Over the past month, I went through a season and a half or so of a franchise with the Detroit Lions in Madden NFL 09. In a franchise, you basically act as the owner of a team and control both on the field and off the field decisions. On the field, things went surprisingly well after I benched Jon Kitna and decided to start Drew Stanton. The Lions ended up going 7-9, which shockingly was good enough to tie for the NFC North title with every other team in the division. That's right, the Vikings, Packers, and Bears also went 7-9, but it was Minnesota that made the playoffs due to a tiebreaker.
Things started out a bit shaky at first when Stanton became the starter, but that was to be expected. The offense clicked and played well every once and a while, but it was actually the defense that helped the Lions win games more than anything. Although 7-9 wasn't a bad record, I still wasn't satisfied with the way things were, so I cleaned house, which is what I hope the Lions do in real life.
After firing Rod Marinelli, Jim Colletto, Joe Barry, and Stan Kwan, I set out on a journey to put together a great coaching staff. I started at the very top and decided to hire Brian Billick, the former coach of the Baltimore Ravens. I think Billick is someone that can run a team successfully and knows how to put together a talented group of players. After hiring Billick, I outbid the Buccaneers to hire Monte Kiffin. I hired him not only because he is a great defensive coordinator, but many players on the team already fit his system, the Tampa 2.
Shifting to offense, I decided to hire Colts running backs coach Gene Huey as my offensive coordinator. I briefly thought about going after a big name, but I decided to save some money by hiring a position coach over someone that already was a coordinator. Honestly, I'm not too concerned with the offense right now. I want to build a great defense before even worrying about Stanton and company, and I believe by the time my second season is finished, offense can become the top priority.
I finalized the coaching staff by hiring a solid special teams coach whose name escapes me right now. Either way, I know for sure that he is an upgrade over Stan Kwan, though my special teams were actually very good during the 2008 season. Despite not having a whole lot of speed, Brandon Middleton returned a few kicks for a touchdown and went to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. My punt return game stunk, but I think it will improve thanks to the draft, which I'll get to in a second.
With a new coaching staff in place, my focus shifted to the players. I immediately started looking for a way to trade Roy Williams, just as the Lions did in real life. My first offer was to the Cowboys, but they weren't interested. After looking to include Jon Kitna to make it a package deal, I finally found a team that was lacking talented receivers and would love to add another quarterback. That team was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I ended up trading Kitna and Williams for Tampa Bay's first-, second-, and fifth-round picks. I believe I sent a seventh-rounder their way, but I'm not 100% certain. Either way, with the additional draft picks in my back pocket, I set off looking to quickly improve my team. First, though, I improved the Lions via free agency. I cut ties with players like Dan Orlovsky, Shaun Cody, George Foster, and others that I felt wouldn't ever contribute. With some freed up cap space and room on the roster, I went on a shopping spree of sorts.
When I was looking at the free agent market, I wanted to make sure that I didn't spend too much, as I had to pay for a pair of first-round picks and didn't want to dig myself a hole. Even so, I focused on the positions that had a big need and looked for players that had talent and weren't demanding a huge contract.
Given that, I first signed Kerry Collins and Kyle Boller to add depth behind Drew Stanton. I debated on whether or not I should go ahead and add Boller as well, but I figured that since Stanton is so injury prone, it was important to have as much depth as possible, especially since Collins isn't exactly a young guy. I decided on Boller as the Lions' third QB since the move made sense now that Billick was the head coach. The two have a history, and Boller fit the third-string role nicely.
After filling up the quarterback position, I set my sights on a couple of receivers from the Eagles. Hank Baskett and Jason Avant were free agents, and I opted to sign both of them. I originally only planned on signing only Baskett, but I decided to bring in Avant as well since he is a solid receiver. These two moves meant the Lions had six receivers on the roster, but I am happy with all of them.
Shifting to the offensive line, I knew that I had to do a lot of work here. In free agency, I decided to sign Shane Olivea to become the starting right tackle while Gosder Cherilus continues to develop. Olivea came at a fairly cheap price compared to other offensive lineman, so this wasn't too tough of a decision. I knew the o-line had to get more talent, so it was a necessary move.
I filled the roster with a couple more free agents in order to add depth to positions like linebacker and offensive guard. I really didn't try to bring in any new starters since I still had the draft and wanted to keep space on the roster for the rookies. I had an idea of which positions I would address via the draft, allowing me to move on from free agency pretty quickly.
Once draft day arrived, I hoped that I could pick a couple of defensive players that would become starters as soon as they were signed. I did consider drafting a quarterback, but that would have only happened if someone like Tim Tebow dropped. Since he was the first overall pick, I shifted back to focusing on defensive players pretty quickly.
When the Lions went on the clock with the 9th overall pick, I decided to draft Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. I realize that Jordon Dizon didn't even have time to prove himself, but I wanted someone that was starting material, not someone that has potential and may develop into a starter someday. Considering that, I picked Laurinaitis since I knew he would be able to start from the very beginning.
