In my offensive and defensive posts in this series, I have attempted to maintain a focus on more than just the 2010 season, as we are becoming an increasingly younger team. The roster is full of talent that has yet to really be cultivated, and I think analyzing not just the here and now, but also what we could end up could help a lot of us (me, especially) temper our expectations and enjoy the season a little more through the growth and experience our players gain.
Being that the special teams unit consists mostly of backup players and only has 2 dimensions, this particular post will also focus on our coaching staff. Just as important as the players we obtain is the ability of our coaches to channel that potential into production.
The major contributors on special teams are familiar faces - Jason Hanson is arguably the heart of the Lions' roster, a consummate professional with 17 seasons under his belt. Nick Harris has been on the team for a while now, and though he is perceived pretty poorly, his play has been solid, with ProFootballFocus.com ranking him #15 last year, before putting him at 6 and high as 3 in 2008 and 2007, respectively. I don't forsee any changes coming between them soon. There's just no reason to. Jason Hanson's production has declined, but even in this state is as good as or better than any kicker we would probably pick up. Kickers can play upwards of 20 years, and I think everyone is in agreeance that out of respect for Hanson, he can retire when he feels it's time.
The other big factors on special teams, Zack Follett and Jahvid Best, are both Cal players who are very young and bring a lot of intensity to a phase of the game that requires it. I really think Best is going to be utilized in the return game. Aside from the concussion issue, (which trust me, was the reason I didn't want us to draft him in the first place) he's got the perfect size and speed to really excel there. Follett is basically his antithesis, a guy who plies his trade on the kick team and has a knack for a big play. It will be interesting to see if his role is diminished on special teams this year, if Detroit does indeed end up starting him.
Guys like Aaron Brown and Vinny Circiu are more minor names that should (read: need to) take what they can get on special teams. Circiu is more of a sure thing, as he's something of a veteran and performed decently in limited action... However, Brown is likely on a short leash. Lots of love here for him at PoD, but in my humble opinion, after we drafted Jahvid Best, he'll be phased out. If Best ends up being a feature back, maybe he shapes it up and claims the job, but right now, his presence seems extraneous.
All told, the Lions actually tend to have pretty solid special teams. We've had a few bad years, but I am interested to see what new ST coach (thank god I can say that) Danny Crossman can bring to the table. Stan Kwan needed to go, so maybe shaking the cobwebs out a little bit will invigorate this part of our game. Time and time again, we see that great special teams play (see: February's Super Bowl) can contribute to the end result immensely. (Grade: B+)
Finally, we have the brains of the organization. A group of men in progressive stages of baldness, the Detroit Lions are led by several people who have done some rather extraordinary things in their years of coaching. Scott Linehan was the architect of a Minnesota Vikings offense that allowed QB Daunte Culpepper to have an NFL record season. Jim Schwartz led the Tennessee Titans' defensive squad for 8 years, where they perenially were one of the most dominant defenses in the league. Gunther Cunningham maintains one of the most prestigious records in NFL history:
According to a September 16, 1996 Sports Illustrated article titled "The Beat Goes On", Gunther holds the unofficial NFL record for most times the word "f--k" was used in a 40-minute practice. The record stands at 118 times.
We certainly have a wealth of personality in our coaching staff.
Jim Schwartz is a man that I want leading my favorite football team. His philosophy is tested and solid. Get the biggest guys you can get. After success in Tennessee, Schwartz brings the expectations up in the locker room. His familiarity and rapport with players has already paid divendeds, with the signing of Kyle Vanden Bosch the night of free agency, along with reports that LB Keith Bulluck is likely to end up here as well. I forsee a long tenure for Jim in Detroit, and he may just be the guy who can bring us back from the edge of futility.
With the amount of focus that has been placed on the offense since this regime took over, Scott Linehan seems to have assembled the weapons to do nearly the same thing here in Detroit. After the arrival of Matthew Stafford, we had a point man who can do it all, the Randy Moss-esque Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson (who played on that record team as Moss' #2) and TE's Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew all emulate what Linehan looks for in his offensive scheme. With a slightly improved offensive line, it should be interesting to see all the pieces get on the field at once.
With Schwartz's background in defense, you would think that the minute he ran a team picking high in the draft every year he would take all of the defensive help he could get, especially on this team. Instead, with the draft focused on the offense the past two years, Gunther Cunningham has worked with a number of players both experienced and otherwise in the NFL. Players like the aforementioned KVB, Julian Peterson, and some of our depth contributors have filtered in over the last two years to bolster the lack of talent on Gun's squad. With most of the lower, developmental picks going to the defense, we have ended up with quite a few projects and some solid guys to balance out the equation. He isn't without weapons though, as Louis Delmas and Ndamukong Suh should make scheming much easier for him. Of all our coaches, I would say he has the least room for error, but I feel confident that he will make solid players from our younger guys. His hard nosed style should mold some tough players.
Danny Crossman, you are a mystery. All I could find when I looked for pictures of you were that one and a very strange picture where you look like a prison inmate, and have a rather creepy face going. Either way, as I said before, having a new set of eyes on our special teams can't hurt. Kwan was the only remaining coach from the Millen Era, and I'm not upset that we can fully put that behind us now. So thanks, Danny.
So our coaches have only had a year to see what they could work with. Thus far, the MO seems to have been 'level the house, and reconstruct something totally different', which is great. Drafting has been solid, and the players that aren't considered sure things give the coaches something to work with. Schwartz and Cunningham's connection should really foster a solid defense, and Linehan basically has no reason to not have a great offense over the next few years, when Staff, CJ, Nate, and the myriad playmakers we've assembled gel. It's early into their team development, but this is certainly no worse than any coach we've had in well over a decade, and all of them got at least 3-4 years. (Grade: A-)