Every week he heard the screams--"You suck!" or "That guy's
killing you!" or "You are god-awful!"--and every week, the fans
were right. Hampered by hamstring injuries that sidelined him for
six games and slowed him even when he was on the field,
cornerback Bryant Westbrook often wondered how much worse things
could get. Early in the morning of June 12 he found out: On his
way home from a night out after a minicamp practice, Westbrook
was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, the
second such incident in 13 months. "As the cop was walking up to
my car, I knew then I had to change everything," recalls
Westbrook. "And I have. I was sick of the shame. Looking back, I
don't know what I was thinking."
Westbrook wasn't solely to blame for the wretched performance of
the secondary--the defense ranked 27th in the league against the
pass--but this year the pressure on him could be even greater. The
team will be without its vocal defensive leader, free safety Mark
Carrier, who signed with the Redskins in the off-season. Opposing
quarterbacks will no doubt test Westbrook and third-year
cornerback Terry Fair early, and how the duo responds could mean
the difference between a playoff berth and last place in the NFC
Central. "In this division we see someone great every week, from
Randy Moss to Keyshawn Johnson to Marcus Robinson, so it falls to
our corners to step up," says secondary coach Richard Selcer. "As
young guys, Bryant and Terry were asked to do a lot last year,
and maybe Bryant came back too quick from his injuries. But we
were fighting a war out there, and we needed him."
Two hamstring injuries forced Westbrook to miss a total of six
games and, far worse, destroyed his confidence. He regrets
returning so soon after his second injury, against Green Bay on
Nov. 21, because when he did, he was overly cautious and
ineffective. "I was a hurt pony going against thoroughbreds, and
it got worse and worse," says Westbrook. "This year, that's over
with. I'm in great shape; I'm not partying anymore."
Westbrook, the fifth selection in the 1997 draft, was a horse in
camp this summer, flying to the ball and showing no signs of
favoring his hamstrings. After each practice he gathered the
other cornerbacks, and they would run extra sprints together,
long after most players had left the field. With each run
Westbrook put more distance between himself and his 1999 season.
"I was getting by on athletic ability before," he says, "but now
I treasure what I have, and you know what? I like the work."
After missing the final five games last season with a broken
right hand, Fair has been slow to return from off-season
arthroscopic knee surgery, and that concerns coach Bobby Ross.
"He can't afford to miss practice, so it disappoints me that he
wasn't ready to go," says Ross.
Even if the starting corners were healthy, depth at that position
is still a major concern. That makes the development of
fourth-year man Kevin Abrams, who missed all but four plays last
season with a broken left foot, a must. Former Bills safety Kurt
Schulz, a bruising ball hawk, should ably replace Carrier on the
field if not in the locker room, but strong safety Ron Rice, who
separated his right shoulder in camp but is expected to be ready
for the opener, has to improve. Says Ross, "Our guys can't afford
the injuries they've had in the past."
That statement could as easily be applied to an offense that
makes this a playoff-caliber team, provided that newly acquired
running back James Stewart and third-year quarterback Charlie
Batch avoid the injuries that have plagued them. Stewart, the
former Jaguar who signed a five-year, $25 million free-agent
deal, has impressed the staff with his unexpected quickness. But
his durability--he missed 13 games in 1998 with a knee
injury--remains a question. A broken right thumb cost Batch five
games last year, and a broken right knee (suffered in the June
minicamp) kept him out of most of camp. Mike Tomczak, 37, took
most of the snaps, but he broke his right leg last Friday.
Veteran Stoney Case is next in line, though the Lions hope Batch
is ready for Week 1.
The strong-armed Batch should benefit from the three-receiver
sets that Ross installed to take advantage of one of the NFL's
finest pass-catching trios: Germane Crowell, Herman Moore and
Johnnie Morton. Ross raised eyebrows in the off-season when he
suggested that for the first time in almost a decade, Moore--the
franchise's alltime leading receiver who caught only 16 passes
during an injury-plagued 1999--would have to compete for a job in
the two-receiver sets. But Moore downplays any controversy. "With
the three of us, and with a tight end like ['99 Pro Bowl
selection] David Sloan, we create so many problems," Moore says.
"And you can't ignore what Johnnie and Germane [a combined 161
catches, 2,467 yards, 12 touchdowns] did last year."
It's a sign of the times. Even the Black-and-Blue division has
turned pass-happy, and Westbrook is well aware that he'll have to
be at the top of his game for the Lions to contend for a playoff
spot. "We all know that we'll only go as far as our secondary
takes us," he says. "That's on me, and I say we're ready--right
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO CORNERED The Lions need Fair (23) to shore up the pass defense, but he has been slow to recover from off-season knee surgery.
