Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Detroit Lions In-Depth Season Preview: Offense

This is part one of a two part series I am writing previewing the upcoming Lions season. This section focuses on the offense.

In his brief stint as a head coach in the NFL, Scott Linehan's record was an abysmal 11-25. He took over a relatively good St. Louis Rams team in 2006 and plunged a talented offense into oblivion. He was disliked by nearly all of his star players, and made the controversial decision to bench his Pro Bowl quarterback just out of spite. He lost 17 of his final 20 games. Simply put, he was a terrible head coach.

Yet for some reason, after he was fired in 2008, several teams pursued him as an offensive coordinator. And of course, the Lions won the Scott Linehan sweepstakes. It made me wonder, were all the other teams just pretending to want him so they could sucker the Lions into actually hiring him? It’s certainly possible.

When I first the news of the Linehan hiring, the following three thoughts went through my mind in sequence:

“That crappy Rams coach?”

“Wait, I thought we just rebuilt our entire offense around the zone blocking scheme, why did we bring in an aggressive spread-offense guy???”

And then …

“Maybe this will work out brilliantly and we'll make the playoffs!"

Remember, I’m a Lions fan, so I’m prone to being a moron. Getting our hopes up and having them crushed is what makes us true Lions fans so hardcore. So here I am in the summer of 2009 with my hopes officially up and ready for the crushing. (I’m actually really giddy about the Lions defense, but I’ll talk about that later.) For now, I’d like to discuss Linehan, Stafford, Megatron, Gosder Cherilus and the hopefully improved, though probably still stagnant Detroit Lions offense.

Scott Linehan has over 15 years of coaching experience at the college and NFL level as a wide receivers coach and a quarterback coach. His most successful season was 2004 with Minnesota, when he coached a certain Daunte Culpepper to a 4700 yard, 39 TD, MVP-caliber season. Linehan earned a reputation as one of the most aggressive offensive coaches in the league, and helped nurture a young Randy Moss into the most unstoppable receiver in the NFL. The Rams hoped that his history would bode well with their personnel; unfortunately, Scott Linehan the head coach was a complete disaster.

But it has been proven over time that just because someone is a terrible head coach, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a terrible assistant coach. Take Marty Mornhinweg. Marty is hands-down the worst NFL head coach I have ever had the displeasure of watching, and he had a lot of competition. Every decision Mornhinweg made as the Lions coached seemed to be even stupider than the last stupid thing he did, until it all climaxed when he won the coin toss in overtime and elected to KICK, rather than RECEIVE, the football. What Lions fan could ever forget that splendid moment in the annals of idiotic decisions? But somehow, after compiling an unfathomably bad 5-27 coaching record (SERIOUSLY, 5-27???) he was hired to one of the best teams in the NFL, the Eagles, and has flourished as an offensive coordinator. It’s true.

Now it’s absolutely impossible than Linehan is a worse football coach than Mornhinweg, so all I’m saying is there’s a chance that our offense does well. Okay, I know we don’t have the talent that the Eagles have, but still, there is a possibility!

Part One: Quarterback

As we all know, the big question mark concerning the Lions’ offense during camp will be the quarterback position. How is Stafford developing, and who will start opening day? All the reports are that Stafford looks great; his footwork and release and arm strength all appear to be remarkable. But we already knew that. That's the reason the Lions drafted him first overall and are paying him $70 million dollars. What I would like to hear is how Stafford's accuracy is these days? How’s his ability to read complex NFL defenses? Does he stay in the pocket and go through his reads, or does he bail out and take the sack as soon as he feels flustered? Basically, is he the next Harrington, or is he the next Matt Ryan?

Well, I think we can all agree that Stafford can’t possibly be as bad as Joey Harrington was. But I’m also relatively sure that he won't have the rookie season Ryan, or even Joe Flacco had last year. He's not as "NFL-ready," to use the misunderstood cliché. People say that because Stafford played in the pro-style formation at Georgia, he will make a seamless transition to the NFL game. Two reasons why this isn’t true: one – he played against far inferior defenses, and two, he was surrounded by so much freaking talent that he could have played in the flying-V formation and it wouldn’t have mattered. Stafford is an NFL pupil at this point, and that's one of the three major reasons why he won't be starting week one.

