NFL Nation: Jason Hanson

Camp preview: Detroit Lions

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's Michael Rothstein examines the three biggest issues facing the Detroit Lions heading into training camp:

Offensive knowledge: The Lions looked better over the final two weeks of spring workouts than they did during the first few weeks, when the offense and quarterback Matthew Stafford looked completely out of rhythm. However, there is still a lot of learning and adjusting to go, including the re-entry of receiver Golden Tate and running back Joique Bell into the offense after they sat out part (Tate) or all (Bell) of the spring with injury. By the time training camp begins, the terminology for the new Detroit offense should be down. It'll be the implementation and the repetition of it that likely will still need some work, this time against a defense that eventually will be allowed to bump, press and blitz. The key here, as it always is lately when it comes to Detroit, will be Stafford and his comfort level with the new offense. Most of the players remain the same for him -- but making sure the routes and terminology are correct is going to be one of the most important things for the Lions as they prepare for the season.

What's up at corner: Chris Houston is gone. Darius Slay, barring injury, will almost certainly be a starter in his second year with the Lions. So, too, will Rashean Mathis, who spent almost all of the spring as the cornerback opposite Slay. The question is who ends up behind them. While looking at backups might seem an odd issue for camp, the Lions have been struggling at corner for years now, and having depth there is going to be a key. Bill Bentley will likely end up in the slot -- although expect him to be pushed at least a little by safety Don Carey and rookie Nevin Lawson. The outside cornerback roles, though, will be interesting to see. Cassius Vaughn had a good spring, and the veteran could end up earning a roster spot with a strong summer. Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood both enter their third seasons with the club and could be fighting for one roster spot between the two of them, especially if the Lions choose to keep Vaughn. This is also an area for which Detroit could end up trying to find a veteran upgrade through the free-agent wire, much like the team did with Mathis a season ago. A signing during camp, he turned into the leader of the Lions' cornerbacks and the team's top performer at the position by midseason.

The kicker: For almost two decades, this was not a problem position for the Lions. Jason Hanson showed up to camp. Jason Hanson kicked the ball. Jason Hanson won the job. Simple. Done. Last season, the Lions went with veteran David Akers, a situation that didn't work out. Now, the Lions are hunting for a player they hope will have the same consistency and longevity of Hanson, who retired after the 2012 season. Nate Freese, on whom the team spent a seventh-round pick, and Giorgio Tavecchio, a former Cal kicker who has bounced around training camps the past two years, are the candidates. Tavecchio has the stronger leg. Freese is likely the more accurate kicker and, due to having a draft pick invested, would appear to be the favorite. However, Detroit understands the importance of having a strong kicker. Justin Tucker made six field goals against the Lions last season to help crush their playoff hopes. That was just the latest example of a strong kicker hurting the Lions. So figuring out which player gives the team the best shot will be an underrated -- but vital -- portion of camp.

A new punter for the Lions, too

April, 27, 2013
It appears that two NFC North teams will have highly-regarded rookie punters in 2013.

We noted earlier that the Minnesota Vikings drafted UCLA's Jeff Locke with the No. 155 overall pick Saturday afternoon, a move that will probably prompt the release of veteran Chris Kluwe.

Eleven spots later, the Detroit Lions drafted Appalachian State punter Sam Martin. The move provides what the Lions hope will be a long-term solution after their initial decision to part ways with Nick Harris after the 2010 season. The Lions ran through two other punters before bringing back Harris early last season, but Martin is a strong-legged youngster who might also handle kickoffs for the Lions.

His arrival will complete the Lions' offseason overhaul of specialists. Earlier this month, place-kicker Jason Hanson retired and was replaced by veteran David Akers.
Over on our still-churning Facebook page, Justin offers evidence that some of you have a better mental catalogue of this blog's archives than me.

Justin pointed out this 2011 post on Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, compared it to this week's discussion on Detroit Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson and wrote: "Kevin, you care to explain why you seem more open (though I will say, still cautious of the prospect) to the possibility of a returner getting HOF consideration than you do towards a kicker??"

It's a fair question, but to be clear, I don't think that the role of kick returner is more important than the kicker (or punter) himself. If anything, Hester would seem to have a better (if incremental) chance of enshrinement than Hanson.

