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The Detroit Lions need to hire a run game coordinator in 2018, or else

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The Lions have not had a run game in what seems like forever, with coaching the biggest culprit.

Detroit Lions v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

If someone were to ask what Morgan Kane and John Leach have in common, their first answer would be (and no disrespect to either man in this regard) simply “who and who?” What those two players have that makes them unique in the context of football is that those are the only running backs in the entire career of Jim Caldwell as a head coach or offensive coordinator who managed to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season under his coaching (both at Wake Forest). Without a single pro season where he’s coached a rusher to 1,000 yards, the Detroit Lions need some help if they’re to seriously challenge the NFL postseason.

16 full seasons: Eight at Wake Forest, three for the Indianapolis Colts, one for the Baltimore Ravens, four for the Detroit Lions, and yet there were only two players in all that time who managed that feat and neither of them were in the NFL. For contrast, Marc Trestman was a head coach in the NFL for only two seasons and managed to have a 1,000 yard rusher in both of those seasons before he was fired. The best Jim Caldwell had produced in the NFL was taking over a 2012 Ray Rice, and Caldwell got him in December after he had already rushed for 993 yards on the year (and since the year was nearly over, I didn’t count it when writing this article).

This isn’t a “Fire Jim Caldwell!” post or anything of that nature. It’s only to illuminate the struggle he has had dating all the way back to 1993 in producing anything resembling a run game. His philosophy has always been one of using a committee approach, with a lower share of attempts and a design, in theory, of efficiency over volume. In practice, he’s rarely had either. Aside from the aforementioned Kane and Leach at Wake Forest, Caldwell has only had three running backs best 200 attempts on a season, and none eclipsed 900 yards. For contrast, 11 games into the season there are already two running backs in the NFL who have had more than 200 attempts, and there were 19 in 2016 alone. The amount isn’t arbitrary, it was chosen since it shows that managing a lead back to carry that much of a load isn’t a measure of excellence, but competency.

The Lions run game is in desperate need of a boost and while that’s unlikely to happen in 2017 with only five games to go in the regular season, the team should begin planning for 2018 even if they retain both head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. With the struggles of Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington, and Zach Zenner in 2017 along with Joique Bell, George Winn, Reggie Bush, and everyone else in prior seasons, the blame can only fall on so many different people.

The running backs have struggled. The offensive line has struggled. And the coaching has been severely hampered by play calling and execution under two offensive coordinators under Jim Caldwell. It’s often difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong, but when you have not one but two offensive linemen move on to different schemes and both Riley Reiff in Minnesota and Larry Warford in New Orleans find significantly more success, it becomes a lot easier to point to the coaching as the most likely cause of the struggles (especially when you look at the history).

At least five teams in 2016 have made use of a run game coordinator. The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns hired Juan Castillo and Kirby Wilson respectively to help with both their run games and they presently rank 12th and 17th in the NFL. Tampa Bay also went that route, but they found less success and only rank two spots ahead of Detroit at 28th. The Philadelphia Eagles and their second-ranked run offense utilize a run game coordinator, as do the 49ers. All but one of those teams are rushing for 4.0 YPC or higher and none rank as low as the Detroit Lions in any category. In fact, three of those teams rank in the top ten for yards per carry, while the Lions rank 30th with only 3.4.

With the offensive line already being retooled after the addition of Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow in the draft followed by Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang in free agency, it’s possible the team hasn’t fully finished with their plan on the offensive front. Having almost completely ignored the running back position through both strong RB classes of 2016 and 2017, it’s likely the team brings in new talent to run behind their line in 2018. The best move this team can make, however, (if they retain their coach and/or coordinator) is to bring in someone whose job is solely to address the run game. Other teams have found success with this approach, and with a coaching staff that has been historically one of the worst in the NFL running the football, it’s time to bring in someone to fix an evergreen issue in Detroit.