Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
The Lions have been quite active on the transaction wire in the wake of their disappointing playoff performance in Cleveland. Four new defensive players have joined the team since Thursday.
Technically, tackle Justin Bannan signed before the Browns game started, but nonetheless he will be lumped into the mix. Fellow tackle John Drew, corner Rashean Mathis, and linebacker Rocky McIntosh are all new Lions. Gone are youngsters Braylon Broughton, Conroy Black (we hardly knew ye), Trevor Coston, and Carmen Messina. None of those players were apt to survive the first round of cuts that follows the next preseason game anyways.
There is a much larger issue at play here. Several issues, actually, but this will focus on one main point. Teams shuffle the bottom of the roster all the time in preseason. But Mathis and McIntosh are most certainly not bottom of the roster players, and Bannan isn’t either. All three of those guys should be expected to land firmly in the 2-deep depth chart. McIntosh could conceivably start over preseason disappointments Ashlee Palmer and Tahir Whitehead at one of the outside backer spots. Mathis likely supplants Ron Bartell as the veteran outside corner. Bannan immediately becomes the 4th defensive tackle, a spot that will see up to 20 snaps in some regular season games.
When teams are signing guys off the street and they can play such prominent roles on the defense, that’s not a good sign. It means the talent level just isn’t strong enough to compete. There are a variety of reasons why the Lions defense needs these imports. Recent draft picks like Whitehead, Ronnell Lewis, Doug Hogue (remember him?), Chris Greenwood, Amari Spievey, even going back to Jordon Dizon and A.J. Davis, have consistently failed to pan out. Injuries have hindered Bill Bentley, Jonte Green, and others. Similar veteran signings like Bartell, Erik Coleman, and Jusstin Durant have failed to produce the desired impact.
Many Lions fans will blame GM Martin Mayhew for these failures. Mayhew absolutely deserves some heat, but my finger points down the chain of command to the coaching staff. Head Coach Jim Schwartz and Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham have consistently failed to develop talent or put the talent at hand in the best position to succeed. Because of that, Mayhew is forced to sign veterans to cover up holes that shouldn’t be so deep.
I am a firm believer that there are three types of coaches. There are motivators, there are teachers, and there are schemers. That’s a generalization and simplification, but just about every coach leans strongest in one of those three realms. If you look at the successful franchises, most staffs feature a blend of coaches and coordinators of each type. Take the Packers as an example; Head Coach Mike McCarthy is an offensive mastermind but foremost he’s a teacher. Look at how well he has developed talents like Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, and Jordy Nelson. Former Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin leaned into the motivator mold while also being a solid schemer, and the same is true of his successor Tom Clements. Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is a pure schemer, and a great one at it for a long time.
Now look at the Lions. Jim Schwartz is probably best described as a motivator type of coach. His tactics and results are questionable, but at the end of the day his best asset as a coach is the ability to push players. Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham is a schemer as well as a player-friendly kind of motivator. Meanwhile, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan is predominately a schemer. None are teachers, and it shows. Go down a rung to the assistants. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek spews expletive-laden fire as a motivator, though he happens to be a strong teacher. Notice that the defensive line is the strongest unit. The two other teaching presences on recent staffs, wideouts coach Shawn Jefferson and secondary coach Tim Walton, are both gone. This franchise sorely lacks a strong teaching presence.
It is indicative of a team that lacks a firm commitment to player development. Schwartz has become increasingly impatient with later-round picks that aren’t quite ready for NFL prime time. This year Schwartz has no choice, because if he doesn’t produce tangible and consistent improvement he won’t get another season. It shouldn’t have come to that. This is also indicative of a fundamental disconnect between the scouting and personnel department and the coaching staff. The scouts, some of whom I know and greatly respect, are not doing a good job of finding players that Schwartz and his underlings can incorporate. Drafting developmental athletes doesn’t make a lot of sense unless the coaching staff is proven adept at actually developing them. Mayhew and recent personnel executive additions James Harris and Brian Xanders have failed to connect those dots. Contrast that with a team like Cincinnati, which has its scouts look for similar types of college players. They have an exceptional commitment to player development with coaches like Mike Zimmer and Paul Alexander, and it shows. Their athletic project draft picks pan out at a far better rate. The Baltimore Ravens are another example; GM Ozzie Newsome understands what his coaches can and cannot do, and he gets them players who will fit into that template.
Is this perhaps my dramatic overreaction to a humiliating preseason loss? Maybe. But I would argue it’s just as much a dramatic overreaction by Schwartz to show his true desperation. His own failures as a coach are forcing him to make wild moves. I actually really like picking up McIntosh; before injuries slowed him down the last couple of years he was very good for Washington in doing exactly what the Lions will ask of him–reliably crashing the gaps and playing well in coverage. If Mathis has anything left, and I’m not sold he does, he brings a playmaking mentality that this coaching staff is desperately trying to foster across the defense. Bannan is a nice value as a 4th defensive lineman, although youngster Jimmy Saddler-McQueen has played pretty well in both preseason contests and this likely pushes him off the game day active roster. Drew is a true desperation stab, an (stop me if you’ve heard this before) athletically gifted project with past personal baggage that other teams weren’t willing to stomach.
The larger point of picking up these players and needing them to perform at levels that totally belie reasonable expectations for player who, for one reason or another, were deliberately left unemployed deep into training camp is depressing. It’s a culmination of poor cohesion between personnel and coaching, poor composition of team components, and an embarrassing defeat at a time where the coaching staff cannot afford any more of those. Count me now in the camp that believes Jim Schwartz might not even survive the regular season. Martin Mayhew could very well join him in exile from Allen Park. Judging by the panicked signings, to address the better unit on the team no less, those two men are keenly aware that owner Bill Ford might be in that camp too.
Tags: Ashlee Palmer, Gunther Cunningham, Jim Schwartz, Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, John Drew, Justin Bannan, Kris Kocurek, Martin Mayhew, Rashean Mathis, Rocky McIntosh, Ron Bartell, Scott Linehan, Shawn Jefferson, Tahir Whitehead, Tim Walton