Hall of Fame voters, of course, have been almost as stingy on pure kickers (one) as returners (none) in their history. My point on Hester, in 2011, was that he had obliterated the NFL record for touchdown returns by the time he was 29 years old, making him the best at that role in NFL history. We also expanded the discussion to highlight his obvious impact on the Bears' field position after all the big returns that didn't end in scores.

A similar evaluation would have to be performed on any place-kicker or punter under the kind of consideration we were giving Hester at the time. How much did a kicker or punter impact the offense and defense, on top of the points he scored on special teams? That double value seems an unfortunate but realistic perquisite for any specialist -- returner, place-kicker or punter -- to be enshrined.

To be fair, this isn't entirely an apples-to-apples conversation. You can make a really sound argument that Hester was and is the best returner in NFL history. Would anyone suggest that Hanson is the top place-kicker of all time? He is one of the best of his generation, which is usually good enough at other positions, but in the case of a rarely considered specialist, it probably falls short.

So in the end, there are some parallels to the two posts. Based on history, Hester and Hanson don't have much of a chance to make the Hall of Fame. The same goes for all returners and place-kickers. Legitimate consideration makes sense to me, however, if the specialist brings not only all-time performance statistics but also layered impact to other areas of the game that extends beyond those individual numbers.
When the Detroit Lions signed place-kicker David Akers last week, it was worth asking whether he would be given the 2013 job outright or if he was acquired to participate in a competition for Jason Hanson's old job.

Details of his one-year contract suggest Akers should be considered the favorite for the job. Importantly, though, the Lions' relatively moderate financial commitment shouldn't impact a decision to go in another direction if Akers can't rebound from a career-worst season.

The one-year deal is worth $1.005 million, including a veteran's-minimum base salary of $940,000 and a signing bonus of $65,000. The Lions also guaranteed $35,000 of the base salary, giving him a total of $100,000 in guarantees.

(The value of that signing bonus isn't random, by the way. It's the most a team can give out and still qualify for the minimum salary benefit credit that will hold his 2013 cap number at $620,000.)

So if Akers bombs in training camp, the Lions will be out $100,000 in cash if they decide to look elsewhere. The cap hit to release him would be minimal. The Lions wouldn't have guaranteed him even $100,000 if they planned an open competition, so it shouldn't be a large-enough total to impact their decision-making.
In the days since place-kicker Jason Hanson announced his retirement from the Detroit Lions, I've received a steady stream of the same question: Will he be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Hanson, after all, finished his 21-year career with the third-most points (2,150) in NFL history. But I've largely brushed aside this issue by noting the obvious fact: Hall of Fame voters have almost entirely ignored specialists in their annual elections. Only one place-kicker (Jan Stenerud) has been enshrined, and punters have been shut out.

[+] EnlargeJason Hanson
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsRetired Lions kicker Jason Hanson says experts and outsiders "still don't quite know how to evaluate what makes one kicker better than another."
The topic arose during Hanson's retirement news conference Tuesday, one in which the Lions announced they would place him in their Ring of Honor. Hanson said he wasn't prepared to discuss his own candidacy, but spoke eloquently about the unique value of kicking in the game.

"I still believe to this day," Hanson said, "that media, a little bit, and fans and those who know the game still don't know quite what to do with kicking, and still don't quite know how to evaluate what makes one kicker better than another. I think it's a difficult thing. I understand that a little bit, but I think that the NFL -- let's just say as a blanket statement -- needs to come to grips with [it].

"I didn't invent the game, [but] we're part of it, and it's a big deal, what guys have done. Give them a separate wing in the Hall of Fame. But I don't know how you can ignore it. I was in it. I felt the pressure. I felt the intensity and the consequences of making and missing. It's something special. It's something unique to all of sports, and I think the guys who have done it well should be recognized. Where I fit in that equation, I don't know, and I'm not going to worry about, because it's not mine to worry about. But I definitely think the NFL has got to come to grips with kicking."

I'm not a member of the selection committee, but I would presume the primary argument regarding specialists is that they aren't full-time players in terms of snaps. On a good day, Hanson might have been on the field for perhaps 10-15 special teams plays.

