In a way, Dominic Raiola is the last man standing. He’s like the ruins of Rome. He’s the remembrance of a monarchy. He just needs a tour guide and a brochure for the passing patrons.
In April, 2001, Raiola, a stubby center out of Nebraska, was the second draft pick ever made for the Lions by President Matt Millen. Doubtless that Raiola had no idea what he was being drafted into.
There is no one on the current Lions roster that better symbolizes the ruins of the Millen Era than Raiola.
Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s best receiver, dates back to Millen’s tenure, but CJ was drafted in 2007 and Millen was gone a year later.
Raiola joined the Lions organization just three months after Millen did. Millen finally got fired early in the 0-16 2008 season, but Raiola and Jeff Backus, the tackle from Michigan drafted ahead of his offensive linemate in ’01, weren’t so lucky; part of their penance was to remain behind—guilty as sin of being drafted by Millen.
Could anyone have possibly known that, 13 seasons later, Dominic Raiola would still be squatting on Sundays, gripping the football and readying it for a snap—all 13 years spent with the Lions?
Raiola plays arguably football’s most thankless position. Nothing can happen until the center does his thing, but aside from that, you hike the football and then ten second later, you pull yourself out from a pile of humanity.
The centers for the game’s greatest quarterbacks are remembered no more than the fellow who broke the four-minute mile after Roger Bannister, the second guy to climb Mt. Everest and the act that followed the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Center in football is not a position played for notoriety, though Raiola has tried to be the story in the past.
There have been some ill-advised, occasionally outrageous comments. He’s gotten into it with the fans, walking off the field. There was an alleged incident with a marching band before a game, with an ugly epithet supposedly tossed around by Raiola.
And through it all there’s been one playoff game in 13 years, a monumental occasion that so overwhelmed Raiola, his comments leading up to the game indicated that he could scarcely believe it was happening. By the time he realized it was real, the Lions were being lapped by the New Orleans Saints, 45-28.
Centers don’t typically play their best football in their 13th season. Two reasons for this: 1) centers don’t typically play 13 seasons; 2) their bodies age as well as bananas.
Yet Raiola, in 2013, was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second best center in the NFL. Not bad, considering the Lions almost didn’t bring him back after season no. 12.
There won’t be any doubt of Raiola’s coming back in 2014. Moved by perhaps his best season ever, the Lions recently rewarded their center with a one-year contract and a reportedly sizable raise—from $1 million in 2013 to $1.525 million in ’14.
Raiola captained an offensive line that, despite a 60% turnover from 2012, was among the NFL’s best and most consistent units in 2013.
“It’s humbling to me that I earned another year in the NFL, that’s first and foremost,” Raiola told the Detroit Free Press on February 7, after the Lions announced the signing.
“I’m in the same spot as I was last year, another proving ground. Can this 35-going-on-36-year-old play? And I’m going to work hard and let my play do the talking.”
Raiola, like Backus before the latter retired a year ago, is often guilty by association with the Lions when it comes to his legacy. He has never made the Pro Bowl, despite missing just four games in his 12 years as a full-time starter (all four came in 2008). Consequently, he’s often been portrayed as part of what’s wrong with the Lions instead of being lauded for his durability and solid play.
But Raiola hasn’t helped his own cause with some of his antics, usually involving his mouth.
Raiola hopes to play 15 years and hang them up. His newest contract is for one year, so like he said, it’s proving time again in 2014.
Since becoming a starter in his second season, here’s who Raiola has hiked the football to: Joey Harrington; Mike McMahon; Jeff Garcia; Jon Kitna; J.T. O’Sullivan; Dan Orlovsky; Daunte Culpepper; Drew Stanton; Shaun Hill and Matthew Stafford.
That’s 10 quarterbacks, and only Stafford was worth a hill of beans. It’s also a big reason why the Lions’ record while Raiola has been with the team is a putrid 60-148.
Hence the guilt by association thing.
It doesn’t matter that Raiola is hardly why the Lions have been so bad for so long—he’s been here, and that makes him part of the problem in the fans’ eyes.
Also, Raiola lives in his native Hawaii in the off-season, which doesn’t help. He’s not Nate Burleson, the recently released receiver whose gregarious demeanor and frequent appearances on national networks, pumping the Lions and the city of Detroit, have ingratiated him to the fan base.
Raiola leaves the mainland after the season and never makes it back unless there are OTAs to be conducted.
Plus, well, he’s a freaking center.
But the Lions aren’t bringing Raiola back for a 14th season out of pity or nostalgia. Salary cap dollars are too precious for anything silly like that. Witness the cashiering this past week of Burleson and safety Louie Delmas—two vocal leaders and proud Lions.
It’s about whether you can still play football, no matter what the birth certificate and the calendar have to say.
The Lions inked Raiola for another year because they don’t have a ready replacement, and his 2013 season was pretty damned good. And by all indications, the new deal is met with great appreciation by its recipient.
“I call (the Lions) my hometown team,” Raiola told the Free Press. “So it’s very humbling to me and I’m just thankful that they saw more gas in my tank.”
It’s funny. Raiola, the man who ends just about every play on the turf, is still standing when it comes to the Matt Millen Era.