Detroit — Nothing flashy about it. Nothing flashy about many things with the Lions, right?
Fair enough. You might not be giddy about the latest move, hiring offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, because he’s not a new-age, new-wave coach. But when you understand it, you realize it makes sense, considering what the Lions are trying to do under GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia.
Now, trusting what Quinn and Patricia are trying to do is another issue, and a 6-10 season chips away trust. They won’t say it, but it also chipped away trust in Matthew Stafford, as it should. Don’t be a hypocrite here. If you think the Lions rely too much on an unreliable quarterback — they do — you have to appreciate the idea of shifting more responsibility and pressure elsewhere, on Patricia and his staff.
Bevell emphasized the running game in his 12 seasons coordinating offenses in Seattle and Minnesota, and had plenty of success. Quinn and Patricia have been adamant about strengthening the Lions’ running game, adding offensive linemen and backs. A bit boring? Sure. But you know which “boring” teams run the ball as often and effectively as anyone in the NFL?
Turn on your TV Sunday and you’ll see them. The Patriots, Rams and Saints rank 3-4-5 in the league in rushing attempts per game, counting the playoffs. The Chiefs are 19th, but lost prolific back Kareem Hunt.Of the top 10 run-percentage teams, only two missed the playoffs — Tennessee and Buffalo. The Lions were 19th, running the ball 40 percent of the time, which would’ve been higher if Kerryon Johnson had stayed healthy.
The star of the Patriots’ divisional pounding of the Chargers wasn’t just Bill Belichick or Tom Brady. It also was rookie Sony Michel, who rushed for 129 yards. The Rams have Jared Goff, but also have Todd Gurley and late-season addition C.J. Anderson. The Saints have Drew Brees, but also have Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
The numbers can be slightly skewed because winning teams grab a lead and run the clock, but that doesn’t explain all of it. When you break down the stats, the running emphasis holds up through three quarters in almost every case, not just at the end.
Does weather play a factor? Yep, and when it’s cold and windy, running is more logical than throwing, a concept the indoor Lions never have quite grasped. Here are the rushing totals of the teams that won the divisional games last weekend: 180, 273, 155, 137. Here are the rushing totals of the losing teams: 87, 50, 19, 49. And remember, the run-pass balance for elite teams holds up throughout the regular season, not just the playoffs.
Bevell is proven
Bevell, 49, directed the Vikings’ offense for five seasons, then the Seahawks’ for seven, and had a top-five rushing attack six times. Yes, he had stars Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, and he coached to their strengths. With Bevell, the Seahawks reached two Super Bowls and won one. The loss came on the most infamous play perhaps in history, when Bevell (and head coach Pete Carroll) called a pass from the 1 and the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson to win it, 28-24.
Bevell later said he didn’t regret the call, but learned from it. Like, go with your best player and your best play at the key moments. The Lions thought they were doing that the past decade with Stafford, but he’s no longer their best player on offense, only their most expensive. It’s either Johnson or receiver Kenny Golladay, and both must be utilized to the fullest extent.
Bevell has experience at the highest levels and has worked well with quarterbacks, from Brett Favre to Wilson. He’s a solid hire, notable also because Patricia didn’t simply promote from within or tab a Patriot buddy.
It can be a tiresome debate, figuring out the optimal winning formula, because trends shift constantly. Offenses dominate right now — the top four scoring teams are playing Sunday. But there are multiple ways to score and multiple ways to win, and teams have to be able to implement multiple plans.
One-man show must go
This is not new. Heck, I’ve only been shrieking about it for years, begging the Lions to run the ball and stop leaning on Stafford, who’s not accurate enough to direct a precision passing attack. The Lions don’t lose just because they throw too much and Stafford is under pressure and often handles it poorly. They lose because their offense historically has been numbingly one-dimensional.
Hand the ball to Barry! Throw the ball up to Calvin! Wing it with Stafford!
Quinn and Patricia haven’t shown us enough yet, but they’ve shown us the plan. Quinn drafted offensive linemen Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow in the first round, and added expensive free agents. The line still needs work, but it’s being emphasized. If there’s one constant with winning teams, that’s probably it — build a sturdy offensive line and balance the attack around it.
The Lions have finished higher than 17th in rushing yardage precisely once in 10 years. That’s astonishing, really. I mean, if they didn’t run because they were busy putting together some innovative passing game, fine. But they haven’t done that, not for sustainable stretches, just flashy bursts.
Would I like to see the Lions make a bold grab for Antonio Brown, the Steelers’ disgruntled star receiver? For the right price, sure. But you know what actually makes more sense? A bold grab for Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers’ disgruntled power back, although neither is likely to happen.
We know what Quinn has said repeatedly, that he needs to toughen the Lions’ trenches, power over pretty. The Patriots do it a lot more than people realize. Patricia reiterated the plan in a rare moment of clarity after the season.
“You know what’s interesting?” he said. “Watch through the playoffs. Most of the teams that win are teams that run the ball and win the big games in the end. … The passing games are certainly dynamic, the spread offenses. But there is a fundamental philosophy that I do believe, with the run game and stopping the run.”
This isn’t some Patricia-Patriot secret sauce, either. What do defensive coaches stress before every game? Stop the run.
For years, the Lions basically stopped themselves. Bevell isn’t going to wow people with his game plan, just as Patricia doesn’t wow people with his strategy, although it was increasingly effective with an undermanned defense this season.
Will Bevell make it work? Impossible to guess, but we know the pass-heavy, stat-bloated Stafford approach wasn’t working. If you’re not ready to believe in this Lions’ regime yet, understandable, although you have no choice. Instead of betting everything on Stafford, they’re now betting on themselves, and the plan they know.