Of course, a place-kicker can directly and disproportionately impact the outcome of a game in those 10-15 plays. Then there is the under-discussed value of field position for those who are also good at kickoffs, a skill Hanson said he hoped to be remembered for. Perhaps the encroachment of advanced statistics will provide new and easily digestible ways to evaluate kickers, one that will eventually elevate and honor some of the highest achievers in the role.

Should Hanson be in that group? That would be another discussion entirely, one that must include his annual advantage of kicking indoors at home. But first things first. An analysis of Hanson's candidacy is moot until the historic perception of his position changes.
The Detroit Lions signed veteran place-kicker David Akers on Friday night, and to me it's fair to ask if the Lions will hand him the 2013 job outright or pit him in a competition before deciding who will replace the retired Jason Hanson.

Akers is a six-time All-Pro and one of the best kickers of this generation, but 2012 was by far the worst year of his career. He made only nine of 19 attempts longer than 39 yards for the San Francisco 49ers, and overall he finished with a career-low 69.0 conversion percentage. The 49ers nearly replaced Akers at the start of the playoffs, and last month they released him and signed veteran Phil Dawson to do the place-kicking duties.

The question is whether Akers, 38, began a steep decline last season or if temporary circumstances caused his struggles. He admitted in January to having ongoing complications from 2012 surgery to repair two sports hernias. And as we noted earlier this offseason, judging place-kickers accurately requires some environmental context. Akers kicked half of his games outdoors on the grass of Candlestick Park, whereas the Lions offer eight games of perfect conditions inside Ford Field.

The 49ers certainly weren't interested in finding out whether Akers can rebound. As Hanson proved, 38 isn't too old for an NFL place-kicker. Are the Lions prepared to make that bet? Or is this part of a multi-pronged effort to find their next place-kicker? Let's keep our eyes on the draft.
How best to put into perspective the duration of Jason Hanson's career with the Detroit Lions? Here is one attempt: When his tenure began in 1992, about two-thirds of the players on the Lions' roster weren't yet in the first grade.

Hanson spent 21 seasons with the Lions, more than six times the length of the average NFL career, before announcing his retirement Thursday. No player in NFL history has played more games -- 327 -- with a single team. He kicked the league's third-most field goals (495), scored the third-most points (2,150) and holds the record for the most 50-yard field goals (52).

[+] EnlargeJason Hanson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsLongtime Lions kicker Jason Hanson holds the NFL record for the most 50-yard field goals (52).
Hanson's career was notable not just for its duration and efficiency, but also its perseverance through a playoff drought that spanned 11 seasons (2000 until 2011). In total, only six of his 21 seasons included a trip to the playoffs, and Hanson was often one of the few bright spots for a then-desultory franchise.

Even so, the timing of his retirement comes as a surprise after he expressed interest this offseason in returning for the 2013 season. Although his kickoffs might have shortened a bit, he converted 32 of 36 field goal attempts last season, and over the past three years, he converted 10 of 14 attempts from at least 50 yards.

But he entered free agency last month after his contract expired, and his agent expressed public disappointment in the Lions' contract offer. This week, veteran David Akers made a visit to the team's practice facility.

Did Hanson retire rather than play for the veteran's minimum after his long service to the franchise? He told Mike O'Hara of the Lions' web site that a previously unrevealed heel injury spurred his decision.

"I would have worked out a contract with the Detroit Lions," Hanson told O'Hara. "There was talk, and at the start, with their initial offer, it gave me some time to evaluate: 'OK, am I going to do this?' Ultimately, no. It would not have been an issue. There are no hard feelings. It never got to a point where there was serious back and forth with numbers. It didn't matter."

If you accept that the NFL is a business above all else, you understand that most decisions are driven by money. In this case, however, we'll take Hanson at his word. Let's not mistake this instance with the divorce between the Chicago Bears and linebacker Brian Urlacher, who turned down a low offer from the team. A 42-year-old place-kicker knows he probably won't be paid a premium salary to remain in the league in today's tight salary-cap environment.

