By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – The giant gold heavyweight belt, “LIONS” emblazoned in blue across the giant center section, hung conspicuously in the locker of rookie LaAdrian Waddle as players packed up to take off for their bye week Tuesday.
Waddle had played in stretches of games as a reserve, but against the Dallas Cowboys he got his first start of the season, stepping in for the injured Corey Hilliard. Waddle’s work did not go unnoticed.
New offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn awards the heavyweight belt each week based on technique, playing one’s assignment, finishing plays with proper technique and more. While the selection process is not particularly tedious, it does reflect who does the best, and it does foster continued competition.
“We need everybody that we have in our room to win every week, and having that belt and passing it around to the guy that’s been doing the best job every week is just an extra little piece of motivation every week,” practice squad lineman Rodney Austin explained.
“After all the coaches watch all the film, they take into account the grade that you get in the game, how well you played, how consistent you were, whether or not you had any penalties or anything like that,” Austin added. “Whoever comes out on top he hands the belt to.”
The winner of the weighty decoration generally takes it home the first night, snaps a few photos and then displays the belt in his locker until it is time to give it back to Washburn, who will then give it to another player.
The wrestling metaphor that the linemen have taken on does not start and end with the belt. More revealing of the group’s collective mindset their black and white T-shirts that read “nWo” for New World Order, an old wrestling faction characterized by members who left the established group to start a different one.
“It was just pretty much the perfect symbol for our room because we were going to have so many new pieces going around – three new starters, a new coach, a new assistant coach who wasn’t even in the building last year,” Austin said. “It’s just a whole new culture in the O-line room, and we just wanted to let everybody know we weren’t shying from it, we weren’t embarrassed of it, we weren’t afraid. We were going to go to war with whoever ended up being our five that we needed out there.”
Washburn, who had spent four years as the Lions assistant offensive line coach, received a promotion to offensive line coach. Terry Heffernan moved into Washburn’s role after six seasons as the offensive line coach at Wayne State. Longtime left tackle Jeff Backus retired. The Lions parted ways with right guard Stephen Peterman and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
With all those open spots on the line, more players got more repetitions in organized team activities, training camp, practices and preseason games than they otherwise would have.
Not only did all that shuffling yield what has turned out to be a competent offensive line, it produced an unprecedented amount of depth in terms of players prepared to play when needed.
Jason Fox started the season at right tackle before being sidelined by injury, and Corey Hilliard seamlessly took over. When Hilliard also got injured, Waddle stepped in and also performed well.
The extra reps everyone got early in the year, while looked on early as signs of instability, have proved vital down the stretch.
“It’s so valuable,” Austin said. “It’s made us so much more cohesive as a group. It made us tight, and it just keeps us focused on what we had to do.”
To Austin, Sunday’s win over the Dallas Cowboys proved to be the perfect example as Waddle held his own and left tackle Riley Reiff played despite an injury.
“We lost two tackles in one game and came back the next game with a new starter, with a guy with a busted hamstring starting the whole game and didn’t give up a single sack,” Austin said, pausing to let the statement sink in. “We’re doing work right now, and it might be going under the radar a little bit, but we know. We watch our film. We know what we’re doing.”
Right now, they’re doing well. Detroit has allowed just 10 sacks through eight games, the fewest of any NFL team, and lost only 74 yards on those plays, third-best in the league – not bad for a unit many worried this summer would be the bane of the team.
Not bad at all.