The Lions' next pick was 20th overall, and I opted to draft Virginia Tech cornerback Victor Harris. The secondary was lacking talent, and Harris was another player that had the ability to start immediately. On top of that, he is a 99 overall punt returner, so that filled another need at the same time. Killing two birds with one stone in the draft always is a good thing.
In the second-round, I focused on the offensive line. My two picks were LSU's Ciron Black and Ohio State's Steve Rehring. Black was listed as a tackle, but I ended up moving him to right guard after the draft. He actually was the most talented guard on the team after I made the switch, so he became the starter at RG. Rehring edged out Edwin Mulitalo talent-wise and became the starter at LG, meaning that my goal of finding players that could start immediately was accomplished.
The third-round was really the last time I drafted anybody worth noting. I ended up picking Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew. My thought process for this pick was that I had filled most of the major needs, so I was looking for a sleeper type of player that could also contribute right away. As it turned out, Pettigrew was good enough to start over Michael Gaines, meaning that the first five picks I made all resulted in new starters. I'd say that's a pretty good draft.
After I signed my draft picks and got them on the roster, I had to change some players' positions. My first move was to switch Paris Lenon back to outside linebacker. That allowed him to start alongside Laurinaitis and Ernie Sims, making for a pretty good trio of linebackers. After that, most of my moves were strictly on the offensive line, as I had to balance out depth at the various positions.
With my roster in order and my starting lineup set, it was time to start playing some games. I started the season 3-0 after winning a game against the Bears in overtime, absolutely destroying the 49ers, and edging out the Ravens on the road. Things haven't gone as well the last two weeks, as the Giants beat me with ease and the Browns squeaked by me. Even so, 3-2 is not bad, and my guess is that the team will only improve as the season goes on.
Probably the biggest disappointment and surprise has been the offense. Sometimes they struggle to pick up a first down, but when they click it's fun to watch. I dropped 55 on the 49ers and it really was just a great game all around for the offense. Calvin Johnson dominated the 49ers' secondary, and Kevin Smith had little trouble running the ball. I wish there was more consistency with the offense, but like I said, I'm sure things will improve over time.
As far as the defense goes, they have been a huge part of this 3-2 start. My hope was that I could build the defense into a dominant force in my first two seasons. So far, I'd say mission accomplished. The defense has created turnovers, gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and stuffed the run.
Overall I am very happy with the defense's performance and do feel like my next offseason can focus on the offense. Don't worry; I won't draft a wide receiver in the first-round since that isn't a position of need. I would say continuing to build the offensive line will be the first priority, meaning Jeff Backus is probably on his way out. I actually tried to trade him right before the draft in hopes of picking up a second-round pick or something like that, but no one wanted him. His value was rated very low, which really wasn't surprising.
As you can tell, my moves as the make believe general manager of the Lions were thought out with a long-term plan in mind. I decided to follow the phrase "defense wins championships" and am already seeing the improvements that came with adding a pair of first-round picks. Offensively I'm still not sure what the future will hold and don't know if Drew Stanton will be the starting QB beyond this season. However, I do like what I see right now and hope that things will work out. That way I can focus on building the offensive line rather than finding a QB in the next draft.
I realize that being a general manager in Madden is a lot easier than making decisions about coaches and personnel in real life, but I just thought it would be interesting to see how one man would rebuild the Lions. Obviously a plan in real life and a plan in a video game will differ, but you can understand my overall philosophy. The Lions will be in an even better draft situation than I was, so there is no excuse for not finding at least a couple new starters. After all, I managed to find five new starters with my first five picks, so the real GM should at least be able to find a couple.
When it comes down to it, no matter who the GM for the Lions is, he has to overhaul the roster. Not every player has to be released or traded, but it is important that there are a lot of new faces. Take the New Orleans Saints from a few years ago as a prime example of what a roster overhaul can do. In 2005, New Orleans went 3-13. In 2006, with a new head coach and a large amount of new players, the Saints went 10-6 and made it to the NFC Championship Game. Obviously every situation is different, but this example shows you how much improvement can happen in one year.
I guess my point from all of this is that whoever the general manager for the Lions is in 2009, he must focus on rebuilding quickly. It can't be a process that takes three years to get to the stage of maybe getting to .500. That is how it has been with the Lions ever since Millen arrived, and the longer it takes the more unlikely it is for this team to be successful.
With the draft picks he will have, the new GM should be able to get the rebuilding process off to a quick start. The Lions' record in 2009 may not reflect that, but this team should be inching toward 8-8 by 2010 and be playoff contenders by 2011. Obviously this is all easier said than done, but if I can figure out how to rebuild an NFL franchise, though it may be in a video game, then the GM should be able to figure out how to turn the Lions into a winning team.