The second reason is the aforementioned relationship between Daunte Culpepper and his new offensive coordinator. Both men enjoyed the best year of their career when they were working together; Culpepper understands the offense Linehan wants to run and Linehan trusts Culpepper to the core. It also helps that Daunte is in the best shape he's been in since 2004, (reportedly he has lost 30 pounds and no longer looks like an overweight linebacker.) I'll believe it when I see it, but I sure hope it’s true.

The third reason why Culpepper should and will start under center in week 1 is the Lions offensive line, or lack thereof. I’ll talk more in depth about this later, but for now let me just say this: letting Daunte absorb most of the shellacking at the beginning of the season while Matt stays clean and injury-free on the sidelines might be a good idea. Give the O-line a few weeks to mesh and hopefully learn how to pass protect, otherwise our future franchise quarterback might become another mental case with happy feet and panicked eyes who spends all of his time in the pocket waiting to be sacked. A few years from now, if Stafford has become a horrible quarterback but constantly refers to himself as “Matty Blue Skies,” I might just gauge my eyes out and become a soccer fan. (That was a loosely-veiled reference to Joey Harrington, in case you missed it).

My personal take on the Lions quarterback situation is that I'm completely torn. I know Daunte gives us a better chance to win games this season, and for the three reasons I just mentioned I would like to see him start the season. But how can you pay a kid $72 million to hold a clipboard? Do rookies really learn that much from watching, or do they need on-the-field experience to develop into real NFL players? I’m not sure – I think it depends on the player, and if you have what it takes to be a real NFL quarterback, it’s just a matter of getting your opportunity. Stafford will certainly get an opportunity at some point this season.

But like I said, I think Daunte should and will start week 1. So when should the change-over happen? Well it depends on how Daunte is playing, first of all. And we won't know that until it happens. What if Culpepper has an unlikely renaissance season and has the Lions off to a 3-2 start? (With losses to the Saints and Steelers being a given.) Then Stafford has to wait a while longer, doesn't he? And what if Daunte plays the way he played last year (not unlikely, by any means)? The Lions would begin 0-4 or 0-5, and the chants for Staf-ford-Staf-ford! would be absolutely crazy at Ford Field, and Schwartz won’t have a choice but to throw the poor kid to the wolves.

To me, there is one ideal game to plug Stafford into the starting lineup, whether Culpepper is playing great or horrendous, and that's week 8 against the Rams. It's a home game, against one of the worst defenses in the NFL, AND it comes after a bye week. It’s a perfect situation whether we are 3-3, 2-4, 1-5 or 0-6. If we’re any better than that, leave Culpepper in for Peter’s sake. But if you give a quarterback, even a rookie like Stafford, two weeks to prepare for the Rams defense, he better destroy them. And then he should have a boost of confidence to help him for the next three weeks after that, against three more sub-par pass defenses. Then all Stafford has to do is win around half of the remaining games (which are by far the easier part of the schedule) and we could be in wild-card contention. Stranger things have happened.

Part Two: Offensive Line

Pardon the terrible joke, but for the last two decades the Detroit Lions offensive line has been just plain offensive. Jeff Backus is back for another ho-hum year at the all-important left tackle position, although he was given a slight scare when we considered drafting Jason Smith and moving him to guard. Backus is not as good as his contract indicates; in fact, last I heard he is the highest paid offensive lineman to never play in a Pro Bowl. Way to go Matt Millen! Jon Jansen, a ten-year veteran and former Wolverine, signed with the Lions a few months ago after being released by Washington. Jansen was a heck of an offensive tackle for about six years before breaking his ankle in 2007; he’s never been the same since. The Lions took a gamble hoping that he’s back to his old form, and if he is, he would probably be our best starting lineman.

