Jeff Backus is one of my least favorite football players of all-time. Much of the city of Detroit, as well as “Lion Nation,” share in that sympathy.
The question is not why he is so wildly unpopular, but rather, what may have been had Backus never come to Detroit?
Backus was drafted by Detroit with the 18th pick in the 2001 NFL draft by the worst general manager in Lions’ history and arguably NFL history, Matt Millen. The draft included offensive linemen standouts such as longtime Patriot’s left tackle Matt Light and future hall-of-famer Steve Hutchinson.
Was it the fact that he was a Millen draftee that caused fans to turn their noses up at Backus? Or was it the fact that there were so many other good linemen in that draft? Lions’ fans will give you different answers, none consistent with the body of work he put in.
The other offensive linemen who weathered a storm with Backus in the NFL was the Lions’ second round draft pick, center Dominic Raiola, who remains with Detroit to this day.
Raiola was recently interviewed by Detroit Free Press sports writer David Birkett about Backus’ recent retirement.
“He was very simple,” Raiola said.
Those four words, taken from the context of a longer interview, are so telling in why Backus was disliked.
Detroit needs a hero. It needs a Calvin Johnson and a comeback win on opening day. The fans of Detroit teams are fickle (see The Detroit Pistons) and refuse to settle for anything that isn’t a superlative.
Backus was not going to provide the wow-factor. He was anchored on the blind-side of some of Detroit’s more awful, and later in his career, more successful quarterbacks.
Blocking for an out of shape, 280-pound Daunte Culpepper is no small feat. Once a decently mobile quarterback, Culpepper was forced to stand back and sling, hoping Johnson was open.
Try fending off one of the NFL’s most consistent defenses over the last 10 years in the Chicago Bears while Joey Harrington runs wildly backward, unable to throw the ball out of fear and lack of arm strength.
Backus is not a superstar, but a model of consistency. He started 192 of 193 NFL games for Detroit, missing only Thanksgiving 2012.
Before Thanksgiving 2012, the last time Backus had missed a start was 1996, as a true freshman at the University of Michigan.
Detroit will return just Raiola and guard Rob Sims as starters on the offensive line. Second-year left tackle Riley Reiff is expected to take over for Backus in 2013. The hole to Matthew Stafford’s back will be wider without him there.
Lions’ general manager Martin Mayhew made noise when he signed high profile running back Reggie Bush, and then proceeded to bring back safety Louis Delmas just days later.
While Lion Nation rejoiced, the consistent man ducked quietly out of the locker room, gym bag in hand as he rode off into the sunset, unnoticed for now.