Auf Wiedersehen Gunther Cunningham

December 18th, 2012

Lions Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningam


Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
On the heels of the embarrassing loss in Arizona, I’ve been ruminating on what can be done to get the Lions pointed in the right direction going forward. Falling from the playoffs to 4-10 and getting thumped by a team that lost 58-0 a week earlier dictates that changes must be made, and those changes must go beyond the shuffling of players. Someone has to take the fall for the Lions’ own fall. I strongly feel that person should be Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham.

There are a number of reasons for this. Foremost, the defensive system he has installed and clings to is just not effective any longer. The Wide-9 technique by the defensive ends is a major reason why the Lions run defense struggles. While that technique comes straight from Head Coach Jim Schwartz, Cunningham deploys it with liberal abandon. Opposing offenses know how to counter it; there’s a reason why the only other team to run it beyond 3rd and long situations is the Eagles, who fired their defensive coordinator for having the exact same problems. Its ineffectiveness is exacerbated in Detroit by the strong, oft-undisciplined penetration of the tackles, who also play “rush the passer” by design on every nearly every down. The ends continually tack upfield and are easily taken out of the play, leaving huge lanes for draw plays, dumpoff screens, or quarterbacks to slide forward and either run or have a clean throwing lane down the field. This has been a problem all year, but it really stood out against Arizona and their lowly regarded rookie tackles. Lawrence Jackson, Cliff Avril, and Kyle VandenBosch did nothing against Nate Potter, a greenhorn left tackle that wouldn’t be the 4th tackle in Detroit.

As anyone who has read my ramblings here or at RealGM knows, the chronic lack of awareness by the defense eats at me like a school of hungry piranhas on an overboard fisherman. This is absolutely a coachable issue, but Cunningham has done nothing to effectively address it. Defensive backs can be taught to read receiver body language to get a clue if the ball is coming. Linebackers can be taught to peek back without breaking their downfield responsibilities in coverage. Coverage schemes can be altered so that not every defensive back seven player might be forced to have his back to the quarterback, which happens far too frequently with this group. Players and coaches from the sideline can scream “Ball!”, a tactic every 8th grade football team in America knows but is apparently lost on the professionals in Detroit. Sometimes the solution can really be that simple; if the refrigerator isn’t working, the first thing you do is check if it’s plugged in. Cunningham and his assistants are more concerned with saving the milk and where they’re going to put the cheese instead of looking for the simple solution. I’m not saying it’s a panacea, and it’s a regression of football development that will draw divisive reactions form some players, but they have to try something. Thus far, they have not. The players themselves bear no small portion of the blame here, but it’s the primary function of the coaches to put the players they have in the best situation to succeed. Gunther Cunningham has not done that with his scheming or his teaching.

More pragmatically, it’s a more feasible move. Cunningham will be 67 soon and has been coaching for over 40 years. He’s had a very long, very laudable, very successful career. He perhaps could be persuaded to retire, with a golden parachute to help ease the sting of being forced out. With so many impending free agents on defense, it’s a good time to bring in a fresh coordinator. Players that might be more of a priority for Cunningham’s scheme (say, Willie Young or Justin Durant) might be less desirable for a new coordinator running a different scheme. That doesn’t even mean a radical change to a 3-4 front either, though I would consider it given the talents of Suh and Fairley as potential 5-technique ends and a re-signed Levy and Tulloch roaming the inside backer spots. A new coordinator will bring more diversity, fresher concepts, and different looks to the NFC North offenses that have consistently torched Cunningham’s troops for the last few seasons. With any luck, a self-aware VandenBosch will sail off into the sunset graciously as well, but that’s for another column.

At this point I do not advocate replacing Jim Schwartz. While I am increasingly skeptical of his ability to get this team beyond the relative success of 2011, and while I strongly question his ability to instill discipline in his players both between the sidelines and off the field, I think Schwartz gets another season to prove himself. He has forged a defined team identity and has shown he can rally the troops and match up creatively, none of which are easy for first-time head coaches. We may not always like the identity Schwartz has forged, but the key players on the team have bought in and disrupting that risks more harm than good at this point. I’m ambivalent on Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, who has produced some truly astonishing results with the offense but has consistently struggled to get consistent play from both Matt Stafford and the running game. Defensive assistants Kris Kocurek (DL) and Tim Walton (DBs) have done little to distinguish themselves and could get the axe with Cunningham without reservation.

I never like calling for coaching changes. I know some of these men, and I know how invested they are in their jobs. Nobody wants to see them fail. But when the team fails as miserably and spectacularly as the 2012 Detroit Lions, changes must be made. This was a better team on paper than the one which made the playoff a year ago, a deeper squad with the experience of winning in their corner, and they hold the 4th worst record in the league after 14 games. Gunther Cunningham should be the unfortunate sacrificial lamb for this unbearably unraveled season.

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