MIKE O'HARA

Martin Mayhew cites expectation of Jahvid Best's return as his biggest mistake

Posted Jan 2, 2013

Martin Mayhew says counting on Jahvid Best returning in 2012 kept him from diligently searching for a true replacement for the dynamic playmaker.

In the self-evaluation of his job performance in 2012, General Manager Martin Mayhew rates the longest wait as his biggest mistake.

He had a misplaced expectation that running back Jahvid Best would be cleared to play under the NFL's protocol for players who have sustained concussions.

Best was never allowed to be put on the active roster under the NFL's guidelines. Because of his belief that Best would play at some point in the season, Mayhew never made a serious move to get an adequate replacement for the special set of skills Best brings to the offense.

Going forward, Best's future is doubtful in terms of ever being cleared by the NFL.

Looking back, Mayhew has no trouble in ranking how he handled Best's situation in terms of leaving the offense short of a playmaker in the backfield.

"Probably the biggest mistake that I made last year was counting on Jahvid Best to come back," Mayhew said Wednesday evening in his annual season review with the local media. "It's no knock on him. He did everything he could to get back.

"But based on the information that we were getting medically, I felt very comfortable that he was going to come back. We did not have a real plan to replace him."

When the Lions drafted Best late on the first round in 2010, they knew they were getting a player who had sustained a serious concussion late in the 2009 season at Cal. However, he was cleared to play as a rookie and played in all 16 games.

His position is listed as running back, but in reality he filled the role of "matchup nightmare," as one Lions official described him early in his rookie season.

Best's combination of quickness, agility and acceleration made him a matchup problem for defenses that made him more valuable than his statistics would indicate. 

As a rookie, Best rushed for 555 yards and caught 58 passes for another 487 yards. He scored six touchdowns, receiving and running combined.

He looked ready for a breakout season in 2011. In one electrifying performance against the Chicago Bears in Game 5, he gave Lions fans and a Monday Night TV audience a glimpse of the dilemma he created for defenses.

On 12 carries, he gained 163 yards. One carry produced an 88-yard touchdown, when he broke through a hole and out-ran everyone to the end zone.

On that night, the options looked limitless for Best and the Lions' offense. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had his choice of targets – throw it to Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young or Brandon Pettigrew if the defense crowded the box to stop Best.

If the defense played back, Best was the game-breaker. He also could do it as a receiver, where most linebackers were unable to match up physically against him.

All of that came crashing down the next week, when Best went out with a concussion in a loss to the 49ers in Game 6. It was his second concussion of the year. He sustained the other in a loss at Cleveland in the exhibition season.

And that's when the wait began for Best to get back on the field – and continues until today.

With the NFL more vigilant than ever – and cynics might say more concerned about being sued by players who've sustained concussions – Best never passed the tests required by the NFL for a player to return to active duty.

No matter how good he said he felt, or how long he said he was without any symptoms, the results came up negative for Best.

One time last season, Best referred to himself as "the poster child" for the stricter guidelines on concussion testing. No matter how good and normal he felt, he was never passed.

He participated in the offseason program, but when the helmets and pads went on for the start of training camp, he wasn't cleared for contact and was put on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

When the regular season started, he was still on PUP.

And when the window opened for Best to return during the regular season, he was still on PUP – still not allowed to play football. His season ended before it began.

In fact, the 2012 season ended for him in Game 6 of 2011 and never started again.

The Lions offense suffered without him. Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell carried most of the load, but neither comes close to matching Best's big-play ability. Teams didn't bother to stack the box against the Lions. They dared them to break runs against a base defense, and they couldn't.

For the season, the Lions had only four runs of 20 yards or longer. That tied them with San Diego for fewest in the league.

It had to be maddening for Best to have his career remain in neutral for so long. He turns 24 on Jan. 30 and has spent more than half of his three pro seasons with the Lions on some kind of reserve list.

And it left Mayhew feeling just as hamstrung – and wondering what he might have done different had he known Best would not be back.

"The information that we had, acting in real time, was that he would be back," Mayhew said Wednesday. "And really, in the history of the NFL - I've asked people - I can't think of a single player with a head injury who was asymptomatic that wanted to play that wasn't allowed to play. I think he was the first one ever."

Best has continued to work out and insists he wants to continue playing. But it is the nature of the NFL that there are limits to how long a team can wait for a player to heal from whatever keeps him out of the lineup.

The reality for Jahvid Best's situation is that as much as Best's presence could mean in a best-case scenario - no pun intended - the Lions have to prepare this offseason as though he won't play in 2013.

"It certainly means that you can't count on it," Mayhew said. "Unless they're cleared, you can't count on them to come back.

"There's a new era with regard to the treatment of head injuries and the caution that we're taking with head injuries.  if you have a guy who goes into the offseason, and is not cleared, it think it would be pretty smart to have alternate plans."