So the Lions will move on and should attract interest from veteran free agents who would love the chance to kick at least nine games indoors this season (eight at Ford Field and one at the Metrodome.) Or the Lions could look to the draft; if you're interested, here are the top five college place-kickers available, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Insider:
Hanson will hold a news conference next week at the Lions' Allen Park practice facility. It opened in 2002 -- 10 years after Hanson joined the team. He played almost as many games at the Silverdome, shuttered for a decade, as he did at Ford Field. Even in the unique realm of place-kickers, Hanson was an all-timer. We won't soon see another one like him.
The pace is starting to accelerate as free agency draws closer, so let's touch on a few developments before heading off into our SportsNation chat.

The Minnesota Vikings re-signed receiver Jerome Simpson to a one-year contract, giving him a second chance after a disappointing season in 2011, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. He caught 26 passes for a 10.3-yard average and no touchdowns in 12 games, all while battling a murky back injury of uncertain severity.

With that said, the Vikings have no choice but to be in receiver collection mode after trading Percy Harvin on Monday. By default, Simpson is the most established receiver on the Vikings' roster. I expect the team to continue in this mode throughout the offseason as it attempts to assemble a functional and reasonably deep group on the fly.

According to multiple reports, beginning I believe with Mike Garafolo of USA Today, Detroit Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson decided this week to return for another season. There have been no contract negotiations of yet, but the guess is the Lions want Hanson back as well.

The Green Bay Packers issued a second-round tender to cornerback Sam Shields and a low tender to center Evan Dietrich-Smith, as we noted earlier. But they won't make offers to three other restricted free agents: tight end Tom Crabtree and linebackers Robert Francois and Frank Zombo, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. It's possible all three players could re-sign for deals less than the lowest tender value, which is $1.323 million, but for now they'll be able to test the market.

Finally, for now, I would suggest that perhaps the biggest slam dunk of free agency is the widespread notion that the Lions are the top candidate to sign running back Reggie Bush. There is every possibility that a team could jump out after the deadline and trump the Lions, but as of the moment I feel relatively confident that a deal will be worked out.

Before you ask, I'm not certain how the Lions will account for Bush from a salary-cap perspective. But the widespread speculation about the obvious connection between the sides is legitimate.
Rookie kickers have made 86.7 percent of field goal attempts over the past five seasons. Veteran kickers have made 83 percent over the same period.

That is something to keep in mind when wondering what veteran kicker the San Francisco 49ers might pursue after releasing David Akers this week.

While the 49ers likely will sign a veteran, they should consider using one of their league-high 12 draft choices -- a total expected to rise when the NFL distributes compensatory selections -- for the best rookie kicker they can find.

Those percentages for rookies versus veterans say as much.

Of course, field goal percentages aren't everything because all attempts aren't created equal, even when from the same distance. It's also possible an aversion to trusting rookie kickers has removed from the pool all but the exceptional ones, distorting comparisons to a broader field of veteran kickers.

But that 86.7 percent success rate should get the 49ers' attention as they seek low-cost alternatives to an acclaimed veteran such as Akers, whose 69 percent success rate ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying kickers last season.

Minnesota's Blair Walsh (92.1 percent), Baltimore's Justin Tucker (90.9) and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein (74.2) combined to make 86.3 percent as the only rookies to attempt field goals last season.

Filtering for venue and distance, I noticed that rookies made 29 of 42 (69 percent) field goal tries since 2008 when kicking outdoors on natural grass from longer than 40 yards. Veterans made 621 of 913 (68 percent).

The results cited here are far from conclusive, which is the point. A rookie kicker might not be a bad option for the 49ers.

Phil Dawson, Rob Bironas, Nate Kaeding, Lawrence Tynes, Nick Folk, Josh Brown, Mike Nugent, Jason Hanson, Ryan Longwell, Shayne Graham, Olindo Mare and Nick Novak are among the veterans without contracts for 2013. Check out our Free Agent Tracker Insider for ranks of kickers Insider and all free agents.

A few thoughts on Thursday's Thanksgiving Day events at Ford Field:

What it means: The Detroit Lions lost a wild game, 34-31, late in overtime to the Houston Texans, dropping their record to 4-7 after an afternoon that will be discussed for days -- if not weeks -- among Lions fans. In the end, Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal gave the Texans the win -- and their only lead of the day. The Lions have now lost three consecutive games; they held fourth-quarter leads in the last two.