There’s a danger if Jansen does start though: his natural position is right tackle, and he’s probably not a good fit anywhere else. If Jansen plays right tackle though, that moves last year’s first round pick, Gosder “Wait, Who Am I Supposed to Block Again?” Cherilus to either the bench or to the left guard position. Cherilus was drafted solely for his experience in the zone-blocking scheme, which would be a great fit with Kevin Smith, except for the fact that it doesn’t work worth a crap. Even with a broken ankle, Jansen is probably better than Cherilus; the thing is, giving up on our first-round pick after only one year isn’t a very good idea. Moving Gosder to guard doesn’t work; if he’s a bad tackle he’s going to be a bad guard, and we have better guards than him anyway. So what should we do? Rather than moving anyone around, I think it’s wise to bring Jansen in off the bench periodically, and then wait for one of the starters to get hurt, in which case Jansen can start just about anywhere.

The other big news on the offensive line is the contract extensions of right guard Stephen Peterman and center Dominic Raiola. I’m excited about Raiola, one of the most underrated players on the Lions and a pretty good center. I’m just plain puzzled about Peterman. What do they see in him? Since when does being crappy at both pass protection and run blocking earn you a bigger contract? He’s a former third round pick from St. Stainlaus College (WHAT?) who was cut after two years on the Cowboys’ practice squad; so yeah, I guess that’s the kind of guy the Lions want to build a team around.

At left guard the Lions have Daniel Loper furiously competing with such shitcakes as Damion Cook, Manny Ramirez (not the baseball one), and Matt Lentz. Loper’s a guy not too many Lions fans have ever heard of, but believe it or not he’s one of the biggest reasons why I am excited about the Lions this year. The Lope (that’s what I call him) came over from Tennessee, following coach Schwartz; he never started a game there but is big enough and fast enough to play any of the five positions. Schwartz loves his work-ethic and tenacity, and those are two words we don’t often hear around the Lions locker-room. If Schwartz loves him, I love him too. I believe in Schwartz. In camp, Loper has reportedly been getting most of the first-team snaps at left guard, and although there’s no official depth chart, it seems likely that he will stay ahead of the competition simply by not being a piece of shit. I believe in The Lope!

You would certainly think that after going 0-16 and failing miserably to run the ball and giving up the second most sacks in the league, the geniuses who run the Lions would tear the O-line to shreds and begin again. You would think, but instead they took the opposite approach. The word continuity is being thrown around a lot in a good way, and I can sort of understand where they’re coming from. Sure, if you have the same core of lineman protecting the same quarterback for years, everyone’s going to know their role and become comfortable and play as one unit. The Patriots and Colts do this to perfection. But there’s one key difference between the Lions and those two teams. Yup, you guessed it. Talent.

I’ll give these guys the benefit of the doubt for two or three games, but if our line looks as bad as it usually does, I’m going to spend the latter part of the season bitching to Crazy Keith about how we should've drafted Jason Smith and saying things like “Continuity be damned!” What the Lions have lacked for decades is the key to every great offensive line: a dominant left tackle and two guards who can overpower defensive tackles. Can Backus improve his game and can we count on The Lope? Time will tell, but don’t get you’re hopes up.

But hey, here’s a reason to be semi-optimistic. As I mentioned earlier, by playing Culpepper instead of Stafford at the beginning of the season, our offensive line can work out the kinks and not risk the death of our new quarterback. Culpepper can basically be a stunt man for the first several weeks and absorb all the big hits when Gosder neglects to lay a finger on a blitzing linebacker or Peterman gets mauled to pieces. And heck, maybe when Stafford becomes the starter, we can move Culpepper to offensive line.

