I couldn’t help but notice Lions fans slipping into old habits this past weekend, flipping the switch from optimism to pessimism as Detroit seemingly stood by and watched as key free agent targets at positions of need signed in droves to everyone but the Lions. While the signings of Eric Wright and Justin Durant had alleviated some concerns about the defense, the lack of a clear second starter at cornerback and another starting-caliber linebacker were the source of great angst among fans.
The trepidation about the defense — and GM Martin Mayhew — only grew as corner Johnathan Joseph inked a deal with Houston and rumors about linebacker Stephen Tulloch — as well as a bizarre and cryptic tweet from his agent, Drew Rosenhaus — made it appear he would likely sign elsewhere. Following the action on Twitter — which was incredibly useful for keeping up with the rapid-fire action of the shortened free agency period — I saw a lot of fans that were greatly concerned that Mayhew had either missed the boat completely with his key targets or was bizarrely settled upon fielding a defense with a couple glaring holes.
Instead of caving in to pressure and overpaying for a player like Antonio Cromartie or Nick Barnett, Mayhew played the waiting game, and it paid off handsomely. The Lions re-signed cornerback Chris Houston to a modest two-year, $6 million deal and made one of the steals of the offseason by landing Tulloch for just one year and $3.25 million. All of a sudden, the Detroit defense looks positively fearsome — we all knew the defensive line would be the team’s strength, but now the team rolls out a very good linebacker corps of Tulloch, Durant, and DeAndre Levy and boasts a pair of solid young corners in Houston and Wright to complement the stellar safety play of Louis Delmas. The only question mark appears to be at the safety spot across from Delmas, and considering where this defense was at a couple years ago, that’s a massive improvement over the course of two stellar offseasons.
There are still a couple gaps to be filled, especially with the departure of backup defensive end Turk McBride to New Orleans, but it’s clear that Mayhew has proven his ability to build a team with solid veterans and young diamonds-in-the-rough without breaking the bank. Detroit has addressed their two greatest needs on the cheap, giving them financial flexibility for the future and enough talent to win now. All of a sudden, the key to the season appears not to lie with the defense, which has long been the team’s Achilles heel, but with the health of Matt Stafford — if the franchise quarterback can stay in one piece, it no longer sounds crazy to say that the Lions could very well be a playoff team in 2011, and perhaps even make some noise in the playoffs.
Patience paid off for Martin Mayhew, and in retrospect it appears obvious that playing the waiting game was his plan all along, allowing the rest of the NFL to spend big bucks on the biggest names in free agency while cleaning up what was left at bargain rates. It’s about time we gave Mayhew the benefit of the doubt — he’s earned it with the job he’s done turning this franchise around — and learned to show a little patience as he continues to build this franchise into a winner.