Question from overtime: Two Lions possessions in overtime reached Texans territory, but they couldn't score on either. One ended with Brandon Pettigrew's fumble at the Texans' 35-yard line, and the other when Jason Hanson's 47-yard field goal hit the right upright and fell short. Should Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who has had better days, have kicked on third down or should he have tried to get closer? I can't come down on him too hard for that one. Even in his 21st season, Hanson remains deadly accurate as a deep kicker, having made 12 of 14 attempts from at least 40 yards this season. To me, Schwartz was more to blame for another much-discussed play from this game. Namely …

Officials response: The NFL released a rule explanation that encapsulated what we discussed earlier about Justin Forsett's controversial 81-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The statement: "The Replay Official cannot initiate a review of any ruling against a team that commits a foul that delays the next snap, such as illegally throwing the challenge flag. For your reference, the same situation happened on a turnover last week in the Arizona-Atlanta game." The rule doesn't make a lot of sense and might well get changed after the season, but that doesn't mean anything at the moment. Officials almost certainly would have reversed the play, ruling Forsett down by contact, if Schwartz hadn't thrown his red challenge flag. Touchdowns are automatically reviewed by the on-site replay official, but Schwartz negated the review by creating a delay of game by throwing his red challenge flag when he wasn't eligible to. The play didn't cause the Lions' defeat, but Schwartz did make a big mistake that hurt his team's chances of winning.

Suh-kick 2.0: I guess it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in the headlines. We spent some time earlier Thursday discussing whether Suh's first-quarter kick to the groin of Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was intentional. We obviously can't read Suh's mind, and he wasn't exactly in a kicking position as he fell on his right side. But Suh's left foot clutched once and then made contact with Schaub. If it was completely accidental, a possibility we can't rule out, it was an awfully freak event. There is a segment of the public that is unwilling to give Suh the benefit of the doubt after his stomp of Green Bay Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith last Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Suh also appeared to draw the ire of Schaub and Texans coach Gary Kubiak with a second-quarter takedown that bent back Schaub's right knee after he threw the ball.

High-octane output: The Lions offense had one of its better days of the season against a Texans defense that prefers to play man-to-man coverage. Mikel Leshoure's two-yard touchdown run was the Lions' first opening-possession touchdown of the season and only their second offensive touchdown in the first quarter this season. And while quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 441 yards and two touchdowns, it's also worth noting that the Lions scored the first two rushing touchdowns of the season against the Texans.

What's next: The Lions will have a long weekend and then host the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 2.
Matthew StaffordEric Hartline/US PresswireQB Matthew Stafford led the Lions, who are now 2-3 overall, to an OT victory against Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA -- I'll admit it. They fooled me again. Yep, I wrote off the Detroit Lions when their deficit grew to 10 points Sunday with 5 minutes, 18 seconds remaining at Lincoln Financial Field. I had this game marked as a victory for the Philadelphia Eagles and was already researching the history of 1-4 teams -- a cardinal sin in the Matthew Stafford Era.

"We're never out of any game," as coach Jim Schwartz summed it up.

Stafford led the Lions to three scores in the final 9:18 on this particular afternoon, flipping that deficit into a 26-23 overtime victory. As the Lions faced essentially the end of postseason contention, Stafford pulled off the seventh come-from-behind victory in his career. What was once an impressive oddity is now a habit: Comebacks now represent nearly half of his 15 career victories.

"We just don't think any other way," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We look at the score and we start figuring out what we need to do. We say, 'We're going to score right there and then the defense will get the ball back to the offense or whatever.' Our offense, we have Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. As long as we have them, we're never out of a game."

The worst mistake we could make, however, is to classify this occasion simply as another Stafford-Johnson production. Sure, Stafford threw for 220 yards and Johnson caught five passes for 107 yards after the start of the fourth quarter. But their late-game focus was clearly contagious Sunday.

"We don't ever give up," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, "because we know we have a quarterback that doesn't give up."

The Lions sensed the Eagles' vulnerability even after a blown coverage allowed Jeremy Maclin to dash 70 yards on a slant pattern for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 23-13 lead. The Lions' defense elevated their game-long pounding of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and their offense started ad-libbing in a way that only a group of supremely confident teammates can do.

You saw tight end Tony Scheffler break downfield after a Stafford scramble to haul in an unplanned 57-yard pass to get in position for one score. There was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh batting down a third-down pass by Vick, allowing the Lions to regain possession for the game-tying drive.