Part Three: Running Game

I am a believer in Kevin Smith as a long-term solution for the Lions at running back, even though I probably shouldn’t be. He doesn’t have blazing speed or great power or really anything special, and he relies on the same predictable moves too much. His hands aren’t great, his blocking isn’t wonderful, and really he isn’t great at any one thing. But neither are a lot of the best running backs in the NFL. It’s the combination of speed and power, and the intangibles like vision and balance that make good running backs great. Smith has the desire to be great (something no Lions back since Barry has had) and has vowed (on his blog) to be much better than he was last year. One thing that will help is Maurice Morris, a reliable and legitimate #2 running back to take some pressure off Smith and power some of those short-yardage plays. Morris won’t help Smith’s fantasy value at all, but I’m more concerned with his real life value. Establishing the run and converting on third downs have been struggles for years and years, and Morris will help in both respects. Morris might actually be the Lions’ best non-rookie offseason acquisition on the offensive side.

Tatum Bell and Rudi Johnson are long gone, Aveion Cason and Brian Calhoun are back again, and the Lions added a pair of rookies, Aaron Brown and Antone Smith, who will compete for spots on the roster. None of these guys will make much of an impact with Morris is in town, and we’ve got him for 3 years (so I have no freaking clue why we wasted draft picks on running backs that will never play.) Brown was hoping to make the team as a return specialist, but now that the Lions traded for Dennis Northcutt that idea is pretty much shot. Antone Smith was a stud in college, but was undrafted. Calhoun sucks, and Cason sucks too.

The real story at running back is obviously Kevin Smith. Last year he carried the ball 238 times (quite a lot considering Rudi Johnson started the first seven games) and also caught 39 balls. He had eight TDs and finished with just under 1000 rushing yards. Although Smith will start every game this season and his carries will be increased, he won’t skyrocket up to a Turner-like 400 carries because of Morris’s stability and experience as a runner. I expect Smith to see about 290 carries and 50 catches, and if he keeps his rushing average above 4 yards (an impressive feat considering the line he is working with), he should be above 1500 total yards from scrimmage this season. That would be a beautiful thing. It’s tough to project touchdowns because Morris or fullback Jerome Felton might steal goal-line carries, but I think Smith will have more than the 8 TDs he had last year, if nothing else because the overall offense will be better. A running back with 1500 total yards and 10 scores? Don’t look now, but I don’t think we’ve had that since a certain #20 retired.

Smith is undoubtedly the second best player on the Lions offense, and he has a lot of motivation this season. Last year, several of his fellow rookies, including Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, and Steve Slaton, had psychotically good seasons, and are now being projected as first round fantasy picks. Smith is the kind of guy who cares about where he is picked in fantasy football. He wants to upstage these guys, particularly Forte who showed him up in the NFC North last year. He wants people to talk about how they should have picked him in the first round, instead of the third. He’s an emotional and proud player, and for one thing, he seems to be more ticked off about the whole 0-16 thing than anybody else. If anyone on the team is going to make sure we win at least one game this year, it will be Smith, who still has never celebrated an NFL victory.

Part Four: Passing Game

Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey quit in the middle of last season and are now both in the AFC North; rather than replacing them with the Poop Club (Standeford, Middleton, Rodriguez, and whoever the heck else we had last year) the powers-that-be wisely cleaned house and brought in a brand new crop of wide-outs to hopefully rejuvenate a passing offense that was mostly pathetic last year.

There’s Bryant Johnson, the underperforming and disappointing ex-49er. Ronald Curry, the former college point guard at UNC and Oakland Raider bust. Derrick Williams, a rookie of out Penn State with lightning speed and an injured hamstring. And there’s Dennis Northcutt, slot receiver and former Jaguar who doubles as an experienced kick returned. These four guys are competing for the same honor, lining up opposite from a future legend, a physical freak and the best wide receiver in all of football: Calvin Johnson.

