FOR A CHANGE, LIONS DO THE RIGHT THING

The pick had been made and the doors swung open and now the fans were streaming down the steps of the Madison Square Garden Theater, heading for the exits, having seen what they came there to see. Many had been waiting since 5 a.m. for the plastic passes that let them in to watch the NFL draft. Some had their faces painted green-and-white, the colors of the Jets, others had their faces painted blue-and-red, the colors of the Giants. They all looked angry. Sure, I figured. Who wouldn’t be angry if he had his eyebrows lacquered at 5 in the morning?

“The Jets s—!” one of them yelled.

His buddy shook his head.

“The Giants s—!”

Another happy weekend in the Big Apple.

I never understood why people poured such passion into the NFL draft, because . . .

1) There’s no point in guessing whom a team is going to pick, as so many things change on draft day.

2) Many NFL superstars were taken in the second, third and fourth rounds anyhow (does Joe Montana ring a bell?), so you never know anything until they start playing — which, in case you’re counting, is still almost five months off.

3) Following the draft means you end up watching ESPN’s Mel Kiper for more than five minutes, which the Surgeon General has determined is hazardous to your health.

Still, people care.

And so, a word about the Lions’ draft: solid. Rock solid. Not spectacular
— they didn’t pull off the trade for the No. 1 or No. 2 pick to get Darrell Russell — but solid. They had needs. They addressed the needs. They didn’t draft some “best athlete available” even though they had plenty of men at his position.

No, they needed defensive backs, they drafted defensive backs. I like this kid Bryant Westbrook from Texas. On Sunday night, he did an interview with me on a radio program I do on WJR. He called from the men’s room of a restaurant. He said it was quieter in there than outside. When someone flushed a toilet in the background, he didn’t miss a beat.

“See, I told you I was here,” he said.

Quite a catch

Westbrook hits hard and talks loud, and while I can do without the latter, in the cornerback position, it often goes with the territory. Besides,

given the history of the Lions’ secondary, if Westbrook even gets close enough to a receiver to be heard, he’ll be a pleasant change.

“I tell my man he can’t catch one on me,” Westbrook admitted. “You know, a little trash talk.”

“What if he catches one on you anyhow?”

“I tell him it wasn’t my fault.”

Hey. At least the kid has timing.

The same can be said of Bobby Ross and his Detroit staff after their first draft together. The Lions had holes in the secondary and the offensive line, having lost Bennie Blades and Zefross Moss and the soon-to-be-departed Ryan McNeil. And they filled those holes without mortgaging the future.

That’s good timing.

In fact, everything about the Lions’ draft this time seemed well-coordinated. Word is Ross was more involved this year than Wayne Fontes had been in several years, and the preparation showed. When the opportunity came for moving up in the second round, for example, the Lions did so, trading with Dallas in order to nab Kevin Abrams, the speedy, leaping defensive back from Syracuse. With that one move, the Lions gained a player who will help right now.

In other rounds, they took an offensive lineman who is good enough to start and big enough to anchor a mountain range, a Butkus Award winner at linebacker, a local hero at tight end and an All-Pac-10 running back.

That’s a nice weekend’s worth of shopping.

Quite a move

Which may be why, in talking to Lions fans after this draft, I heard such a sense of optimism. Maybe it came from little things players and coaches say about life under Ross. Jeff Hartings, a first-round pick last year, admitted that under Fontes, there were many things that were overlooked in practices, things that set attitude, such as running from drill to drill.

“I played for Joe Paterno, and he always used to say five or six plays determine a game,” Hartings said. “I never heard Wayne say that. But Coach Ross says it all the time. It keeps you on edge, it reminds you that any one block you throw might determine the whole game.”

Hartings also said Ross gets out there and tries to demonstrate some plays himself. “At one point, he was even trying to move like Barry Sanders.”

Hartings laughed. “We all got a kick out of that.”

Well. At least Ross picks good role models.

Anyhow, the draft is finally finished. (At least I think it is. I haven’t had the courage to turn on the TV for fear of hearing Kiper read me another 40-yard dash time.) It seems like only yesterday the draft was something you heard about after it was over, not something you simulated six weeks before it happened. All that talk, all those wrong guesses, and in the end, it doesn’t make a difference. Teams draft whom they draft.

As I stood there in New York, I watched the green-faced guy and the blue-faced guy argue loudly for a few moments, then walk off together. I wondered where they were going. Maybe home, to get a pizza. And some turpentine.

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