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In Motown, No Man is Safe in the New Era
Joey Lafferty - LionsFans.com
Ed Note. This Article Was Written Prior To Batch's Benching
Much press has been dedicated this off-season to the fine line Detroit quarterback Charlie Batch will be walking as leader of the new West Coast Offense this season. Will he flourish under the new system? Will he be benched before the bye week? The interest shown by the new leadership, team President Matt Millen and Head Coach Marty Mornhinweg, in several potential starting quarterbacks (Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbach, etc.) was evidence enough that any comfort zone surrounding Batch during the Ross era is just as far removed from the Motor City as Ross himself. Big contract or no, Charlie Batch will only finish the 2001 season as the Detroit Lions quarterback if he truly deserves it... there is no mistaking that point. Millen and Mornhinweg are not sentimental. They care about their players but will not hesitate to hurt feelings if that's what it takes to make this a better team.
This is why Detroit players at every position, not just Batch, had better realize the guillotine stops only for those who prove their worth in the new schemes of Mornhinweg and Defensive Coordinator Vince Tobin.
A close inspection of what the skill position players have to offer on the offensive side of the ball reveals that, in terms of personnel, the Lions could very well have a very different look come 2002. Make no mistake about it, James Stewart, Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton, David Sloan and many others are all walking that fine line with the man calling the plays in the huddle.
The West Coast Offense is executed in various styles by the numerous teams (about half of those in the NFL) that employ it. Still, there are certain universal elements that, when present, really make it work as intended. For one, the WCO relies upon quick strikes from quarterback to receiver, who must then be able to amass yards-after-the-catch (YAC). Not many wide receivers can excel at this, as doing so requires dependable hands, precise route running, and most importantly, the athletic ability to create once the catch is made. One can certainly envision Germane Crowell benefiting from such a scheme, lacking only the consistent hands to be considered the ideal prospect for Detroit's new offense. As Crowell logs more time on the field, which would require that he stay healthy, he should improve in this area and perhaps better his 1999 numbers. If he does, in fact, reach this level, there is no reason to believe he won't be welcomed back for many more years of the Millen era. Johnnie Morton is well known for his attention to detail, and it shows in his route running. Although he seems to pull in the tough ones more often than the should-be routine snags, he is still a relatively reliable receiver. What Morton lacks is game-breaking size and speed. Although dedicated to keeping his body in lean, muscular form, there is only so much power Morton can pack onto his smallish six-foot frame. Furthermore, Morton has always had average to above average speed, at best, and considering that he is now entering his eighth NFL season, it stands to reason that Mornhinweg could anticipate the coming downside of Morton's career, where good route running alone will leave him of little value to the West Coast Offense, and look to replace him with a bigger, younger, and faster compliment to Crowell. That's a difficult one for Lions fans to swallow, as Morton has been with the team through many peaks and valleys, never causing in-house turmoil, never embarrassing himself or the team off the field, and never coming to camp in less than top physical condition... but it's like I said: Millen and Mornhinweg aren't sentimental, and they're not here to protect feelings.
Two other grizzled vets also figure to be out of the plans in 2002 unless they show something entirely unexpected this season. Number three wide receiver (only starting week one because of Crowell's lack of field time due to injuries during the preseason) Herman Moore, a player who has bent over backwards over the years whenever asked by management to restructure his contract when the team was pressed with cap concerns) has seen his numbers shrink considerably over the last two seasons. Nearly thirty-two years old, Moore has size, keeps himself in good shape, but now constantly battles injuries and has lost any separation speed that he once had. He's Terrell Owens with bad hamstrings and without the burst. In other words, unless he finds a groove with Batch similar to the one present when Scott Mitchell was at the helm, allowing him to use his size and experience to again make himself an asset, he is of little use to Mornhinweg and his offense. A player always more identified with his potential than his production is seventh year tight end David Sloan. Sloan topped out with forty-seven receptions in 1999 while enjoying a rare injury free season, making the NFC Pro Bowl squad more out of a lack of quality competition than anything else. As Sloan again enters the regular season injured (broken hand), and considering the fact that the accumulated injuries have made his already stiff body more like that of a fifteen year player than a seven year vet, it appears highly unlikely he'll ever become a West Coast Offense-type tight end. The WCO, an offensive philosophy that often utilizes two tight ends, works best with quick, flexible tight ends who can not only find openings in zones and make catches in traffic (Sloan is not known for his hands), but also consistently beat linebackers and safeties in coverage. Quite simply, David Sloan cannot and will not provide this for the Lions. If the new regime keeps him around, it will either be because he shows something new this season, or because they too fall into the trap of projecting Sloan's "potential" into actual results. Don't look for it to happen.