True, in my fantasy rankings I have Megatron ranked third. That doesn’t mean he isn’t the best. Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson and plenty of others are very, very good, but no one is in the same realm as Calvin physically. And he doesn’t just have the unbelievable combination of size and speed that no wide receiver in the NFL has ever had – he also has hands. Amazing hands. His route-running and deviousness and ability to get open in triple coverage set him apart. He is the best. I don’t see any reason, other than an injury, that he won’t improve upon last year’s marks of 1331 yards and 12 TDs, and he will absolutely improve on the 78 receptions. Megatron being snubbed for last years Pro Bowl was utterly egregious, and I hope that out of spite he crushes all of Jerry Rice’s single-season records and then refuses to go to the Pro Bowl. What the hell does a wide receiver have to do to make the Pro Bowl? Lead the NFL in touchdowns and finish top five in yards, all while playing with the inept Dan Orlovsky on a winless team with no other offensive weapons, while fighting off triple coverage at the age of 23? Is that not good enough??? Well, then again I guess Steve Smith deserved it; I mean, he did have 90 more yards than Calvin, so forget that he only had HALF AS MANY touchdowns – those 90 yards must have been pretty stinking special. Especially considering Smith plays alongside one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL and started a fistfight with his teammate, yeah he really deserved to be honored. If Calvin breaks his neck week one and catches two passes all season, he deserves to be in the Pro Bowl just as a make-up call. …Wait, did I just jinx our season? … We’re screwed!

(On a side-note: what are the chances that 20 years from now, the Lions will have had the greatest running back to ever play AND the greatest receiver to ever play? At least 15%? I don’t think Calvin will get near Jerry Rice’s records, but Barry doesn’t have the yardage or TD records and there’s no question that he’s the greatest RB of all-time. Calvin could have a career similar to Moss’s and TO’s, and by not being an ass he might be even better. He has all the physical tools. He’s amazingly fun to watch. I’m just saying, would you rather have five Super Bowls and a history of boring loser players (Pittsburgh) or have zero Super Bowls but watched and cheered for the two greatest non-quarterback players on offense ever (Detroit)?)

Anyway, back to the new receivers. Bryant Johnson, Curry, Northcutt, and Williams.

It appears that Curry is going to be the weak link of the new crew, and possibly will even be cut. He was in line for the #3 WR spot for a while but his skills don’t match what we need in a slot receiver and that’s why we traded for Northcutt. I actually like Northcutt a lot and think he’ll finish second on the team in catches. B-Johnson will likely line up wide opposite the other Johnson, but I wouldn’t expect Bryant to catch more than 2 or 3 balls a game, tops. Williams looks great on the highlight videos, but I’m leery of yet another Lions receiver named Williams. I don’t think he’ll work his way onto the field much at all this season, and will probably finish with between 10 and 20 catches.

In fact, for specificity’s sake, here are my official projections:

Calvin: 98 receptions; Northcutt: 55 receptions; Bryant: 38 receptions; Curry: 12 receptions; Williams: 15 receptions. Throw in 53 receptions for Kevin Smith, 22 for Morris, and 10 for the rest of the running backs and any other receivers who sneak onto the field.

The other receiving option is rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who never caught more than 42 balls in a season at Oklahoma State. He’s known for having “soft hands,” which I never think sounds impressive. He’s pretty slow, but makes up for it by gaining most of his yards after the catch. He’s huge and hard to bring down. But of all the YouTube videos I watched on Pettigrew, I didn’t see one impressive catch or even a touchdown. So unfortunately, I highly doubt he does anything notable as a receiving threat. He might catch 35 passes just by virtue of being on the field a lot, but definitely don’t draft him in fantasy football.

I probably should have mentioned Pettigrew in the ‘Running Game’ part, but technically he is a pass-catcher. But the thing I love about Pettigrew, and another one of the main reasons why I love the Lions running game this year, is his blocking ability. He’s big enough to play on the line but quick enough to lead block, and all the scouts raged and blathered about his feel for the play and understanding of the game. Apparently there’s a stat in the NCAA for ‘blocks that set up a touchdown’ and Pettigrew led all tight ends in that area last year. Weird, but encouraging nonetheless.

Pettigrew has years to develop his pass-catching ability and speed; for the 2009 season, if he is a capable blocker, I will be more than happy.