Johnson redirected his route on the fifth play of that possession, looking for open space and then tight-roping the sideline moments after he and Stafford had made the adjustment during a brief conversation. The catch, confirmed by replay, put the Lions in position for Jason Hanson's game-tying 19-yard field goal.

The Lions then opened overtime with consecutive sacks of Vick, one by Cliff Avril and a second shared by Vanden Bosch and Nick Fairley. At that point, there suddenly was no doubting who would win the game. An angry crowd knew it as well and began filing out even before the Lions took over possession. Hanson won it on a 45-yard field goal on the Lions' fifth play of overtime.

"The crazy thing is, we almost expect it," Vanden Bosch said. "If we're close and we're in the fourth quarter, we almost expect that we'll come back and win it. I guess that's a good thing, but it would be nice to jump out to a lead and hold on to a lead."

Yes, it's fair to wonder when the Lions can start mixing in some conventional victories. They've needed fourth-quarter comebacks in both victories this season -- including Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams -- and Stafford said, "We can't make it this hard on ourselves every week."

And let's not forget that the Lions had 16 penalties enforced against them Sunday -- including 10 for a false start or encroachment -- and didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Stafford had completed only 7 of 21 passes and was on the way to one of the worst games of his career.

The rational part of me wants to suggest that most every team will lose under those circumstances. But Stafford gives the Lions an edge in those situations, and his teammates are now running with it. His ability to brush aside failure and embrace hope is real and undeniable.

"I know those guys believe in me," Stafford said, "and I believe in them. We had chances to make plays, whether I missed them or they weren't made, we understand that's part of the game of football. It's not always going to be perfect and it's not always going to be pretty."

The Lions can't win all of their games with comebacks, but with Stafford we can say with some confidence that they're going to steal a few more than most teams. It's an extra boost of confidence that a 2-3 team needs in a highly competitive division.

"You could feel this was a big step for us, as a team, playing team football," Schwartz said. "A lot of spirit, guys picking each other up. That's a good sign for things to come for this team."

We can't say where this victory will take the Lions. But we should darn well know not to count them out. Not for the playoffs or anything else. I won't make that mistake again.


NFC North first quarter Stock Watch

October, 3, 2012
Some of you have noticed the absence of a weekly Stock Watch report. Over the years, I thought the post had a tendency to get repetitive. This season, I wanted to try taking watch of our stock once every four games or so. We've reached the first quarter post of the NFL season, so let's take a look at who has impressed and disappointed thus far:


1. Detroit Lions decision making: Almost without fail, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have made smart decisions while rebuilding from 2008's 0-16 debacle. Their goal during the 2012 offseason was clear: To maintain the nucleus that reached the playoffs last season, and in the end they brought 21 of their 22 starters from 2011 to training camp. Their draft class, led by offensive lineman Riley Reiff and receiver Ryan Broyles, brought long-term promise but no indication of immediate impact. Hindsight allows us to view that approach in the context of a 1-3 start. Should the Lions have been more aggressive in adding to their roster for the short term as well? Their biggest omission might have been standing pat at running back amid uncertainty about Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. A weak running game (3.6 yards per carry, nothing longer than 19 yards) is the primary reason opponents have been successful in playing deep safeties to take away the downfield passing game.

2. Green Bay Packers downfield offense: We noted in Week 2 a stunning trend the Packers carried over from the end of 2011. They had fallen from the most to the least explosive passing offense in the league, dating back to Week 15 of last season, and things haven't gotten much better since. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has completed only 28.6 percent of throws (6-of-21) that have traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2012, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, Rodgers completed almost 50 percent of those attempts, including at least three in 12 of his 15 starts. There are no easy explanations, but for now the Packers appear set on fine-tuning other ways to move the ball. They have fed opponents a steady diet of tailback Cedric Benson, who has 33 carries in his past six quarters, and Rodgers was near perfect (30-of-34) on passes that traveled fewer than 15 yards last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

3. Stafford-Johnson in end zone: Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson is tied for the NFL lead with 13 field goal attempts, a dubious distinction that illustrates the team's inability to finish drives with touchdowns. There are many factors involved, but one obvious explanation has been a decrease in the end zone shots to receiver Calvin Johnson. Through four games, Lions quarterbacks have targeted Johnson twice in those situations. One was a touchdown, and Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith broke up the other. Around the NFL, 21 receivers have been targeted more in the end zone than Johnson. Last season, quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Johnson 22 times there, the second-highest total in the NFL. There are other ways to score, but the way the Lions are built, their best chance by far is to feed Johnson in the end zone.

