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If the Detroit Lions are going to rebound in 2013, they will need to change the way they do business in the locker room and on the field. This is the first article in a series that will look at the lessons that the Lions need to embrace to rediscover success.
There is no doubt that the last couple of months have been difficult for Detroit Lions fans. Not only were we subjected to eight straight losses, but we have seen the Lions find almost every way imaginable to lose. We have seen games where the Lions teased us into having hope they could win. We have seen games where the other team toyed with the Lions and any hope of winning was an illusion. In the end, all of them ended with a loss.
During this process, Lions coaches stood in front of the media and made every excuse in the book for their failures. They talked about poor execution and mental mistakes as being the reason for losses, and that is true, to a point. The problem is the coaches are responsible for removing those kinds of issues from the team through their coaching, and they completely failed. Blaming the players is also pointing a finger back at coaching, even if the casual fan may not always understand that.
There are fans that understand enough about football to know when we are being played. I cannot claim that I know as much about football as Jim Schwartz or Martin Mayhew, but I don't have to. Some things are apparent even with a basic understanding of the game. It doesn't take years of coaching experience to recognize when a team lacks discipline and makes too many mistakes.
I have recognized a number of serious issues with the Lions, and I am going to share each of them with you. There is enough to say that it will take several articles, so here we go.
Stay the course
I understand why the Lions brain trust adopted this policy. It is true that prior management and coaches have been too quick to make changes. Before Mayhew, we watched the front office jump though a parade of coaches and schemes in an effort to find a successful combination. Meanwhile, the constant reshuffling of players to match the scheme of the day robbed the Lions of talent. The rapid change also left many players in schemes that did not suit their talents. There is no question that more consistency was needed, but there is such a thing as being consistent to the point of stagnation.
Prior to the 2012 season the Lions appeared to be in the perfect position to take another step up the ranks of the NFL's best teams. They were returning almost the entire starting roster and all the coaches. If there were ever a moment for the Lions to prove that "staying the course" was a winning strategy, it was the 2012 season. Then the games were played and the entire philosophy came apart.
The Lions were very conservative and predictable on both offense and defense. Players from several opposing teams have commented that they knew exactly what the Lions would do in certain situations. It is almost as if the Lions coaches do not believe in keeping the other team off balance. If that is indeed the case, they would be almost alone in the NFL concerning this philosophy.
Schwartz and the coordinators need to be willing to take some calculated risks. They cannot simply run plays that every team knows are coming and have prepared for three seasons running. The coordinators must call plays that will make the opposition play more tentatively.
The Lions offense has not evolved very much under Scott Linehan. I can usually predict what he will do in certain situations myself. That is not a good sign. Apparently, Linehan feels it is enough to run a couple end-around plays each game, and maybe a bootleg, to add his variety. That seems to be the limit of creativity in the Lions offense.
It might be acceptable if Linehan would call those plays in more useful situations. The end-around has been used as a standard play for the entire time Linehan has been here. Opposing teams prepare for it as standard operating procedure for the Lions. The bootleg is strictly used inside the 5-yard line, so teams now prepare for it in those situations. Even I can figure that out, so you can be sure other NFL coaches know it too.
The key to taking risk in scheme and play-calling is to be unpredictable enough that the other team does not know what to expect. That does not mean that you need to go crazy. It means that you need enough wrinkles in the playbook to force the defense to make reads. Of course, that still means the Lions need to have players that can execute the plays. Unpredictable play-calling helps the players execute well by keeping the opposition from making the perfect play call against you as often. If you can get your opponent to make a bad play call once in a while then you place your players in a better position to make plays. When the success of the game hinges on a few plays, that is often enough to win.
I strongly disagree with Schwartz when he claims that Linehan has placed his players in a good position to make plays. By making his play calls too predictable, Linehan has let the defense seize the advantage. His insistence on using the shotgun so much creates a disadvantage for the running game. The shotgun also makes play action less effective. The inability to develop effective blocking schemes for the run has made the offense one-dimensional.
At some point the Lions coaches and front office need to understand that repeating an approach that has failed over and over again is not staying the course, it is insanity. The Lions have kept an aging offensive line intact, for whatever reason. The offensive line has proven over many seasons that it is not capable of effective run blocking, even if they are good pass blockers. That has hampered the running game tremendously and made the Lions one-dimensional.
We have watched the Lions coaches insist on running the ball repeatedly with this offensive line and fail. Now we see them add extra offensive linemen as tight ends in an attempt to fix the problem and still they fail more than they should. This insistence on staying with players that cannot get the job done has hampered the team for years. When will the coaching staff finally stop the insanity, get some players that can run block effectively and play them?
The Lions already have Riley Reiff. He is a better run blocker than anybody else on the offensive line, yet he only sees playing time by lining up as a tight end when the rest of the line is healthy. He could have replaced Stephen Peterman immediately and been a substantial upgrade. Your offensive line would have been better and you wouldn't have to take out a tight end to do it. You would not be reducing the number of potential targets that Matthew Stafford has to throw to in order to improve run blocking.
When I look at the philosophy on defense I see some inconsistency with the offensive philosophy. The defensive line is expected to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. That is a Schwartz philosophy that he has explained a few times. He wants the front four to perform their job without help so that the defense does not need to take additional risk among the back seven.
So if the defense is reluctant to commit extra players to perform the responsibility of the line, why does the offense insist on doing exactly that with Reiff? I can only assume that this is a Linehan decision. It is one of the most visible pieces of evidence that Linehan really does control what happens with the offense with very little interference from Schwartz. When we look at the predictability of play calls on offense and the reluctance to remove guys on offense that are not performing up to standard, I believe we can lay the larger part of that on Linehan.
I am not exactly sure where the obsession with staying the course comes from. It may be driven by Mayhew to some extent. I do know that it is being taken too far. It has become a mantra that has prevented the Lions from making moves that are needed. It has resulted in additional losses. It has become an excuse to explain away failure.
Football is a performance-oriented business. People who do not perform need to be replaced, whether that is a coach, a player or a scheme. Repeated investment in failure is not acceptable. If the Lions coaching staff does not learn this lesson for the 2013 season, they will probably be learning it someplace else.