Monday, November 14, 2005

Fixing the Lions

I am going to assume that nobody was fooled by Detroit’s meaningless blowout of the Arizona Cardinals yesterday. I definitely wasn’t. The four wins that the Lions have this season have come against teams with a combined record of 9-27. The victory over the mighty Cardinals wasn’t a statement of any kind, nor was it impressive in any way. The Lions only proved that they are not the worst team in the NFL. As a pretty big sports fan, I usually have a solution/answer to every problem that the Lions have. For the first time on record, I was actually at a loss for what the Lions should do after this year’s ridiculous performance. Instead of seeing the “light” with a few roster moves, I thought the answer was “blow up Ford Field and move the team to Chattanooga.” However, after a week of reflection, I’ve put my G.M. hat back on and I’m certain that the Lions aren’t that far away from being a contending franchise. All it would take are a few bold moves by Matt Millen. The problem is that these moves would indict Millen’s tenure and I doubt he would want to make himself look any worse than he all ready does.

First, Millen needs to overhaul the coaching staff starting with Steve Mariucci. Some people would point to Millen as the problem but given the amount of time William Clay Ford gave Wayne Fontes to toil with the Lions franchise, I doubt Millen’s job will be in jeopardy any time in the next millennium. Plus, the Lions actually have a very competitive roster which is mostly Millen’s doing. So, Mariucci becomes the man responsible for the Lions on-field performance. The number one measure of a good head coach in the NFL is the talent of his coordinators. Coaches with bland offensive and defensive coordinators are sure to fail. Every successful franchise in the NFL has either a dynamic coordinator on offense or defense, if not both. There hasn’t been a Super Bowl Champion in the last 20 years that hasn’t had a dominating unit on at least one side of the ball. The Patriots are the epitome of what a team can accomplish with dynamic coaching. Tampa Bay and Baltimore each won the Super Bowl with dominating defensive schemes. The Rams won the Super Bowl with a dynamic offensive system. The Broncos had both an offensive and defensive advantage in terms of coaching. My point is that if you don’t have a coaching staff to make your team dynamic, you can’t win the Super Bowl, let alone, make the playoffs.

Mariucci’s biggest mistake to date has been his choice of coordinators. He brought in Ted Tollner as offensive coordinator to employ his conservative coaching style. The results have been brutal as the Lions are 28th (out of 32) in yards per game. Keep in mind the Lions were lauded for putting together a team with such offensive firepower that it was compared to the Colts in the pre-season. The worst possible approach for this team is a conservative approach. The fact that the Lions don’t have a dominating running game makes this approach even worse since the number one requirement of a conservative approach is a power running game.

On the other side of the ball, Mariucci brought in re-tread NFL coach Dick Jauron to run the defense.  Jauron got more out of the Bears miraculous 2001 season than anyone else in the Bears organization. Not only did it give him credibility as an NFL head coach but it allowed him a crutch to fall on after he was run out of Chicago. He used that crutch to get Mariucci to put him in charge of the Detroit defense. The Lions have actually managed to play pretty good defense this year without an overly impressive defensive scheme. A dynamic defensive coordinator could make the Lions defense a dominating and fearsome unit. Marv Lewis, Jack Del Rio, and John Fox are just a few of the coaches who have been successful with talented rosters combined with aggressive defensive schemes. The Lions have more talent on defense than 75% of the NFL. Shaun Rogers and Dre Bly are two of the best at their position.  The difference between what the Lions are right now and what they could be is not who’s on the field but rather who’s on the sidelines.  

The Lions have a talented team. To be fair, there have been some untimely injuries this season, but that’s not what’s holding them back. There are at least 30 dynamic assistant coaches in the NFL right now that are begging for a job not to mention countless college coaches that could make an immediate impact in the NFL. The way to the Super Bowl is through one of those brilliant minds. Millen needs to bring in a coach that can maximize the output of the Lions talented roster. Steve Mariucci is as bland as a coach can get. The Lions will never have an edge in coaching with such a conservative approach to the game. The most successful teams in the NFL are the most aggressive on and off the field. The lions, unfortunately, fail in both respects.

Second, the Lions need to bring in an “average” quarterback. Unless Joey Harrington finishes this season with an unbelievable fury, he is not the answer. The Lions only need someone who can drop back and complete a pass on a regular basis. An example of how effective an average quarterback can be is Brad Johnson. Daunte Culpepper was leading the Vikings offense into the garbage can until he tore up his knee. Brad Johnson took over and has calmly brought the Vikings two straights win and immediately brought respectability to their offense. A poor quarterback can ruin an otherwise potent offense. Take the Baltimore Ravens for example. They have one of the best running backs in the NFL (Jamal Lewis) running behind an outstanding offensive line. They brought in one of the best wide receivers in the NFL (Derrick Mason) and also have one of the top tight ends (Todd Heap) in football. Yet, their offense is the worst in the NFL because they don’t have an “average” quarterback. The Ravens would be Super Bowl contenders with Brad Johnson at quarterback. The Lions have scored more than twenty points in only two of nine games this season. They lost close games to Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Chicago because they couldn’t do anything on offense. Granted, the Lions have experienced more than their fair share of injuries on offense but a steady quarterback would’ve given the Lions a chance to win. Joey Harrington has shown that he doesn’t have enough to lead an offense to big things. It is not too late to abandon the Harrington experience unscathed. The rest of the offense is in place waiting for a capable quarterback and a capable offensive coordinator.

Right now, the Lions appear to be a mess with no hope for the future. However, I really think that a few bold moves are the difference between what we’re seeing on the field right now and a consistent winner. I said it before the season and I’ll say it again, most coaches in the NFL would love to have the Lions roster. There are so many talented players suiting up for Detroit every week. They could either waste away under Mariucci’s conservative game planning and Harrington shaky leadership, or they could flourish under a dynamic head coach with a “heady” signal caller.


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