Injuries are a part of life in the National Football League. And although a team can only prepare to a certain degree should one of its primary talents come up lame, there is usually some kind of safeguard available.
Nope, Lions fans: Your season rests solely on the 6-1, 295-pound frame belonging to one of the league's most undersized centers. Entering his eighth year in the league, Raiola is the anchor, the heart, the soul, and the best talent on an offensive line in 2008 that has more questions than answers.
If the Lions lost left tackle Jeff Backus to injury, they would have an adequate replacement in Jonathan Scott. The receiver position, even without Roy Williams or Calvin Johnson, would remain solid and formidable. And while any team would struggle without its starting quarterback (most struggle with their No. 1 signal caller), the Lions might stay afloat without Jon Kitna behind center.
Dominic Raiola's health is critical to the
An injury to the team's starting center, however, would be the straw that broke an entire franchise's back. As one member of The Den message board put it, the loss of Dominic Raiola would make the season horrendous even by Detroit's standards.
Granted, the "what if" scenario is a theoretical play. However, you can't ignore what the Lions front office apparently ignored during the entire off-season: the need for some kind of depth at such a vital position. Almost every other team in the league has at least one reserve center, or an offensive guard with experience at the center position. In Detroit, it's Raiola and a cloud of dust.
Even more frustrating is Detroit's investment in its offense, yet the gamble it is willing to take at the master cog in its protection. Johnson, Williams, Kitna, the exciting zone blocking strategy, rookie running back Kevin Smith, and belated proper useage of Tatum Bell means absolutely nothing if the already ambigous offensive line collapses.
They got a sneak preview this week at what life without Raiola might hold. It wasn't pretty.
On Monday, the coaching staff held its collective breath when Raiola's ankle was rolled up on by a defensive lineman. He missed a handful of plays, but returned to action. On Tuesday, he pulled himself out of practice when that same ankle got stiff. Head coach Rod Marinelli dismissed the seriousness of the injury after practice, but there is no downplaying the veracity of Raiola's significance to the team's success.
Take his replacement, guard Corey Hulsey, for example. In his brief attempt to spell Raiola, Hulsey -- who has little to no experience at center (and didn't play a snap in the NFL in 2007) -- botched the exchange to quarterback Jon Kitna. It was one of several fundamental issues Hulsey had at the position, and that isn't necessarily his fault. Behind every good offense is a solid, dependable center; a position that requires mental and physical leadership. If the center goes, so goes the offensive line, and the domino effect is swift with tragic consequences.
"No excuses, no," said a defiant Marinelli over Hulsey's miscues. "We've got to execute one of the simplest things. No excuses."
In his defense, Raiola has managed to remain anatomically intact his entire career. If there was ever a beacon of health considering the conditions in which a Lion has been forced to play, it has been the stout and athletic Raiola. Still, Raiola turns 30 in December. The Lions' zone blocking scheme will force him to move and cut more than he has ever before, which plays to his advantage -- and also leaves him more vulnerable to injury.
Barring the signing of an agile center, one that can handle Detroit's need for a mobile offensive lineman within the requirements of a zone-blocking scheme, the Lions are betting the season on Raiola's body. And they've already received their first scare.