined for 1100+ receiving yards in 2010).
I'll say this. If the Bucs plan on leaving Talib on an island with Johnson...I'll bet the farm Johnson has a huge game.
Cannon Shot 6: As a Michigan grad, I always like to ask a question about my alma mater here. I know a lot of Lions players have been drafted out of UofM. Which Wolverine alum has had the most impact on the Lions?
Al: I can make a case for two players.
Defensive back/wide receiver Terry Barr played his entire career with the Lions, playing on the last Lions team to win an NFL championship, 1957. After moving to offense, he had a pair of 1000 yard seasons when they really meant something, making a couple of Pro Bowls in the early 60's. Barr was one of the best Lions players of his era.
The other is left tackle Jeff Backus. He was Matt Millen's first, and best, draft pick. He's never missed a start since he entered the NFL in 2001. He's not a All-Pro, but a good player who received far more blame for the Lions woes thanks to his ties to Millen.
Extra Point 1: Why did it take so long for Matt Millen to be replaced?
Al: Owner William Clay Ford is a senile idiot. He also HATES to fire people. It's Ford's M.O. Millen talked a good game, developed a friendly rapport with Ford, wrangled a completely undeserved contract extension, and was only canned when Bill Ford Jr. (who actually spends the vast majority of his time on the family business) finally spoke up about Millen's status and what he had done to his father's team.
Wayne Fontes is another example. He hung around at least two or three years too long as head coach in the 90's because...Hell, probably because Ford just plain liked him. Ford will give his employees more than enough rope to hang themselves...then never pull the lever for the trap door.
Going for 2: When can I look forward to the Lions drafting another wide receiver in the first round of the draft?
Al: Well, the Lions did draft wide out Titus Young in the 2nd round in this past draft. The problem is, despite Millen collecting 1st round wide receivers without really thinking things through, the Lions still had a need at the position. There was no depth behind starters Johnson and Nate Burleson.
I don't see a 1st round wide out happening again anytime soon, but I would never put it out of the realm of possibility. Martin Mayhew will draft the best available player, regardless of position (within reason, of course).
Question 6-3: Although Lee Roy Selmon only played for the Buccaneers, his legacy has touched the entire NFL. Can you please add some more good words about this great football player and even better man?
Al: I remember Lee Roy Selmon (and his brother, Dewey) being a big reason why the Bucs rose from laughingstock expansion team to playoff contenders in such a short time. As a teenage Lions fan, I was witness to Selmon's dominating play. The Bucs broke my heart more than a few times, much in thanks to their great defenses taking out the Lions.
The far too young death of Selmon is just another reason why I will always back the players in their labor battles with the owners, and why more needs to be done for the athletes who made the NFL what it is today. Unfortunately, NFL players tend to die young.. NFL owners, not so much.