Pete Dougherty column: Lions' turnaround mirrors '90s Rams

Nov. 23, 2011
After years of high-round busts, the Detroit Lions righted their drafting with players like quarterback Matthew Stafford.
After years of high-round busts, the Detroit Lions righted their drafting with players like quarterback Matthew Stafford. / Rick Osentoski/AP

The 2011 Detroit Lions aren’t the 1999 St. Louis Rams, but there are some important similarities.

The ’99 Rams, you might remember, were coming off nine straight sub-.500 seasons, including 4-12 in ’98. They went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl.

The ’11 Lions were coming off 10 straight sub.-500 seasons, including 2-30 in ’08 and ’09 combined. Now they’re 7-3, and if the playoffs started today they’d be an NFC wild card.

In both cases, the teams became the dregs of the NFL because of bad personnel decisions even though they were selecting at the top of the draft for years on end. They turned around by eventually hitting on some of those premium picks.

The Rams actually made a few good choices with top-10 picks while floundering in the early and mid ‘90s — defensive tackle Sean Gilbert (No. 3 overall in ’92), running back Jerome Bettis (No. 10 in ’93) and defensive end Kevin Carter (No. 6 in ’95). But they drafted so poorly overall that from ’91-’98 their only player other than those three who made the Pro Bowl was receiver Isaac Bruce in ’96.

It didn’t help that the Rams traded Gilbert after four seasons to Washington for a top-10 first-round pick in ’96 that coach Dick Vermeil blew on Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, who busted because of extensive drug and legal problems. And maybe most important of all, they went through fading Jim Everett, Chris Miller and second-round bust Tony Banks in a futile search for a winning quarterback.

What turned around the Rams was finally hitting big high in the draft in the late ‘90s on left tackle Orlando Pace (No. 1 overall in ’97) and receiver Torry Holt (No. 6 in ’99); trading second- and fifth-round draft picks for running back Marshall Faulk in ’99; and signing off the street a quarterback, Kurt Warner, who turned into a possible future Hall of Famer.

The Lions’ drafting record through most of the 2000s was even worse. Former General Manager Matt Millen busted on a top-10 pick five straight years: quarterback Joey Harrington (No. 3, ’02), receiver Charles Rogers (No. 2, ’03), receiver Roy Williams (No. 7, ’04), receiver Mike Williams (No. 10, ’05) and linebacker Ernie Sims (No. 9, ’06).

The Lions turned because they finally hit grand slams on three top-two picks: Millen selected receiver Calvin Johnson (No. 2 overall in ’07) in his final draft, and then current GM Martin Mayhew took quarterback Matthew Stafford (No. 1 overall in ’09) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 overall in ’10).

Those three players give the Lions a core of three difference makers that probably would have spurred a substantial turnaround in 2010 had Stafford not injured his shoulder in Week 1 and played only three games all season. Even so, the Lions won six games with backups Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton at quarterback most of the season.

So now Detroit has the NFL’s best receiver, best defensive tackle and a legit playmaker at quarterback. How many teams can match a top three like that?

What the Lions still lack is overall roster quality. They’re different than, say the Packers, because their previous drafting was so bad they’ve had to fill their biggest holes via trades and free agency. It’s not the ideal way to build, but Mayhew has improved their roster that way the last two years.

The biggest move was signing former Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch as a free agent in 2010. Vanden Bosch, a good but not great pass rusher in his prime, was already 31 years old at the time but probably was worth the four-year, $26 million deal because his off-the-charts motor on the field and work ethic off it helped coach Jim Schwartz establish his kind of locker room. Schwartz was Vanden Bosch’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee.

Mayhew also made good trades for several decent starters, including for his best offensive lineman, guard Rob Sims (fifth-round pick, 2010); starting defensive tackle Corey Williams (sixth-rounder, ’10); and starting cornerback Chris Houston (sixth-rounder, ’10).

Then last offseason, Mayhew signed three free-agent defensive starters to short-term deals that didn’t imperil future salary caps but upgraded what had been one of the worst back sevens in the league with linebackers Justin Durant (two years) and Stephen Tulloch (one year, $3.25 million), and cornerback Eric Wright (one year, $3.5 million).

The Lions still have significant shortcomings Mayhew will have to fill in the draft: Sims might be their best offensive lineman, but it’s a below-average line; Wright now is the team’s best cover man, but the secondary still is average; and they need another playmaker on offense, especially because Best can’t stay healthy.

But these Lions are young where it matters most: Johnson is 26, Stafford 23 and Suh 24.

Their offensive line is old — left tackle Jeff Backus (34), center Dominic Raiola (32) and right guard Stephen Peterman (29) are 29 or older, but they need replacing, age or not.

Vanden Bosch (33) and Williams (31) are old, but 2010 seventh-round pick Willie Young flashes talent that might be able to replace Vanden Bosch as a pass rusher, and No. 13 pick overall this year, Nick Fairley, could surpass Williams as early as next season. Durant (26), Tulloch (26), Wright (26), Houston (27) and Sims (27) are all just young enough to keep around if the Lions think they’re good enough.

In other words, the Lions can become a Super Bowl contender for the longer haul. Mayhew will have to hit on a few more draft picks, but he doesn’t need grand slams anymore; a few extra-base hits will do. or follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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