[+] EnlargeLeslie Frazier
AP Photo/AJ MastLeslie Frazier has the Vikings off to a 3-1 start.

1. Leslie Frazier, Vikings coach: For months, three things seemed certain in this world. You had death, taxes and the Vikings finishing in fourth place in the NFC North. Their youth at key positions, most notably quarterback, made 2012 appear an obvious rebuilding season. Given Frazier's 6-16 career record entering this season, it was fair to question whether he would survive another losing season. To his credit, however, Frazier never once accepted those narratives. He has repeatedly told players and media members alike that the NFL is a year-to-year proposition and noted that preseason predictions are never 100 percent accurate. With attention focused elsewhere, Frazier has guided the Vikings into a more competitive place than anyone considered possible. They are 3-1 with an offense that fits their personnel perfectly, a defense that is notably more aggressive and competitive in the back end and a special teams group that has made major contributions to all three victories. All of this has come with a second-year quarterback, a rookie left tackle and new starters at nose tackle, middle linebacker, free safety and place-kicker. As crazy as it sounds, the Vikings have already have exceeded external expectations for this season.

2. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: Yes. You read that correctly. Cutler is the NFC North's lowest-rated quarterback (75.3), has thrown the third-most interceptions (six) in the NFL and has taken 13 sacks, also the third-highest total in the league. But I really think Cutler turned a big corner, both in terms of his play and his perception, in Monday night's victory over the Dallas Cowboys. We saw how good Cutler can be when he has half-way decent protection and a rhythm going with receiver Brandon Marshall. Based on efficiency statistics, it might have been the best game of his career. We also saw the first collective public yawn at his more-than-occasional boorish behavior. For better or worse, the realization has sunk in that it's part of his makeup now and moving forward. Cutler will have to lower himself to a previously inconceivable lack of decorum to cause the Bears another distraction anytime soon. That's progress!

3. Clay Matthews, Packers linebacker: Matthews promised this summer that the Packers' pass rush had returned, and he has held up his portion of that bargain. Matthews has already exceeded his 2011 sack total and ranks second in the NFL with seven. His rush was perhaps the single biggest factor in the Packers' Week 2 victory over the Bears, and he has been effective even on plays that haven't resulted in sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews has 11 separate quarterback hurries -- the third most among 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL. The Packers' defense has had its ups and downs, but through four games, Matthews has played as consistently well as he has at any point in his career.

Wrap-up: Titans 44, Lions 41 (OT)

September, 23, 2012
A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' wild overtime loss Sunday to the Tennessee Titans:

What it means: The Lions fell to 1-2 amid game-long chaos and an injury to quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions became the first NFL team to score two touchdowns in the final 18 seconds of regulation to force overtime, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They were also the first team in history to give up five touchdowns of at least 60 yards in one game. And in the end, neither of those facts impacted what happened in overtime to give the Titans victory.

StaffordWatch: Stafford departed because of a strained leg muscle suffered as the Titans' Alterraun Verner returned a fumble 72 yards for a touchdown with one minute, 32 seconds remaining in regulation. He told reporters afterward that he wasn't sure if the injury was to his hamstring or glut muscle. Regardless, he couldn't finish the game and his status is uncertain.

Long scores: In addition to Verner's return, the Titans also scored on a trick-play 65-yard punt return by Tommie Campbell, a 105-yard kickoff return by Darius Reynaud and touchdown passes of 71 and 61 yards by Jake Locker to Nate Washington and Jared Cook, respectively.

HillWatch: Backup Shaun Hill proved how valuable he is, completing 10 of 14 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns from that point. His 46-yard Hail Mary pass that landed in receiver Titus Young's hands sent the game to overtime.

