(ALLEN PARK) - Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chris Claiborne can expect to be singled out for special treatment when his new team travels to Detroit to play his former team, the Detroit Lions.
Claiborne was extremely critical of Lions management for what he says were attempts to sabotage his plans for free agency. He clearly believes reports that Lions management sent negative reports about his work ethic and his weight to other teams around the league.
"If they didn't want to pay me, they could have just let me go," Claiborne told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "They didn't have to do all that talking. But that's how dirty it got over there."
Claiborne's remarks follow similar negative comments by former Lion Johnnie Morton who cut by Millen a few days before a $1 million roster bonus was due. Millen instead signed former Packer Bill Schroeder to replace Morton.
“I’m going to get Matt Millen fired,” Morton proclaimed after the Chiefs 27-14 win over San Diego that put Kansas City in first place in the AFC West. “I can’t wait ’til we play them,” Morton said. “But we’ll worry about that later.”
As Detroit's first round pick in 1999 (9th overall) Claiborne had posted three straight 100 plus tackle seasons for Detroit and figured to be an integral part of Detroit's future linebacking corp.
But things changed permanently following the infamous "devout coward" remark made by Lions president and GM Matt Millen on former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka's talk show.
The furor that Millen's remark sparked caused a permanent breach between the GM and then head coach Marty Mornhinweg who was fired following the season, it also rubbed Claiborne the wrong way. "He came in [the locker room and] said, 'If you have anything you have to say to me, let's get it out in the open.'"
That kind of challenge from a player's boss often goes unanswered, but not this time.
In fact, Millen was not planning to address the team about the matter, but Claiborne pushed the issue with then head coach Marty Mornhinweg who also courageously separated himself from Millen on the issue.
"I thought it was important that he address the team personally," Claiborne said. "Not just listen to the media or hearing through other people."
So when Millen issued his challenge to the players in the Lions locker room, Claiborne answered.
"A lot of guys probably wanted to say something but didn't. I stood up and said, 'This was the situation I was in, we talked about it man-to-man, I dealt with it this way and it ended up being a positive for me.' "
At least that's what he thought.
From that point on, Claiborne begin hearing negative talk about his weight, his work ethic and his on-the-field performance in the media and from sources around the league.
But in Wednesday's conference calls, Claiborne took a more conciliatory tone and retreated somewhat from his fiery comments published on Tuesday.
“Don’t listen to everything you read. I’m not telling [two] different stories. I have no problems with [the Pioneer Press story]. Actually, I got a letter from Matt Millen the other day so everything is good. He said congratulations and he thought I played good in the first game.”
Still, Claiborne's comments are not going to be forgotten by Lions fans that take any talk about anyone in Honolulu Blue and Silver personally. When he enters Ford Field, he's likely to be booed lustily every time he gets near a Lion jersey, but Claiborne says he's looking to the future.
“I think they had a direction they wanted to go, said Claiborne. I think they got the guys they want there. I found a team that wanted me to be here with them and like I said, it’s working out great for me. I’m not saying they did me a favor. They didn’t pursue me like they wanted me to stay so it allowed me to go somewhere else and play.”
Claiborne also feels he might have somewhat of an edge on Sunday because of his familiarity with the Lions system.
“Maybe, it might be. I think the other thing is that this is a totally different offense as far as philosophy. They’re talking about running the ball so maybe they’ll run the ball at us so we’ll see how that goes. That team is definitely a different team than when I was there so I can’t really relate to too many guys. Some of the guys in the passing game really, but the quarterback is much improved. (Mikhael) Ricks has always been a good player to me so we’ll see.”
Will Claiborne tame the Lions fans this Sunday or will he retreat quietly into the night with one in the loss column.
He said it best, "we'll see."
Expect wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim to play this Sunday and he could end up in the starting lineup and could even field punts in a pinch says Lions head coach Steve Mariucci.
“He adds some quickness. He’s a different style of receiver than the taller Schroeder’s and Charles Rogers and Scotty Andersons – that size and that body-type of receiver. He’s shorter and he’s quicker. He’s got a burst. He’s very good in windows and separating from man coverage. He’s a smart player. He gives us a backup punt returner. He gives us a little experience. He’s been so anxious to play. He wanted to play last week and I guess he probably could have, but I thought it was a week premature to do that.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE:
Mariucci admitted the Lions still don't have a feature back and probably won't have one in the near future. “We have not settled on one. You’ll see all three of them play again. It’s starting become a little more clear as to who is going to play in base and who is going to play in our nickel sets and our three and four-wides, but you’ll see them all and you’ll see Cory Schlesinger back there carrying the ball every now and then.”
The coach reaffirmed that he feels that problem in the running game is a breakdown in executing the assignment, not necessarily the running backs talent. “We ran the ball last year and we have the same O-line that we had last year. We have most of the same receivers, we have the same fullbacks and we have a new guy running the ball so it’s just assignments. It’s learning who to block in certain situations and executing it on Sunday.”
Detroit is not likely to start throwing the ball more downfield than normal.
“I would rather have second and ten or second and seven. That depends on what it is because throwing the ball deep just to throw the ball deep doesn’t do any good except giving a chance to pick it off. If anything, it kind of deflates the confidence because you’re throwing the ball down the field and getting another one knocked down. Checking the ball down, as little as it may seem, does something to the morale of the team. It gives you some sort of confidence back. Even if we’re not getting some big plays we can still march the ball slowly down the field.”