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To the delight of some and displeasure of many others, the Detroit Lions roster has been overhauled more drastically during the present offseason than ever before.
While some fans were still clinging to hopes that Charlie Batch would be the Bobby Layne of the 21st century, Marty Mornhinweg made it clear that this was not the guy to lead his West Coast Offense.
The story on Batch? Dang near immobile, a bit hesitant, and not quite accurate enough. If the Lions were going to reclaim glory on Marty's watch, it wouldn't be with Batch at the helm.
Enter 2001 fifth-round selection Mike McMahon, a "sleeper" out of Rutgers, superior to Batch both in terms of arm strength and quickness. Sure, the accuracy needed a little work, his 46% rookie season completion percentage showed, but while you can't significantly improve a guy's mobility or add significant zip to his passes, there's no reason to abandon a young, inexperienced quarterback just because he's not yet hitting receivers between the numbers in year one.
The Lions didn't erase that zero from the win column in 2001 until McMahon became the starter, thus the fan base was excited about the new-kid-in-town and became married to the idea of entering the "Ford Field era" with the prototype West Coast gunslinger leading the charge.
Unlike Batch, McMahon was hand selected by the Millen-Mornhinweg regime, and any fears that McMahon couldn't make the necessary improvements were alleviated by Mornhinweg during his pre-draft press conference. McMahon's accuracy had improved tremendously, we were told, and there was no reason to believe further strides would not be made in the coming months.
Position filled, case closed. Yes, he was the third starting quarterback in five years, but under the tutelage of quarterback-guru Mornhinweg, he was bound to stick. Right?
Not so fast. In what is becoming an all too common occurrence since Millen took the reigns, management again slipped the rug from under the feet of the Detroit-faithful, this time by ignoring several holes on defense by using the third pick of the 2002 draft on potential franchise quarterback Joey Harrington.
Which quarterback will start on opening day this September will not be determined for several months, but the message sent with the Harrington pick was quite clear: Mornhinweg wants guys who fit into his offensive system, and he wants plenty of them.
If McMahon successfully leads the team out of the gates and never looks back, so be it. However, if McMahon can't do the job for whatever reason, Mornhinweg wants a player backing him up who fits the system and can work it just as well.
Need further proof of this philosophy-in-action? Let's begin with the wide receiver position. Entering 2001, the Lions top three players at receiver were Germane Crowell, Johnnie Morton, and Herman Moore. Most anticipated big things for Crowell in Mornhinweg's offense, he being the prototype West Coast receiver.
Crowell's season was cut short due to injury before anyone could find out, however, but Morton had a career year while Moore again had little impact before also going down early in the season with an injury.
Painfully obvious throughout the season was Detroit's lack of speed at receiver, and speed is a necessity, not a luxury, in the West Coast Offense. The new regime could have played to the city by keeping around longtime favorites Moore and Morton, but doing so would have jeopardized their chances of fielding a complete unit of West Coast-fitting players.
Despite Morton's eye-catching stats in 2001, he never displayed the ability to consistently make the game-breaking play, something that was sorely lacking in their many single-digit down to the wire losses. As a result, Morton and the aging Moore were shown the door.
Now in at the wide receiver position are Az-Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder, both less accomplished but more explosive than their predecessors. In addition, because of the already-mentioned potential (and a cap friendly contract), Crowell will again be a Lion in 2002.
Just ask Morton and Moore... talent isn't enough for Marty Mornhinweg. You've got to fit the system.
Ditto for tight end David Sloan. The former Pro Bowler actually came on late last season, becoming a favorite target of McMahon. However, he still played a bit stiff at times, and while considered one of the better all around tight ends in the league, he also lacked big play ability.
Though the Lions have yet to find an adequate replacement for Sloan, who signed with the Saints after Detroit made no attempt to bring him back, the player filling Sloan's shoes in minicamp was converted wide receiver Michael Ricks recently brought on board from Kansas City.
In addition, the Lions will likely try to find another West Coast-friendly tight end after the June 1 cuts take place.
Another move at a skill position with the intent of getting more athletic and explosive. Another step closer to West Coast heaven.
This dedication to the system is even evident on the offensive line where Ross-era leftovers like oversized Aaron Gibson and mauler Mike Compton have given way to the more agile likes of Eric Beverly and Dominic Raioli.