"A miscommunication": That's what Lions coach Jim Schwartz called the final play, one in which Hill surprisingly tried a quarterback sneak at fourth-and-1 from the Titans' 7-yard line. A chip field goal would have tied the game and extended overtime. Schwartz said the Lions were trying to draw the Titans offside and were planning to kick if the Titans stayed onside. Apparently, center Dominic Raiola didn't get the message and snapped the ball. To me, it was a foolish decision. With the game literally on the line, don't get cute. Make the kick and continue playing.

Leshoure debuts: Tailback Mikel Leshoure gained 100 yards on 26 carries in his NFL debut. The Lions clearly wanted to focus on him in the first half to help open things up in the second. Leshoure had 17 carries and receiver Calvin Johnson had only one catch at halftime.

Injury report: In addition to Stafford, the Lions also lost punter Ben Graham, who suffered a calf injury on Campbell's punt return. Place-kicker Jason Hanson punted three times for a 36-yard average.

What's next: The Lions will host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Ford Field.

Injuries: Lions lose P Ben Graham

September, 23, 2012
We've had a couple of potentially significant injuries Sunday afternoon in the NFC North.

First, Detroit Lions punter Ben Graham suffered a calf injury during the Tennessee Titans' trick-play punt return for a touchdown. Place-kicker Jason Hanson has replaced him and got off a 37-yard effort on his first attempt. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill will probably take Graham's spot as the holder in a game the Lions currently trail 17-6.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings have lost safety Mistral Raymond to what appears to be a right ankle injury, one that was serious enough to be immediately placed in an air cast before he was carted off the field. You hate to see any injury, but especially a noncontact version like Raymond's. It appeared his right foot got stuck in the Metrodome's in-fill surface as he tried to chase San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore.

Raymond has been replaced in the lineup by Jamarca Sanford. At the moment, the Vikings hold a 7-3 lead over the heavily-favored 49ers.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 27, Lions 19

September, 16, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- Some thoughts on Sunday night's events at Candlestick Park:

What it means: The Detroit Lions fell to 1-1, matching the record of every other NFC North team. It's hard to conjure much criticism toward the Lions on this night, however. They were overwhelmed by a better and more powerful opponent playing its home opener, a result that seemed predictable since the day the NFL released its schedule. It's not as if the Lions botched a bunch of opportunities to win this game. The 49ers might be the best team in football.

For those asking: Lions coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh shook hands without incident both before and after the game. Finis.

Mixing in the run: The Lions kept it close in large part because of an uncharacteristic commitment to the running game. Before they got into catchup mode in the fourth quarter, the Lions ran on 22 of their first 40 plays. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had 89 yards passing through three quarters. I don't blame the Lions for their approach; the 49ers defense is too good to be allowed to defend only half the field. Unfortunately for the Lions, they couldn't convert their possessions into touchdowns. Unofficially, they didn't throw a single pass into the end zone. As it turned out, place-kicker Jason Hanson accounted for most of their scoring with four field goals in five attempts.

Turning point I: The Lions forced the 49ers' first turnover in seven regular season games during the first quarter, a fumble by kick returner Kendall Hunter. But they weren't able to fully capitalize on it, gaining only two offensive yards, and settled for Hanson's 41-yard field goal. A touchdown would have given them a 10-7 lead and perhaps changed the complexion of the game.

Turning point II: After the Lions made it a one-score game at 20-12 on Hanson's fourth field goal, 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree converted three consecutive third-down receptions. The 49ers then sealed the game on Vernon Davis' 23-yard touchdown reception with three minutes, four seconds remaining.

Official confusion: Here's one I don't remember seeing before. Schwartz had to challenge a play to prove Stafford was sacked. Midway through the fourth quarter, referee Matt Nicks did not blow this whistle when Stafford's right knee hit the ground at the 49ers' 30-yard line after a hit by Aldon Smith. Stafford popped up and lost another six yards before getting tackled again. Nicks gave the Lions their six yards back after the review, and the decision left the Lions in position to end the possession with Hanson's 48-yard field goal. Nicks' crew also missed clear head shots on both quarterbacks, Stafford and the 49ers' Alex Smith, after scrambles. The blow Smith absorbed from Lions safety John Wendling left the bridge of his nose bleeding.

What's next: The Lions will play at the Tennessee Titans next Sunday.



Thursday, 10/16
Sunday, 10/19
Monday, 10/20