Allen Park — They have the superstar receiver and the big-name quarterback and the touted tight end and the flashy back and the free-agent prize. The Lions have the stats and stars in a new offense, and its development will define the early days of the Jim Caldwell regime.
That’s all nice and promising, and Lions fans are permitted their annual preseason palpitations. But here’s something you probably never thought you’d hear: The Lions appear to have an offensive line good enough and tough enough to make this work.
Don’t accuse me of heat-induced hyperbole either, because I stay in the shade, near the ice water. Around the league, the Lions line rates near the top on several lists. And of all the ways to help Matthew Stafford become the elite quarterback many still think he can be, that’s a solid place to start.
Under Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the Lions are installing the Saints offense so deftly run by Drew Brees. The notion of just heaving the ball to Calvin Johnson is outdated, and Stafford will have to make precise decisions with an array of options — Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Barry Sanders. (Making sure you’re paying attention).
Stafford is embracing the offense with an eager energy that seems real, and we’ll see a preview Saturday night in the preseason opener against the Browns.
Few are more eager than the grunts in the trenches, some who have toiled most of their careers without fanfare. The offensive line long has been a culprit for what ails the Lions, but that narrative needs updating.
'We haven't arrived'
A recent Sports Illustrated analysis ranked the Lions offensive line third-best in the NFL, behind the Patriots and Cowboys. Pretty heady stuff. But center Dominic Raiola, who has heard it all in 14 seasons here, knows the importance of staying grounded.
“We haven’t arrived yet,” Raiola said. “There’s enough older guys in there to put the foot down and say, ‘Who are we? Was that us? Was that a fluke?’ We don’t ever want to take steps backwards.”
There aren’t many individual statistics for linemen, and continuity is a key. But besides Raiola and ninth-year left guard Rob Sims, the Lions have built this group with talented youth, led by second-year right guard Larry Warford. The third-round pick from Kentucky was a revelation, and according to SI, played 1,126 snaps without allowing a sack last season.
That’s astonishing. So is this: Stafford dropped back 634 times and was sacked only 23 times, second-lowest total in the league. That’s not all good, though, because Stafford often avoided sacks by throwing recklessly, finishing with 19 interceptions.
Lombardi said Thursday that Stafford has handled the transition “great,” and hasn’t thrown a single interception in team drills. The idea is to reduce the turnovers and not pin everything on Stafford’s right arm. There will be a fullback and multiple tight end sets, all designed with one idea in mind.
“It’s flexibility,” Lombardi said. “If we gotta pound the ball to win the game, we want to be able to do that. We’ve also got the weapons to spread ’em out and throw the ball around a little bit.”
Bush won a Super Bowl in this offense with New Orleans, so he knows it works. Stafford is the one who must make it go, and after all the Lions have invested, there are no excuses left. The offense is more complicated, and I asked the veteran linemen to describe one major difference in Lombardi’s attack.
“Unpredictable,” Sims said.
“Unpredictable,” Raiola said.
These guys sit at adjacent lockers but used the same word independently, I swear. Linemen know predictability as well as anyone, because they see up close when defenses sniff it out.
“I don’t want to say anything about the past, but we’d line up in a formation, and there’d only be one protection we’d run out of it,” Raiola said. “In this offense, we can line up in whatever formation we want and run whatever protection we want. It’s crazy. There’s no rhyme or reason, but I like it. It’s not easy for us to learn, so it can’t be easy for them to defend.”
There will be some growing pains, guaranteed. Left tackle Riley Reiff is young, in his third season. Warford and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (an undrafted free agent) are entering their second seasons, and Waddle will be pushed by veteran Corey Hilliard. It’s an unheralded group — Reiff is the only first-round pick — that isn’t accustomed to being heralded.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit,” Sims said. “Last year was just a stepping stone, really our first year together. We’re putting something special together.”
All five starters should be together for a second straight season, so there’s some of the old mixed with a lot of the new. And there’s something about the freshness of the offense and the cohesion on the line that has the grizzled guys a bit giddy.
“It’s awesome to have these young guys to play with,” Raiola, 35, said with a laugh. “I feel like the grandfather. It’s funny because I lean on these young guys for energy and youth, and they lean on me and Rob for experience.”
The Lions will lean on Stafford, as always. But they’ll also lean on their line, which will have to bulldoze as well as it pass-blocks. As a new, unpredictable era dawns, the offensive line might be the most solidly predictable unit, and not many would have predicted that.
Browns at Lions
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Exhibition opener
TV/radio: Channel 7/97.1
Line: Lions by 2½