|Dominic Raiola never experienced a winning season -- let alone the playoffs -- until now. (US Presswire)|
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- For Dominic Raiola, being selected by the Lions in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft had to seem like an exciting prospect. The Nebraska All-American center joined a team that had made the playoffs in 1999, and was one field goal from returning to the postseason the next year. It seemed only natural that Detroit would have plenty of chances to achieve postseason success.
Eleven difficult seasons and 172 career games later, Raiola will make his first playoff appearance Saturday against the Saints, finally earning a chance to chase an elusive championship dream. "Playing in the playoffs is going to be special," he said. "I'll take two or three minutes [before Saturday's game] and think about how far this franchise has come."
Reflecting on the rebirth of the Lions' franchise might take more than a few moments. Detroit was a combined 24-72 during Raiola's first six seasons, never finishing higher than third in its division. Amid the hype surrounding the Lions-Saints matchup, he recounted the disappointment he felt early in his career while adjusting to life on a losing team.
"I thought we were so close [to success in his early seasons]," Raiola said. "If you think about it now, we were so far away. My early years weren't what I expected from the NFL. Coming from Nebraska, we never lost. I never knew how hard it was to win."
He coped by focusing on his own game. In a Lions locker room filled with problem players, Raiola was determined to be someone his coaches could depend on. "You want to make sure [the problem] isn't you," he said. "Your responsibility was making sure you were ready to play every week. That's all I could control."
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That work ethic and focus have seen Raiola keep his starting job through five different head coaches, and he has held the starting center's job for all but four games in the past decade. "It feels good to know that every coach that came in here respected my game, and wanted to hang on to me," he admitted.
While Raiola has earned the respect of coaches and teammates, the same can't be said for some Lions fans. Despite being one of the NFL's best pass-protection units, Detroit's O-line is often the target for criticism, and Raiola has seen his share of rebukes. He has dished right back on occasion, having engaged in some heated debates with fans during less successful times.
Despite the criticism, Raiola said he's grateful for the fervent support the Lions receive. He said he's aware that the center position is one that will always draw fans' ire when the offense doesn't produce. "O-linemen really don't get glory," he said. "We're supposed to block, and give our special players time to make plays."
Raiola has been close to the playoffs before. The Lions were 6-2 halfway through the 2007 season. They finished 7-9. "It was tough," he said. "We were so close [to the playoffs], we could touch it. We talked about it so much. At the end, we were still so far away."
If Raiola describes missing the playoffs four years ago as being "far away" from success, then the words needed to characterize Detroit's winless 2008 season don't exist. He has repeatedly described that year as one filled with extreme frustration. More frustrating than the losses for Raiola, however, was the belief that some teammates had given up on the franchise.
"Players quit," he said. "Players gave up on seasons. When we were in December [and losing], some players took the NFL for granted. They couldn't wait to move on to the next team. How do you play with and trust guys like that?"
That feeling changed for Raiola with the arrival of Jim Schwartz in 2009. For someone who was experienced at surviving coaching regime changes, he says he knew immediately Schwartz had the potential to improve Detroit's fortunes.
"The discipline [Schwartz] brought, he wasn't going to put up with any of the B.S. or laziness. He wanted football players, and he got them," Raiola said. "Once I saw changes, and the fact that he backed up his words with actions, I knew there was no way we weren't destined to turn things around."
Turn things around is exactly what Detroit has done. After finishing the 2010 season with four consecutive victories, the Lions' 10-6 mark this season represents the first winning campaign of Raiola's career. After blocking for what seemed like a revolving door of quarterbacks during his tenure, Raiola attributes a large part of that success to the stability of Detroit's young franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
"It's nice to have a quarterback who's going to be a rock here for a long time," Raiola said. "[Stafford's] as solid as they come. He's elite."
The respect Raiola has for the Lions' signal-caller is clearly reciprocated. When asked about Raiola's role as a leader, Stafford credited Raiola's veteran presence as a key factor in what has become a breakout season for the third-year player.
"Dom's one of the smartest players -- if not the smartest -- I've ever played with," Stafford said.
Raiola's work ethic and leadership have served as a motivating factor for several of Detroit's younger players this season. Defensive end Cliff Avril said he wanted to earn a playoff berth this year in part so that veteran players like Raiola and 11-year veteran Jeff Backus could experience the postseason for the first time.
"For guys [like Raiola and Backus] to have played so long and so hard, as a young player, you want to go [win] for them," Avril said.
When you look at the long road Raiola has traveled to arrive at the doorstep of postseason play, it would seem acceptable for him to simply be satisfied with finally being a part of the magic the playoffs hold. Raiola hasn't rested on his laurels in the 11 seasons he has spent with Detroit, however, and he says he's not approaching his first playoff game differently than any game he has played so far. His goal for Saturday sums up a hard-working career that embodies the blue-collar city he represents beautifully.
"I'm not going out there to reflect on how we got [to the playoffs]," he said. "I'm there to do one thing -- win."