Friday, July 26, 2013

Part III: More Things To Watch

Apparently, I had a lot more to say than I thought I would.  Since training camp opens today, I felt compelled to post another couple of blogs and wrap this thing up.  I won't have a prediction for another month because I'd rather wait until before Opening Kickoff to post my prediction.  I predicted a 10-6 record; the Lions went 4-12.  Shows how much I know.

5. Coaching.  In 2011, the Lions were 10-6.  A year later, they fell to 4-12.  What happened?  Was Jim Schwartz to blame?

No matter which way you look at it, an ax should have dropped somewhere and it didn't.  Jim Schwartz, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, and Gunther Cunningham all kept their jobs at the end of the season.  The biggest name to leave the coaching staff was Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman, who took another job in Buffalo.

Crossman should have been fired after the 4th game against Minnesota where the Lions gave up a punt and kickoff return for the second straight week, an NFL first.  Where there's ignominy, it's a safe bet the Lions are on the wrong side of the moment: longest field goal kick in history, first team to go 0-16, longest road losing streak - owned twice, TWICE, by the Lions breaking their OWN RECORD (2001 - 2003 and then 2007-2010), and now this.  Giving up a punt and touchdown return two weeks in a row kind of set the tone for the rest of the season, even though they won three of their next four games (they lost the final eight).

Crossman was replaced by veteran Special Teams coach Jon Bonamego.  Bonamego will have an all new kicker, punter, and return man (or men) in 2013. Jason Hanson retired after twenty years with the team and the Lions signed aging veteran David Akers and Havard Rugland, aka "Kickalicous" to replace him. 

Akers was one of the NFL's premier kickers before falling off with the San Francisco 49ers last year, where he made only 69% of his field goal attempts.  Akers is 36, so even if he wins the job in camp, it's unlikely he'll be around for a long time.  Rugland has never played football, but achieved notoriety for a YouTube video he posted where he demonstrated his football kicking abilities.  After getting tryouts for the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, the Lions offered him a contract in the hopes he could succeed Hanson.

The Lions also spent a fifth round draft pick on Punter Sam Martin.  Normally, teams don't use a draft pick on a punter unless he's available in the seventh round.  Okay, the L.A. Raiders did in the 1980s with Ray Guy, and even if he was the best punter to have ever played in the NFL, you still don't use a first round pick on them!  But given the Lions' needs and the fact another punter was taken before him, Martin may end up being well worth the pick.

(Ahem, it behooves me to point out Hanson was a second round pick in 1992.  But at least kickers score points.)

If Crossman should have been the first to be fired, then OC Linehan was a close second.  Linehan, who is entirely in charge of the offense, seemed to be outcoached by the opposing teams' defensive coordinators.  His play calling was stale.  68% of Stafford's pass attempts in 2012 were out of the shotgun formation.  Whether it was Stafford's poor performance or there was poor execution by the rest of the offense, that should have fallen on him.

I have to give Gunther Cunningham a pass.  Linehan has been given a lot of help from Martin Mayhew with draft picks, trades, and free agent pickups.  Linehan was given Stafford (who has taken it upon himself to develop the franchise QB), Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler, Mikel Leshoure, Titus Young, and Ryan Broyles.  On top of the fact they already had Calvin Johnson.

Cunningham's defense hasn't been given the same amount of attention as the offense.  He has a defensive line with a couple of linebackers.  Not bad, considering they have Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and Stephen Tulloch.  But Cliff Avril left for greener pastures, and who knows how well he'll play when he's not next to Suh.  Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams were both a little long in the tooth, and neither are with the team anymore.  Mayhew drafted Ziggy Ansah with the number 5 overall pick and signed veteran defensive end Jason Jones.  Ansah is a project who will take a year or two to development while Jones may only be a stop gap at this point.

With the exception of Stephen Tulloch, Cunningham's linebackers have been somewhat disappointing.  Tulloch played under Schwartz's system in Tennessee, so he was already familiar with the scheme.  DeAndre Levy hasn't taken the next step many thought he would. By the end of his rookie year, a lot of NFL analysts thought he should've gone in the first round instead of the third that year.  Yet as of late, he seems to have missed lots of tackles and hasn't distinguished himself as a premier linebacker. 

Justin Durant is now gone, due to cap restraints, so it's up to veteran backups Ashlee Palmer and second year players Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis to win his spot.  Cunningham should be under a lot of pressure to push Levy and develop the other linebacker starting opposite him.

Finally, there's Coach Schwartz himself.  This is a make-or-break year for him.  If Schwartz is under the gun, Mayhew should be as well.  We're in Year 5 of the rebuilding process, but the Lions right now look to be competing for third place in the NFC North with Minnesota when they should be contending with Green Bay for the title.

Schwartz is an emotional guy and it rubs off on his players.  The past couple of years, the Lions have (unfairly) developed a reputation as an undisciplined team.  Whether it's Ndamukong Suh's personal fouls on the field, or the offseason arrests of four players in 2012 and two this past offseason, much of the sports media has put the blame on Schwartz for not reigning his players.  Whether it's fair or not, Schwartz has taken steps to address the problem in order to avoid further off field distractions.

He too will have to assert some self-control.  He's been known to pump his fist after winning games, talk trash at the other coaches, and last Thanksgiving, he allowed his team to give up a touchdown because he threw a flag to challenge play that would have been under review anyway.  Schwartz admitted the mistake after the Houston Texans' Justin Forsett scored a touchdown, despite replay showing Forsett's knee being down.  The Texans kept the touchdown and went on to win the game. 

If the team matches Schwartz's optimism (which is pretty high going into camp), the Lions should be about 10-6.  It's within the bell curve of realistic expectations.  It's more likely this team will be somewhere between 6-10 and 8-8. 

If the Lions don't make the playoffs, Schwartz should be fired, but Mayhew should be fired as well.  Schwartz is playing with Mayhew's players and both managed to take a team that went 0-16 five years ago and turn them into a playoff team in three years.  The question is now, is Schwartz the coach that took the 0-16 team to the playoffs, or is he the guy who coached the team to 4-12? (The very same question Pat Caputo and Dennis Fithian asked on last night's show on 97.1 The Ticket)

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