Part Five: Play-Calling and Strategy

With Stafford’s lack of experience and Jim Schwartz’s emphasis on the defensive end, the play-calling decision will almost certainly fall on Scott Linehan. That’s some heavy pressure on a guy who did not fare so well in his previous job did. The other option is to trust Daunte Culpepper to call the plays, but somehow that doesn’t seem like such a good idea either. When reading up on the coaching philosophy of Coach Linehan, a term commonly thrown around is “vertical passing.” This is basically a system of deep routes down the sidelines designed to open up space in the middle of the field for shorter routes and a power running game, with a few deep bombs mixed in to Calvin Johnson. Altogether, it sounds eerily similar to Mike Martz’s flop of an offense a few years ago.

Head coach Jim Schwartz insists that they hired a coach and a mentor, rather than a new philosophy. He says that Linehan understands this and will keep his play-calling within the zone-blocking scheme and utilize the expertise of the players he has to work with. Asking Kevin Smith to morph from a zone-blocking running back to a power back is a pretty big deal. But can we really trust Linehan to undo his previous eight years of experience and trust the system, especially a system that failed epically last year? Will he try to sneak an aggressive-passing playbook under Matt Stafford’s pillow at night without telling Schwartz? I don’t know what to say about this, because either way – aggressive or safe – our offense is going to be about the same.

Here’s a direct quote from Linehan a few months ago:

“Running the football is something we want to be able to establish. To do that, you’ve got to have different types of schemes based on the defenses you’re playing each week.”

The plan of coaching based on your opponent has never interested me (it’s what made Michael Curry such a terrible coach), but in the case of the Lions, it might make sense. No matter whom we play against, we’re almost certain to have less overall talent. If we can understand and expose our opponents weaknesses (assuming they have weaknesses), that might be our best shot at running the ball with some consistent success.

One thing’s for sure - our running attack is still going to put a lot of emphasis on the zone-blocking scheme, at least one more year. Although is was nothing short of a joke watching Jim Costello (or whatever that idiot’s name was) try to implement the scheme last year, I have high hopes that it might turn a corner and work this season. We have two basic building blocks – Smith and Cherilus – who played exclusively in the scheme in college. And we have a new blocking tight end who should work wonders for zone-blocking.

No matter what kind of passing scheme we decide to go with, it should be based around our three greatest assets: Calvin Johnson’s size, Calvin Johnson’s speed, and Calvin Johnson’s ability to run after the catch. I’m sure when it came time for Linehan to decide between the Lions and the 49ers coaching jobs, he took one look at film of Megatron and couldn’t resists. The options are limitless with that guy; send him deep, over the middle, short, anywhere you want and he’s unstoppable. I think the only receiver in NFL history who ever possessed anything like the physical talent of Calvin Johnson was a younger Randy Moss; now that we have the very offensive coordinator who turned Moss into a superstar, I’m pretty excited.

Part Six: Final Predictions

Last year, the Lions gained 4292 yards, third worst in the NFL. (The only teams worse were both from Ohio.) They scored 268 points, fifth worst. They averaged 83 rushing yards (third worst) and 185 passing yards (ninth worst). The gained the third fewest first downs, and at 28% were the second worst team on third down. They did rank in the top half of the league in one offense stat, however – penalty yardage.

So obviously, there is a lot of room to improve. With a player as dominant as Calvin Johnson, it seems the Lions should be ranked at least in the top 15 teams in passing yards. The rushing attack should move up with the addition of Morris, but not any higher than 20th due to the offensive line’s woes. The area that I would love to see some very significant improvement is on third downs; 28% is just unacceptable. Punts are just as bad as interceptions and the Lions seemed perfectly content to punt away every possession they had last year. That has to change.

So here are my optimistic and probably overly idealistic offensive predictions for the 2009 Lions:

1552 rushing yards (23d in the NFL)
3520 passing yards (14th in the NFL)
5072 total yards (18th in the NFL)

Stay tuned for Part Two: Defense.

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