Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part II
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: First off, knowing of Matt Millen from his previous association with the 49ers, I always thought of Millen as a guy who knew football and knew the NFL, and I was quite taken aback to see the Lions become a laughingstock on his watch. What happened with Millen, anyway? How much did his missteps actually set back the franchise? Was he clueless and/or a clown, or just an executive that made bad decisions? What is your lasting impression of Millen's tenure with the Lions and the condition in which he left the team?
Nate Caminata, publisher, RoarReport.com: Matt Millen walked the path of good intentions, and the rest of the aphorism followed quickly behind. In theory, he was an aggressive but risky hire, a football mind and spirit that optimists thought would help restore a historical franchise to its rightful place among the league's elite. The only thing missing from Millen's resume, it seems, was the one thing the team actually needed: experience running a professional franchise. Whereas Millen made decisions based on misguided instinct, he also lacked a sensible other half that is usually required in the decision-making process. Just how bad was it? In the eight drafts that Millen supervised, the Lions only have seven (7) players remaining; fewer than one player per draft, and the team has none of its draftees between 2002 and 2006. That's five entire draft classes with no direct value on the current roster. Zero. The cupboard being left bare is almost an understatement, and alone should make the job by Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew that much more amazing. Still, Millen's disastrous reign wasn't without a sense of irony. Millen's first hire upon taking the job in 2001? None other than Mayhew, who in three years is already considered one of the young, bright minds of the National Football League.
Craig Massei: Jim Schwartz was seriously considered for the position when he interviewed to be San Francisco's head coach in 2005, and he left a positive impression on team management. What has Schwartz done to change the culture in Detroit and how significant has he been in the team's turnaround? It's tough for a defense-minded head coach to make it in today's NFL – the 49ers know all about that – so how responsible has Schwartz been for building an offensive juggernaut and turning the Lions into winners?
Nate Caminata: Schwartz has surrounded himself with individuals that not only have head coaching experience, but that are not afraid to challenge him, either. Both of his coordinators, Gunther Cunningham (defense) and Scott Linehan (offense), have been head coaches in the league and are considered among the more talented and seasoned play-callers in the league. I think it's rare for a first-year head coach to surround himself with individuals that are capable of replacing them, but he understands the value of a capable and competent entourage. It also doesn't hurt that the team has capable playmakers on the offensive side of the football, while he used his previous ties with DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and LB Stephen Tulloch to bring them aboard via free agency.
Craig Massei: Not to be skeptical, but is the Lions' 5-0 start for real? With a nine-game winning streak dating back to last year, Detroit certainly is on a roll. The comeback against Dallas was incredible. Are the Lions a team that is worthy of its record, or are they fortunate to still be unbeaten at this juncture? What have been the key things that have kept them undefeated and above the fine line of winning/losing in the NFL?
Nate Caminata: I think Any Given Sunday still applies in this league, making a 5-0 start (or 4-1, in San Fran's case) a reflection of that team's aptitude. With that said, it's a long season, and each game thereafter will carry more weight. The teams we're still talking about in December and January are truly worthy. As for Detroit's comeback wins: Even in the case of Dallas, I don't buy the media spin that it was all Tony Romo. Both INTs in the third quarter might have been careless, but they were not traditional pick-six material. In addition, the Lions offense put up 17 points of its own in the fourth quarter. Fact is, this team has playmakers on both sides of the ball that didn't arrive in Detroit by accident. They're young, which can explain the poor starts, but they're so explosive that they're never out of a game entirely.
Craig Massei: Here in San Francisco, we know all about quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall and the high expectations that come with that. Matthew Stafford had the expected struggles as a rookie but looked like he was coming on last year before injuries derailed his season. He sure has looked like the real deal so far this year. Tell us where Stafford stands today in his evolution as a quarterback, and how key he has been in the team's great start. Should he be considered one of the NFL's top up-and-coming young quarterbacks?
Nate Caminata: Once this season is complete, I'm of the opinion that Stafford will be in the same breath as the top-tier QBs. He has tossed the second-most touchdowns (13, one shy of Brady and Rodgers), and is tied for the fourth-least amount of interceptions among quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts, with two of his four INTs coming off deflections. But beyond Stafford's statistical fortitude, strong chemistry with Calvin Johnson and cannon right arm, the guy simply gets it. At 23, he's a team captain with complete command and respect of the offense, and a guy that veteran offensive tackle Jeff Backus considers a "coach on the field." If the kid stays healthy, his future doesn't appear to have a ceiling.
Craig Massei: Like many others, I thought Calvin Johnson was destined for stardom coming out of college, and he certainly has lived up to that. The guy is simply a beast. How do you stop him? Or do you just hope to contain him? Is stopping Johnson the key to stopping the Lions? If the 49ers can neutralize Johnson, what will that do to the Detroit offense, and how would the Lions adjust to hurt the Niners in other areas?
Nate Caminata: As Chicago found out (and its four predecessors), there is no real solution. The Bears attempted bracket coverage on Johnson, and they were destroyed on a 73-yard bomb, among a handful of first-down conversions. He's either going to out-run you or out-jump you, and good luck getting physical at the line with a 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver. And if you shift too many defenders, Stafford has capable tight ends (Tony Scheffler, Brandon Pettigrew) and two extremely underrated receivers (veteran Nate Burleson and rookie Titus Young) that will give a secondary fits. Of course, that's if Stafford isn't checking it down to Jahvid Best, who is explosive in his own right. The Johnson dilemma goes beyond the struggles to contain just one guy, it affects absolutely everything. It's really just been a nightmare for each Detroit opponent.
PART III: Check back on both NinersDigest.com and RoarReport.com as Nate and Craig break down Sunday's game in detail and give their predictions on the outcome.
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