Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece advocating that Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham get fired. While the prospect of Cunningham being the sacrificial goat for the incredibly frustrating and disappointing season is still up in the air, we got a glimpse into the mind of Head Coach Jim Schwartz about who is not the goat.
Late this past week, Schwartz offered a pretty strong measure of support for Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan. This was widely viewed by the general Lions population with scoffs and sarcasm. But if you listen carefully to what Schwartz said and put it in the context of how it was said, I agree with the head coach 100%.
“I think he’s done a great job. An offensive coordinator’s job is to put guys in position to make plays, and I think that, over the course of the season, we’ve been in good position to make plays.”
Schwartz is shedding a lot of light here. First, he’s laying out what he expects from his offensive staff. He wants schematic designs and creativity, setting up the players to do their jobs as best as they can. While that’s essentially true for most coaches, they seldom say so with such clarity. The NFL is a result-oriented business, and Schwartz is admitting here that it’s the responsibility of the players to produce the results, not the coaches. It’s a subtlety, but an important one. Form is as important as function to Schwartz. This is the same macro mindset of Marty Schottenheimer and Jeff Fisher, to name two coaches. Note that those men are renowned for failing to translate regular season success and talent-soaked rosters into playoff success.
I believe he is absolving Linehan from the rash of injuries that tore apart the receiving corps. Nate Burleson was a much more consequential loss than most fans realize. Ryan Broyles filled in admirably but was clearly a rookie, and when he went down it was brutal. Combine that with Titus Young’s recalcitrant stupidity–he’s on IR because he’s mentally deficient, not with the alleged knee injury–and wide receiving options 2, 3, and 4 were removed from the offense. Brandon Pettigrew, who saw the second-most targets of any tight end in 2011, was in and out of the lineup and hasn’t played since Week 13.
Linehan did a masterful in designing plays and formations to get Calvin Johnson open despite not having another legit NFL receiver on the roster for the last month. Johnson set the single season receiving yardage record last week, and he should pass the 2,000 yard mark in the finale against Chicago. Matt Stafford is about to become the first QB in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards more than once, and he’ll do this in back-to-back seasons. Those are truly remarkable numbers, and those accomplishments are not possible without excellent scheming and adjusting to teams overplaying Johnson, often in unprecedented fashion.
Moreover, the running game has been better than advertised. Detroit will finish in the middle third in yards per carry and scored a higher percentage of touchdowns on the ground than all but two other teams. Mikel Leshoure emerged as a great red zone runner, while Joique Bell will average per five yards per carry in an increasing role. Linehan designed several plays to take advantage of first round pick Riley Reiff as an extra tackle, and the Lions were very successful running in those formations. Linehan incorporated several end arounds and elaborate fakes that showed a creative flair and an attuned eye to the opposing defenses.
That’s not to say Linehan doesn’t deserve some blame. Stafford is going to shatter the NFL record for most passing attempts, and often the run game disappeared for prolonged stretches even when the inconsistent Stafford was struggling. The red zone passing game was predictable and largely ineffective, particularly with Johnson being such a physical beast and getting just 3 red zone TDs. Too many third down throws went away from Johnson as well, something that drove many fans crazy late in the season.
I am going to read between the lines here, but I’m very confident in those lines. Schwartz went out on a public limb for Linehan. He did not do that for Gunther Cunningham. He did not do that for Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman, who has been on borrowed time for weeks now. The timing of his support is not insignificant, either. If changes are going to be made, and I will be absolutely stunned if there aren’t firings, they will be made quickly after the season ends tomorrow.
I do not at all expect Jim Schwartz to be fired, but I do expect him to have to make changes. Danny Crossman is as good as gone already, but special teams coordinators know they live on a perpetual carousel. There will be blood beyond Crossman. And with Schwartz hitching Linehan to his wagon, it makes it very likely that the bloodlust will be sated with Gunther Cunningham and his assistants on the defensive side. If any changes are made to the offensive staff, the likely scapegoat is QB Coach Todd Downing, while widely respected WR Coach Shawn Jefferson could be in line for a bigger role elsewhere.
The quotes in this story are courtesy of the Detroit Free Press