Allen Park — Dominic Raiola was just getting used to the idea of life without Jeff Backus around the Lions practice facility.
After a dozen years together as fixtures on the offensive line, the veteran left tackle finally retired this spring, leaving Raiola without his grumpy-go-lucky sidekick — in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field.
Friday morning, though, he had to do a little double-take when he arrived at the practice facility for the first day of training camp. Riley Reiff, last year’s first-round pick and the heir apparent at left tackle, already is doing a pretty good Backus impersonation, it seems.
“You look over, he’s got a USA Today in his hand, he’s got a dip in his mouth,” Raiola said, laughing. “I thought it was Jeff over there.”
Reiff, who enjoys talking to the media about as much as Backus did, couldn’t help but laugh when Raiola’s comment was relayed to him after practice.
“Dom said that?” Reiff asked. “Is that a reliable source? Come on.”
But even his position coach chimed in later, noting a few other off-field similarities between Backus and his presumptive replacement, including Reiff’s habit of wearing “stinky armbands.”
Still, Jeremiah Washburn, promoted to offensive line coach this offseason after four years as an assistant to George Yarno, wants everyone to realize — all joking aside — that the comparisons, while inevitable, aren’t fair. And first and foremost, he wants Reiff to realize it.
“We’ve got to remind him that he’s his own player,” said Washburn, joined by his father, Jim, a veteran defensive line coach, on the coaching staff this season. “He can’t try to be Jeff Backus. He’s gonna be compared to Jeff, right or wrong. But Riley’s got to make his own mark. I think he knows that, and he’s done a great job with that so far.”
Admires Backus work ethic
The job gets considerably tougher from here, obviously, as Reiff steps into an essential role in the Lions offense as Matthew Stafford’s blind-side bodyguard, among other things.
But if there’s one thing Reiff learned from watching Backus last season, day after day, dip after dip, it’s that the job requires one thing above all else.
“I mean, you can ask anybody around here: Jeff came to work every day,” said Reiff, whose hometown of Parkston, S.D., isn’t much more populated than a public training camp practice in Allen Park. “He’s a professional. That’s all I can say about that. But that’s not a line, though. That’s the truth. He’s the hardest-working guy I know.”
Indeed, for all the criticism he endured during his career, Backus was an old-school mainstay for the Lions, starting 192 of 193 games after being drafted in 2001, including an ironman streak of 187 consecutive starts that ended last Thanksgiving.
Born that way
That game against Houston marked Reiff’s first and only start at left tackle to date. But while he still has to answer questions about his pass protection at the NFL level — the short arms, the kick step, he’s heard it all — Reiff did show plenty of promise in a hybrid role. He was an effective run blocker — Pro Football Focus graded him as the best on the roster — despite playing 15-20 snaps as an extra tackle most games.
“And I think his role last year really got him to where he’s at now,” Raiola said. “Riley’s a starter. That’s the way I look at him.”
He looks a bit different now, actually. Reiff says he’s gotten stronger this offseason, adding 12-15 pounds — he’s listed at 313 now — to his 6-foot-6 frame without sacrificing any athleticism. Jared Allen and Julius Peppers and the rest will be the judge of that.
But Reiff’s mental strength will be tested, too. And that’s one area the Lions coaches insist they have no worries.
“You’re born with a left-tackle mentality,” Washburn said. “He was born that way, he was raised that way — his parents raised him to be a strong, emotionally-tough kid, and that’s what he is.
“He’s never too high, he’s never too low. And that’s the mentality that you want from a left tackle. That’s the same thing Jeff had, and that’s what we see in Riley.”
And what they see in him, well, they certainly hope that’s what they get.