Quinn likes Lions' backfield, but open to upgrading

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions running back Theo Riddick

Allen Park — At his introductory news conference, Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn stated the most important evaluation in football is knowing your own team. So after a year on the job, why does Quinn feel the 2016 Lions fell short?

“You can go right to the league stats and say, ‘Where did we finish in running?’” Quinn said. “I think it was what, 30th in the league in rushing. That’s not good enough.”

Quinn mentioned some other statistical shortcomings, including third-down defense, and it’s easy to highlight other areas where the Lions are lagging behind the competition, but the ground game continues to stick out like a sore thumb.

The general manager’s recollection of the rankings was spot on. Detroit finished 30th in yards, last in attempts, 27th in yards per carry, 26th in rushing touchdowns and 28th in gains of 10 or more yards. Beyond quarterback Matthew Stafford’s surprising improvement in mobility, there was little that went right for the team’s run game.

It goes without saying, injuries were a big part of the problem.

The Lions ran the ball with impressive efficiency in the season opener, a 39-35 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick combined for 108 yards on 19 carries in the victory.

Abdullah looked the part of a feature back the next week as well, until disaster struck. Reversing field on a 24-yard scamper, he suffered a broken foot that would end his season. It was the first time since he began playing football that Abdullah missed game action due to an injury and was an admittedly difficult blow to overcome for Quinn.

“It’s frustrating when you sit in my seat that you build a team and then you have your starting running back go down in the second week of the season,” Quinn said. “It’s hard to replace one guy that you think is going to carry the ball for a couple hundred times a year when he’s gone. We did our best, and that’s not an excuse because every team goes through injuries. My job is to replace those players if they go out and we have to do a better job.”

Detroit’s issues compounded as injuries limited Riddick, as well. He missed two weeks with a high ankle sprain that continued to hamper him a month after he returned to the lineup. And when the ankle was no longer an issue, he suffered a wrist injury that cost him the final five games, including the playoff loss in Seattle.

When the duo is healthy, combined with Zach Zenner and rookie Dwayne Washington, Quinn still believes he has a sufficient backfield. But if an opportunity for an upgrade presents itself this offseason, the general manager won’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

“Listen, I’m always looking to upgrade,” Quinn said.  “That’s what my job is, I think the players understand that. I think the number of new players that we brought in this year and the number of guys we tried out and worked out, I think it was eye-opening to a lot of people. My eyes are always open. If we can get somebody better, then great. But do I believe in Ameer and Theo and Zach and Dwayne Washington and Mike James? I do.”

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Abdullah’s health will be key. While it didn’t cost him playing time, he also had shoulder surgery last offseason. Now, it’s the foot. While durability wasn’t a concern coming out of college — where he carried the ball more than 800 times for Nebraska — it must be considered now.

“The injuries in this league happen to every position and I’d say running back is probably at the top of that list,” Quinn said. “We have to get durable guys. Ameer’s injuries have been legit injuries. These aren’t just like little ticky-tack injuries that he ends up missing more time than we expect. It’s hard to predict, but it’s also my job to create the depth behind them.”

And it must be noted, improving the run is far more than the backs. Quinn’s shopping list is extensive. He’ll be on the lookout for upgrades along the offensive line and at tight end and receiver, as well. Without quality blocking and consistent lanes, it doesn’t matter who is carrying the ball.

“I think you can go back to the Cowboys, and everyone writes about their great offensive line and they have a great running back,” Quinn said. “Well, they also have a really good blocking tight end and they also have a pretty good fullback when he’s in there. I think it takes 11 guys on the offensive side of the ball to run the football.”

Twitter: @justin_rogers