If it seems that at times talent is being sacrificed in order to plug the hole with a more system-fitting player, that's probably because this is often the case. Make no mistake, Mornhinweg believes that the only way to make the Lions into a contender under his system is to have the machine functioning with only the most appropriate parts.
Which begs the question... why is James Stewart still a Lion? Set to count for more than $5 million against the cap in 2002, Stewart has been asked to take a pay cut to reduce that number to something more befitting of an oft-injured back posting average numbers.
Although he now seems willing to comply with those wishes, given Mornhinweg's personnel decisions to date, Stewart's seems to fit into future plans about as well as Alan Keyes at a DNC fund raiser.
Why so rough on the hard nosed workhorse who's taken his licks in two entirely different systems behind sometimes atrocious blocking? It's simple. He doesn't fit the system!
Humor me, if you will, and examine the list of starting running backs in the NFL. How many do you see with less speed than James Stewart? Very few to be sure. Furthermore, Stewart, on his best day, shows little ability to do anything more than straight line running.
Speaking of "best days," Stewart is notorious for having very few of them throughout the entirety of his professional career. The excuse against bringing in another back due to a history of injuries is a weak one, as Stewart himself has missed significant time due to a torn ACL, and missed all or most of six games last season.
Mornhinweg's willingness to bring back Stewart would be understandable if there were no players available that would better fit Detroit's offense. However, this is simply not the case.
Currently, former Seahawk Ricky Watters is unemployed, and one would be hard pressed to find any reason why he, and not James Stewart, should be the Detroit Lions running back in 2002.
Yes, Watters is returning from an injury that kept him out of 11 games last season, but this was the first suffered by Watters in his 11-year career. Compare that with Stewart's laundry list of injuries, and you see that Watters is clearly the more dependable back.
Age? Watters is older by a year-and-a-half. No big deal.
Ability within the West Coast Offense? For one, Watters is a career West Coast guy, so getting acclimated would not be a problem. Stewart adjusted admirably last season, but he was clearly not an ideal fit.
Watters, regardless of setting (be it San Francisco, Philadelphia, or Seattle) consistently posts numbers that better those of Stewart's career year in 2000.
One fear expressed by Mornhinweg when taking over last season was that Stewart might not possess the necessary pass-catching skills required of a West Coast back. Simply providing an outlet is not enough in this system; the back must be a weapon as a receiver.
Evidence that Stewart never satisfied Mornhinweg in this area was the fact that he was frequently replaced on third downs. Having to do this causes the offense to tip its hand unnecessarily.
Watters is an all-around three down back. His least productive year in terms of receiving yardage (ignoring last season) was in 1993 for the 49ers, where he played in 13 games and posted 326 receiving yards for one touchdown. Stewart's best year? Try 336 receiving yards also for one touchdown while playing in all 16 games.
Watters has posted seasons of 66, 62, 51, 52, and 63 receptions, the latter coming the season before the injury. Stewart's best season in terms of receptions was 41, that accomplished in 1997.
The disparity only grows when comparing rushing statistics. Watters peaked in 1996 for the Eagles at 1,411 yards, and in the three seasons prior to last year's injury in Seattle, Watters went over 1,200 yards every time. Stewart has never rushing for 1,200, neither in Detroit nor Jacksonville.
Clearly, neither back is a long term solution for the Lions. Late-round selection Luke Staley is a long shot if he holds up, with a more likely back-of-the-future coming via the 2003 draft.
Still, why Mornhinweg would begin this reconstruction effort only to stop short at possibly the most important position (considering the running back will often touch the ball over thirty times a game) is befuddling.
To maintain team chemistry? Millen long ago abandoned any facade of acting on such interests.
Money? Even after assuming the accelerated cap hit of Stewart's bonus (which would occur if Stewart is cut), the Lions should still be able to easily afford Watters. Remember, even if Stewart agrees to take a pay cut his base salary would still sit at around $2-3 million in 2002.
It's a buyers market out there, and the Lions primary competition in wooing Watters, such as Tampa and Atlanta, have already found their men. Watters should start getting a little antsy as training camp nears, and Millen should pounce on the opportunity when it comes.
Finally, if Ricky Watters has already sent word that he's not interested, then Millen should simply come out and say so. Lord knows a little honesty with the fans is in order.