Lions running back Theo Riddick makes his way through the ropes during a drill earlier this month. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park ó Stephfon Green. Matt Willis. Demario Ballard. Aaron Brown. Chaz Schillens. Patrick Edwards.
Recognize those guys? Their combined contribution to the Lions was 26 games (22 by Brown), 189 rushing yards (Brown), 184 receiving yards (138 by Brown), one regular-season touchdown (Brown) and one exhibition kickoff return for a touchdown (Green).
What they have in common is they all were beasts of spring. They were the guys we were writing about during OTAs and minicamp and even into the first couple of weeks of training camp. They were guys who looked dominant in pad-less practices, the scourges of seven-on-seven drills.
They also were guys whose prowess seemed to fade the minute the regular season started.
Ballard, 6-foot-7 with a basketball playerís hops, was so impressive early on that some fans were calling into radio shows suggesting the Lions could now trade Calvin Johnson because they had a player with the same skill set.
Ballard has yet to play a down in the NFL. Nor has Green. Willis caught some passes in the exhibition season last year and fans were upset that he was among the teamís final cuts. Yet, he never caught on with another team.
And then thereís Edwards ó the ultimate spring hero. He has teased fans, media (me included) and coaching staffs the last few years with his speed and his ability to blow by defenders. Nate Burleson was trumpeting him last preseason as the guy who finally would fill that No. 2 receiver spot opposite Johnson.
Never happened, though he was given ample opportunity. When the real bullets started to fly, Edwards suddenly couldnít get open, nor did he show he could make catches in tight coverage. The next 50-50 ball he wins will be his first.
So, whatís the moral of this story? You already know.
Tough to tell
While itís fun to watch these players perform in the offseason, fun to try to project who might fit, who might contribute, itís mostly meaningless data.
Everybody wants to know how players are looking. Unless somebody is grossly out of shape, or is clearly lost in the drills or canít seem to grasp the playbook, everybody looks pretty good in shorts and a helmet playing a non-contact version of segmented football.
You watch a seven-on-seven drill and you see Johnson beat Darius Slay on a crossing route. You canít say Slay looked bad. For one, there is no contact so he canít even try to press Johnson at the line of scrimmage. Two, if he did get too aggressive covering Johnson and, lord help him, tripped him up and injured him, it would be months before he was let out of the doghouse.
Truth is, if the first offense doesnít complete better than 95 percent of its passes in seven-on-seven, there is something really wrong. Which is why in the first couple of weeks of OTAs, when the offense was sputtering badly in all drills, we wrote that the defense was ahead of the offense.
But even that was misleading and meaningless. By the end of minicamp, the offense, with a better grasp of the system, was operating much more crisply and efficiently.
Running back Theo Riddick probably was the consensus MVP of the offseason. He is a diversely skilled player, perhaps a steal as a sixth-round pick. But Riddick was put in a position to shine because Joique Bell sat out the entire offseason recovering from a knee injury.
When training camp starts, Riddick will return to the No. 3 running back spot behind Reggie Bush and Bell and he wonít get the same amount of reps he got in the spring. Unless something happens to Bush or Bell, Riddickís role on the offense will be limited ó his outstanding spring likely didnít change that.
Jeremy Ross is another player who drew raves for his play this spring. Ross is going to be the teamís primary returner, but he got a lot of reps as a slot receiver and played well. He is bigger-bodied and stronger than the typical slot receiver, but again, itís unlikely he is going to have a large role in the offense come September.
He got extended reps in the spring because Golden Tate was out with a shoulder injury and Ryan Broyles was coming back off Achilles surgery. Plus, we still donít know exactly how much offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will even use a traditional slot receiver.
We know he likes to have two backs. We know Johnson and Tate will be on the field. So, does he use Broyles or Ross, or does he use rookie tight end Eric Ebron? If Ebron is who the Lions believe he will be, they may not need to use a traditional slot receiver as much.
Beware of the hype
The point is, nobody knows right now ó about any of this. Until the pads come on and there is an opponent that has scouted you and game-planned to beat you, there is no real evaluation of individual performance.
And thatís why coaches always downplay their comments about individual players in the spring. They always preface their answers by saying, as Jim Caldwell did during minicamp, ďI canít tell a whole lot about everybody until we get the pads on. This gameís not played in shorts. So, there are a lot of guys that look really good right now.Ē
All of this is not to say the 10-week offseason training program is a waste of time. Far from it. In terms of creating a culture, establishing leaders, installing systems on both sides of the ball, mastering the rudiments of the playbook, evaluating and measuring playersí physical and mental capabilities and growth, itís invaluable.
Itís just not an indicator or predictor of individual performance in the regular season. It would cause some folks a lot less heartache and consternation if that was better understood.