Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 27, 2011

It's 1999 again, but success should last

By DENNIS CHASE
dchase@record-eagle.com

— Let's see, the Detroit Lions were in the playoffs, Michigan State won 10 games and beat an SEC team in a Florida bowl game, and Michigan went 10-2 and won one of college football's elite bowl games.

Sound familar?

That was 1999.

Twelve years later, here we are again.

But, I'll argue, in much better shape.

That 1999 season would be the last playoff appearance for the Lions until now. Detroit barely got in at 8-8, then got bounced in the first round by Washington. The Lions lost their last five games that season. What followed was a decade of futility.

Unlike that 1999 team, this Detroit team seems positioned to contend for years to come. Well, at least as long as quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson remain healthy.

This team has a good mix of young and veteran talent. The GM, Martin Mayhew, made some shrewd moves and has turned an embarrassing 0-16 team into a playoff squad in just three years. He should be Executive of the Year.

Detroit certainly has its weaknesses -- like almost all NFL teams -- but you can see how Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz are building this team. The Lions play to their strengths on offense -- pass, pass, pass -- and they're improving noticeably on defense. In 2008 when the Lions went 0-16, they gave up 404 yards and 32 points a game. They've been able to reduce that to 355 yards and 22.8 points a game. Not great, but certainly better.

The key down the road for Mayhew will be navigating the salary cap -- keeping that expensive young talent in town while adding some critical missing pieces.

Based on his track record, the inclination is to think even better days are ahead.

Michigan State, meanwhile, lost coach Nick Saban to LSU after that 1999 season and the Spartans were not able to maintain any consistency until Mark Dantonio's recruiting efforts started paying off two years ago. Now, Michigan State seems poised to be a Big Ten contender on a yearly basis.

This was a young team that almost won the Big Ten. In fact, the Spartans have just one senior on defense on their two-deep depth chart for the Outback Bowl -- and that defense was one of the best in the nation.

Dantonio has demonstrated a good eye for talent, but most importantly he's changed the mindset, the culture, at Michigan State.

In Ann Arbor, Brady Hoke has restored Michigan's pride. This was a divided football family during the Rich Rodriguez years and Hoke quickly united it.

I know some were disappointed Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles didn't get the job -- and look at where they're at today -- but the combination of Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison quieted the skeptics. Michigan stepped to the plate and offered Mattison an SEC-type coordinator contract -- $750,000 -- so give AD David Brandon credit.

Hoke has proven to be a strong recruiter, too, so one has to believe Michigan will be a national player again.

All in all, this is a great time to be a football fan in this state. And I think it will get even better.