Instead, Mornhinweg's head coaching career began with a long losing streak. And his West Coast Offense, honed at the knee of masters such as Mike Holmgren and Steve Mariucci, has sputtered. The defense, left for the most part in the hands of former Arizona Cardinals head coach Vince Tobin, has been a major disappointment. Oh, and have there ever been mistakes. A zillion of them. Or so it seems. Especially penalties at inopportune times.
Some of these mistakes can be traced directly back to Mornhinweg. At the head of the list: His decision to start Ty Detmer at quarterback vs. Cleveland in the second game of the year. Detmer reacted by throwing seven interceptions in that game. By the start of the third quarter of the Lions' next game vs. St. Louis, Charlie Batch was returned to his rightful spot as Detroit's starting QB.
Lions on Offense
The Lions were trailing 31-6 early in the third quarter of their fourth game this season at Minnesota. And up until that point, a period of more than 14 quarters, the Lions had scored exactly one offensive touchdown. Then it happened. Batch, the Lions' much-maligned quarterback, seemed to suddenly catch onto Mornhinweg's West Coast Offense. He threw three touchdown passes in the second half of that game, and finished with 345 yards passing overall, as the Lions' fell just short in a 31-26 loss.
It was Batch's career-best by far. He had never thrown for more than 277 yards in a single game before this season. Then Batch followed up his big game at Minnesota with a 338-yard, three-touchdown effort in another close loss, this time by a 27-24 count to the Tennessee Titans at home.
What happened? Mornhinweg thinks that when Batch was benched for a game-and-a-half, it helped him to see the big picture. It also gave his balky right knee, the one which bothered him throughout the course of the 2000 season, a little more time to fully heal. Batch was only on the bench for six quarters, but those quarters were spread over a month because of the week lost because of the terriorist attacks and a bye week.
In addition to Batch, the Lions have gotten excellent play from wide receiver Johnnie Morton and running back James Stewart. Stewart is a powerful runner north-south runner who does his best work on natural grass. Morton is quick, durable and sure-handed.
It was not a coincidence the Lions offense started to get untracked at the same time wide receiver Germane Crowell got healthy. He had been hindered by a leg injury which limited his practice time. But just as Crowell started to come on, he suffered a season-ending knee injury vs. Tennessee. Coupled with an earlier season-ending injury to veteran Herman Moore, it has left second-year pro Larry Foster as the starting wide receiver opposite Morton. He was an undrafted free agent from Louisiana State.
The Lions did sign veteran Bert Emanuel to shore up their receiving depth. Fullback Cory Schlesinger has been a pleasant surprise. He is exceptionally strong and has some speed. That makes him tough to bring down if he catches the ball in the flat. A young offensive line, led by rookie first-round draft choice Jeff Backus at left tackle, has done a respectable job of protecting Batch.
Key matchup to watch on offense
Lions wide receiver Johnnie Morton vs. 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer. Look for the 49ers to try to press Morton, who has not performed as well when pressed as he does when the cornerbacks play loose. Morton's bread and butter is the slant pattern.
How to beat the Lions' offense
The biggest knocks on Batch are his lack of mobility and the way he manages the pocket. He is not good when forced to improvise. His tendency to take unnecessary sacks irks Mornhinweg. He is a sitting target for a quality pass rush.
Lions offensive player to watch
Wide receiver Johnnie Morton has emerged as the Lions go-to player on offense. He is strong enough, and his hands are soft enough, to catch the shorter routes inside that net first downs, especially on third-and-long situations. Yet, Morton also has enough speed to get deep. He is a heady receiver who is in his prime and headed for another 1,000-yard season.
Morton likes to catch the ball in stride on slant patterns and then hit the seam in the secondary for yards after the catch. Mornhinweg's West Coast scheme seems to fit Morton better than any other player on Detroit's offense.
Lions on Defense
The Lions spend an inordinate portion of their salary cap allotment on defense, but it is not paying off. Injuries have been major reason why. The Lions began this season without starting safeties Kurt Schulz and Ron Rice. Both have since returned, but much of the damage was done.
Also, cornerback Bryant Westbrook has been out following surgery to repair an Achilles tendon rupture suffered late last season. Now the Lions are faced with the prospect of playing without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Stephen Boyd, who has a strained back. The good news from the Lions' perspective in that regard is that Boyd's replacement, third-year pro Chris Claiborne, is possibly an upgrade. A first-round draft choice, and the ninth overall in 1999, Claiborne had been forced to the weakside spot because of Boyd. Now he is at his natural position, the one where he earned All-American honors at the University of Southern California.
Claiborne is more physical than Boyd, who is more of tactician. He is also bigger and a tad more athletic. When Claiborne moved inside, he was replaced on the outside by Barrett Green, a second-round draft pick from West Virginia last season. Green is a bit undersized, but he has excellent speed and is a sure tackler.
Cornerback Terry Fair is the Lions best defensive back, while veteran Todd Lyght has held his own in place of Westbrook at the other corner. The defensive line is a strength. End Robert Porcher has returned to form after a subpar season in 2000. Rookie defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who slid to the second-round of the draft because of an ankle injury, has been brilliant. Luther Elliss, who has been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons, has not.
His performance to this point has been baffling to management, the coaches and Elliss' himself. He has been hindered by two separate injuries to his right elbow. He has bone chips removed from the elbow and missed most of training camp. Then he hyperextended the same arm. The Lions end opposite of Elliss, Tracy Scroggins, has also struggled this season.
Key matchup to watch on defense
Lions cornerback Terry Fair on 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens.
With Westbrook still on the mend from his injury, Fair is easily the Lions best coverman. He is much shorter than Owens, but that wasn't much of factor earlier this season when he held the Vikings' Randy Moss in check.
How to beat the Lions defense
The Lions do not have good speed overall on defense. As a result, they struggle against scrambling quarterbacks such as the 49ers' Jeff Garcia. They are also susceptible screen passes and draw plays.
Other than Fair, none of the members of the Lions' secondary runs well, so they can be beaten deep.
Lions defensive player to watch
When the Lions traded up to select Shaun Rogers in the second round of last spring's draft, they were fully aware it was a feast or famine pick. But it could not have worked out any better.
The ankle injury which knocked Rogers, who had been projected as a Top 10 selection, out of the first round, has not been a problem. After playing just 20 plays during the preseason, Rogers was thrust into the starting lineup for the season opener and has been the Lions' best defensive lineman since.
At 330 pounds, he is a massive man. Yet, he has the closing speed of a middle linebacker. He makes an exceptional number of tackles for an interior lineman. Although he is a rookie, Rogers has played well enough this season to merit Pro Bowl consideration.
Lions on special teams
Jason Hanson is one of the best kickers in the NFL. He has the leg strength to hit from far beyond 50 yards and rarely misses anything inside of 50. He is also an excellent kickoff man. Punter John Jett is steady. He has a relatively strong leg and kicks directionally well. Now in his 10th year in the league, Desmond Howard remains one of the top return specialists in the game. Howard is small and not extraordinarily fast. But he is a thinking man's player with exceptional aptitude when pressure is at its most intense.