Allen Park — For years, we’ve heard the Detroit Lions are placing an emphasis on running the ball, but the words have started ringing hollow season after season of underwhelming production.
It’s not that the team isn’t committed to achieving the goal; they simply haven’t found the formula for consistent success. In three seasons under Jim Caldwell, the team has finished in the bottom five in rushing yardage, while falling short of 4.0 yards per carry each year.
“There’s an old saying, you achieve what you emphasize,” Caldwell said. “It’s always going to be (an emphasis) until I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes it takes a while, sometimes it takes longer than what you’d like, in some cases. That’s the way this game is. It’s not an easy fix.”
The Lions invested heavily in the offensive line this offseason, signing Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang to big-money contract. Darren Fells, a 280-pound tight end, should also offer a blocking boost. Along with starting running back Ameer Abdullah’s clean bill of health, the combined factors are expected to get the Lions over the hump this year, finally providing the offense the balance it’s lacked much of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s career.
But the key variable to the equation might be Jim Bob Cooter. The young, cerebral offensive coordinator, whose philosophy was foundationally forged working in the Indianapolis Colts’ and Denver Broncos’ passing attacks, zeroed his offseason study habits on unlocking the secrets to getting more from the team’s ground game.
“It’s been a big, big, big point of emphasis for me,” Cooter said. “Just dealing with my own background, what I’ve gone through, it’s been a really important point of emphasis for me this offseason. I think I have personally improved in the run game, how I see things, how I call things.”
Cooter, a former quarterback, always has been more focused on the passing game. He worked with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Denver, before being brought in by Caldwell to help tutor Stafford. Since Cooter took over the offense in the middle of the 2015 season, Stafford’s development has been the young coordinator’s primary success.
But ask anyone who has ever worked with Cooter and they’ll tell you he loves problem solving in the film room. Now that he’s placed his personal emphasis on cracking the run-game riddle, it could be the spark the Lions have been missing.
“I’m encouraged,” Cooter said. “I know we’re going to run the ball more efficiently. I’m very confident of that. At the end of the day, I feel confident I have improved and I am improving, and that’s part of the thing. Also, feel good about our players, how much they’re working at getting the nuts and bolts, getting the fundamentals down.”
Of course, it all boils down to the players. Detroit hinted at turning the corner last year, when Abdullah and Theo Riddick combined for 108 yards on 19 carries in a season-opening win over Indianapolis. The following week, against Tennessee, Abdullah looked even more electric, until he suffered a season-ending foot injury late in the first half. Riddick also ended up being hampered by injuries much of the year.
Caldwell considers 100 rushing yards a benchmark for success and the Lions topped the total once the final 14 games.
“We just need a running game where it’s respectable, somewhere around that 100-yard mark and we’re going to keep trying until we get it,” Caldwell said. “We don’t have to run it for 150 yards to win either, but we have to make certain that, obviously, we’re respectable in that area.”
The Lions also believe there are other reasons they’ll be better this year. The team is counting on an extra year of experience in the scheme to prove beneficial for young, improving linemen Travis Swanson and Graham Glasgow. There’s also increased expectations for backup running backs Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington.
Washington, a talented seventh-round pick last season, struggled with patience and feel as a rookie. He finished the campaign averaging a disappointing 2.9 yards per carry. Through two preseason games, 14 carries, he’s at 4.1 yards per attempt.
“When he’s able to find the point of attack and hit it, he’s tough to bring down,” Cooter said. “He runs over guys, through guys, around guys. I think he is improving with his run reads and where he’s putting the ball.”
Will this be the year the Lions achieve what they emphasize? We’ll probably know pretty early in the season whether Cooter’s offseason quest will pay dividends. If it does, we’ll finally get to see the full potential of this offense.