COLOR PHOTO: DONNA TEREK
SEPT. 3 at New Orleans
17 TAMPA BAY
24 at Chicago
OCT. 1 MINNESOTA
8 GREEN BAY
15 Open date
19 at Tampa Bay (Thurs.)
29 at Indianapolis
NOV. 5 MIAMI
19 at N.Y. Giants
23 NEW ENGLAND (Thurs.)
30 at Minnesota (Thurs.)
DEC. 10 at Green Bay
17 at N.Y. Jets
PLAYER TO WATCH
The interview is over--in the mind of rookie Stockar McDougle at
least--so he faces the reporter and displays the technique that
made him a first-round draft choice: the initial burst, the deft
footwork, the extended arms, the drive while keeping his body
low. It is textbook, the kind of play that the Lions envisioned
when they drafted McDougle with the 20th pick out of Oklahoma.
While the interviewer can only stare, McDougle's teammates,
having already glimpsed the 6'6", 350-pound left guard on the
field, laugh. Such talents, combined with a work ethic that has
team officials raving, should make the irascible McDougle, who is
expected to miss the first four weeks with a sprained left knee,
a starter for years to come.
1999 Record 8-8 (tied for 3rd in NFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 28/9/21; defense 9/27/18
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 11 (tie)
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .520
Games against playoff teams: 7
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Bobby Ross
Fourth season with Lions (69-59 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Charlie Batch 71 270 att. 151 comp. 55.9% 1,957 yds.
13 TDs 7 int. 84.1 rtg.
RB James Stewart 30 249 att. 931 yds. 3.7 avg. 21 rec.
108 yds. 5.1 avg. 13 TDs
RB Sedrick Irvin 230 36 att. 133 yds. 3.7 avg. 25 rec.
233 yds. 9.3 avg. 4 TDs
FB Cory Schlesinger 315 43 att. 124 yds. 2.9 avg. 21 rec.
151 yds. 7.2 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Germane Crowell 57 81 rec. 1,338 yds. 7 TDs
WR Johnnie Morton 62 80 rec. 1,129 yds. 5 TDs
WR Herman Moore 123 16 rec. 197 yds. 2 TDs
TE David Sloan 248 47 rec. 591 yds. 4 TDs
K Jason Hanson 168 28/29 XPs 26/32 FGs 106 pts.
PR Desmond Howard 253 18 ret. 11.6 avg. 1 TD
KR Terry Fair 333 34 ret. 22.1 avg. 0 TDs
LT Ray Roberts 6'6" 320 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Stockar McDougle (R)6'6" 350 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
C Mike Compton 6'6" 298 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Jeff Hartings 6'3" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Aaron Gibson 6'4" 380 lbs. 0 games 0 starts
LE Robert Porcher 47 tackles 15 sacks
LT Luther Elliss 45 tackles 3/2 sacks
RT James Jones 45 tackles 7 sacks
RE Tracy Scroggins 36 tackles 8/2 sacks
OLB Allen Aldridge 69 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Stephen Boyd 127 tackles 1 int.
OLB Chris Claiborne 66 tackles 1/2 sacks
CB Bryant Westbrook 35 tackles 0 int.
SS Ron Rice 106 tackles 5 int.
FS Kurt Schulz 47 tackles 3 int.
CB Terry Fair 53 tackles 3 int.
P John Jett 86 punts 42.3 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Lions
"This is the biggest offensive line I've ever seen. Stockar
McDougle is a 350-pound drive-blocking load. Aaron Gibson is
listed at 380 pounds, but I saw their preseason game with New
England, and I swear he's 400. Mike Compton is one of the most
underrated players in the league. This will be the best line in
football by the end of the year. Barry Sanders made a huge
mistake by retiring.... The question is, Can James Stewart and
Charlie Batch be durable enough to carry the offense? They've had
trouble staying healthy, as has Herman Moore.... The front four
is very good at getting penetration, especially Robert Porcher
and Luther Elliss. Stephen Boyd is the Zach Thomas of the NFC, a
smallish plugger who gets the job done.... They're suspect at
corner, disappointed that Bryant Westbrook is not a better cover
guy. The other corners, Kevin Abrams and Terry Fair, are too
small and get hurt too much.... Defensively, this team runs out
of gas because it starts losing parts and there's not much depth.
A lot has to go right for Detroit to contend."