The moment Marty Mornhinweg was named Head Coach, Lions fans everywhere began to wonder if James Stewart could possible fit into the WCO, the philosophy sure to accompany the new boss as he ventured to Motown from San Francisco. After all, Stewart was signed by Bobby Ross to come in and be the anti-Barry Sanders, hitting holes provided by gargantuan offensive linemen, dared to even entertain thoughts of running east or west. It almost seemed as though this combination could be used in an SAT question. "James Stewart is to the WCO as... oil is to water." Stewart's running style could not mesh with Mornhinweg's style, no way, no how... could it? If you believe the new boss, sure it could. Mornhinweg has been saying all the right things throughout the preseason. Stewart is actually pretty quick. He's agile. He can catch! The ideal West Coast running back can break the game open at any moment. He's quick enough to make guys miss, but not so small that he comes down at first contact. He is sure handed enough that the quarterback is always comfortable throwing to him, either as the primary option or as the last option when no one else is open. Despite his politically correct statements, Mornhinweg would not have been so intent on finding a quality third down back if Stewart could handle the job himself. You see, passes to the running back are much more likely catch defenses off guard when a "third down specialist" isn't required for such plays to be pulled off effectively. Stewart certainly has power, and he is a bit quicker than most backs considered power runners, but does anyone recall Stewart breaking off a long run of any kind? He's decent at breaking tackles, but he'll never be mistaken for Earl Campbell. He has some agility, but Marshall Faulk he is not. Yes, Stewart can be good in the WCO, but as Millen pointed out prior to the draft, the Lions need playmakers. They need guys who can turn a play designed to gain five to ten yards into long touchdowns. James Stewart is not that kind of player.
The West Coast Offense has saturated the NFL. The brainchild of Bill Walsh, this philosophy saw its first success with Joe Montana's 49ers of the '80's, and the number of players who thrived within this system is enormous. At running back, think Roger Craig, Dorsey Levens, Charlie Garner, Edgerrin James, Ricky Watters. At wide receiver, think Terrell Owens, Jerry Rice, Rod Smith, Tim Brown. At tight end, think Mark Chmura, Brent Jones, newcomer Chad Lewis in Philadelphia, Tony Gonzalez. At quarterback, think Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Steve Young. All of these players have attributes that act (or acted), in a sense, synergistically with the WCO to take both the system and their level of play to a whole new level. Unfortunately, many of these attributes are absent in Detroit's skill position players.
As mentioned above, Millen made it clear before the draft that the Lions are badly in need of playmakers, prompting speculation that Miami's Santana Moss would be the Lions pick if available when they selected. Batch, Stewart, Sloan, Moore, and Morton, all career Detroit Lions except Stewart, will all be given a chance to show they can thrive in the WCO. Just because they don't fit the prototype, that doesn't mean it can't work (i.e. the Raiders did just fine using Wheatly and Kaufman as a 1-2 punch out of the backfield last season). However, none of their contracts are structured such that cutting them loose after the season would do irreparable damage to the cap. Translation: Perform, and do so convincingly. Millen and Mornhinweg now run the show, and they mean business.