How shrimp cocktail is at the center of the Detroit Lions’ improvement

Detroit Free Press

They were raggin’ on Frank Ragnow.

“He eats like a child,” Detroit Lions guard Logan Stenberg said about the starting center. “It’s chicken fingers and fries.”

Lions left tackle Taylor Decker got more specific.

“He eats like a third grader,” Decker teased. “Oh, it’s the worst. The only thing that he likes, that’s, I guess, like an adult food is shrimp.”

“I heard he’ll eat several orders,” I said.

“Eating 30 shrimp is disgusting,” Decker said. “He loves it. I don’t know. It’s just his thing.”

We will get to the football part of this story. But the success of the Lions offense — the reason this team has rushed for at least 80 yards in 11 straight games — starts with that shrimp cocktail.

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Not the actual shrimp cocktail.

It’s the jokes and constant teasing that happens between close friends — ripping on Ragnow is a sign of friendship and love and camaraderie, not spoken in spite but deep respect.

“I have to tell you, your teammates were teasing you about your love of shrimp cocktail,” I said to Ragnow.

“They’re just hatin’,” Ragnow said, smiling.

“Is it fair?” I asked

“Yeah,” he nodded. “It’s fair.”

Breakin’ bread before breakin’ D-lines

I was walking around the Lions locker room, talking to different players about how the offensive line has jelled so effectively. My theory: the main reason the Lions have been in so many games even though it still has several holes is because the offensive line has played so well.

The Lions offensive linemen started talking about technique and communication and the natural growth that occurs over time, as well as the coaching and standards set by offensive line coach Hank Fraley.

But then, something else came up.

“We go out to eat together every Thursday,” guard Jonah Jackson said.

I kind of blew it off OK, yeah, so you go out to eat together. Big deal, right?

“How does that show up on the field?” I asked Decker about the Thursday meals. “Is it subtle?”

“I wouldn’t even say it’s subtle,” Decker said about the meals. “I love the guys I play with.”

And that love has grown from those dinners.

“You want to take care of your friends,” Decker said. “You want to try and help them out and help put them in a position to succeed and you want to do your job well so that they can flourish to do their best. So I think it’s a huge thing. A lot of us have been here for at least a couple of years together now and we get along really well.”

Those meals are centered around food, of course.

But the main point is the friendship — the stories and laughter and constant teasing.

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Getting to know each other

There’s something crazy about the NFL. The players are together almost constantly, but they don’t really know each other. The linemen get to the facility around 6:30 a.m. and stay after 5. But there is virtually no time to build true friendships because they are always on the field, or in the weight room, or studying film, or in the meeting room, or getting treatment.

“Especially if you’re younger guy here, you’re so stressed, trying to do everything right all the time, that you just don’t really have time for any little side conversations or anything like that,” Decker said.

To make it worse, the NFL is like a revolving door. Players are always coming and going.

“You can’t get to know people that well in the building honestly, because you’re always doing stuff,” Decker said.

Three years ago, the Lions offensive linemen started to go out to eat every Thursday evening.

“It’s just good to get together and enjoy each other’s company and just spend time together,” Decker said.

“I mean, that’s that’s the only way you can get to know people.”

There are some unspoken rules:

  1. They don’t talk football;
  2. They take turns picking up the tab;
  3. The guy whose pays gets to pick the restaurant;
  4. If you don’t understand the menu, ask Jonah Jackson — a true foodie;
  5. And it’s just the guys, no girlfriends or wives.

“It just helps grow the group,” Penei Sewell said. “You get to understand each other and hear a guy’s life story, what’s going on and what personal things they got going on and stuff.”

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The oldest veteran pays for the first meal, and then they take turns, based on seniority. By the time it gets to the practice squad guys, who make little in comparison, several players are allowed to share the bill.

“Not to be stereotypical but I assume it’s a whole bunch of steak and potatoes,” I asked.

“Oh, of course,” Evan Brown said.

“But you got guys who order a beer, burger and fries,” Stenberg said. “And some guys are ordering crème brûlée with a glass of wine.”

They have eaten at some of the fanciest restaurants in Metro Detroit and usually get a private room.

“Does everybody get dressed up?” I asked.

“I think jeans is the nicest we go,” Matt Nelson said. “Jeans and a T-shirt.”

“We’ll go to the nicest steakhouse in town and I have my Ugg slippers on and a hoodie,” Stenberg said.

“Does anybody get bashed for being a sloppy eater?”

“Occasionally somebody will have a bunch of crumbs in front of them and they get ripped,” Nelson said.

But not in a mean-spirited way. A loving way.

And that’s the whole point of these meals.

Then, I started wondering: What’s the biggest bill you have racked up?

“A rookie dinner last year with Penei,” Brown said. “It was a couple bucks, a couple bucks. It cost him a pretty penny.”

“It was pretty hefty,” Sewell said. “I don’t like to say the number because it brings flashbacks.”

The togetherness extends beyond the meals.

When Decker got married, 10 offensive linemen attended the wedding.

“It was awesome,” Decker said. “It was just a lot of fun. Who else would I want there? Those are my friends. Those are the guys who are like me. Those are the guys you care about.”

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The new guy

The importance of the camaraderie — across the entire offensive line — cannot be overstated.

Eight players have started on the line this fall, including Kayode Awosika, who started against Buffalo on Thanksgiving Day. He’s a relative newcomer to the Lions. He was signed off the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad on Sept.14, he arrived at the Lions practice facility unsure what this team was going to be like.

“I was claimed here Week 1,” Awosika said. “I’m away from everybody and it’s a whole new team. And they were like, ‘hey, on Thursday, come out with us.’”

So he went to his first dinner with the guys.

“It’s hanging out, bonding, camaraderie, and it really helps to keep us close,” he said, after starting against the Buffalo Bills.

“How does it help in a game like this, where you are suddenly thrown into a game?” I asked.

“They’re all my brothers,” he said. “I haven’t been here that long, but I play hard for my brothers.”

It wasn’t a flippant answer. It was genuine. These guys might rip each other, and they might tease each other constantly, but they truly like each other. They care about one another.

And I’m convinced that plays a role in why this unit has played so well.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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