It May Seem Strange, but Lions are Improving

Judging from what some disbelievers are whining and writing, the Lions' 0–7 record is a sign the team is an unmitigated disaster. Many of these same people think Marty Mornhinweg's approach to the situation is, um, a bit weird.

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Judging from what some disbelievers are whining and writing, the Lions’ 0–7 record is a sign the team is an unmitigated disaster. Many of these same people think Marty Mornhinweg’s approach to the situation is, um, a bit weird.

So what? Want weird? Watch Steve Logan, head of East Carolina U. That guy’s downright bizarre. At least he SEEMS that way.

Desperate to watch someone other than a Lions’ opponent win a game this Fall, I turned to ESPN2’s Tuesday Night College Football Game of that particular Weekday. Normally, I am not compelled to watch college football, but the Lions were 0–6 at the time.

Logan’s Pirates had already built up a hefty first half lead of about 20 points on the home team, Texas Christian University. Now the young coach was calmly, perhaps dourly, watching TCU get back into the game, a score or two at a time.

I noticed this peculiar coach looked like I felt: I didn’t care who won. As long as it wasn’t somebody the Lions were playing.

Logan never said a single word to anybody the whole second half. Instead, he seemed to spend the time crouched down over on his ankles, about 10 yards along the sideline from where his team stood. Alone.

Once in a while, after a TCU completion, he’d look down the at the opposite end of the field from where the ball was in play and put on his headset. He wouldn’t say anything or nod. He was just listening. Then, he’d take the ear goggles off again and crouch down to watch some more.

Assistants would call plays and order people in, I believe. Others would stand by huddle up with the various units. Not Logan, though. Or if he did break his self-imposed exile, the camera didn’t show it. And no one, not even refs, dared come within a couple of yards of him to break his concentration.

I watched Logan cup his chin in his hand and hold a finger or two across his brow, his face almost expressionless. His eyes, the whole time, stared unblinkingly at the field, possibly seeing the lead almost, but not quite, evaporate.

You know, in his serenity, it looked like the coach didn’t seem much to care, one way or the other. But his team won.

Then I realized I’d seen that expression before. Logan’s a regular Phil Jackson, NBA Zen Master.

What’s Zen got to do with Mornhinweg?

For a football coach, Mornhinweg is not weird. He’s new. And because of that, he’s different to anybody the Lions and their fans have grown used to.

Mornhinweg’s also young. In some eyes, that’s bad because he’s trying new things that may seem alien to long-time Lions Fans.

And, because he’s in his first head coaching gig, he’s making some rookie mistakes. Any would be forgivable if the team boasted a winning record, these are disproportionately magnified by the dismal mark of 0-for-the-season.

Hmmm. All that sounds familiar to what Phil Jackson once did in Chicago. At first blush, the weird guy with no appreciable results freaked out a certain round-baller named Michael Jordan. It took a while, but they eventually got the team on the same page and it was Title Time.

Now much of the parallel ends there. The Lions’ superstar, Barry Sanders, is long-retired. Many on the roster are, to put it politely, past their prime or beyond their salary-cap value level. Thus, it may take a draft or two to stock the team with the types of players who know what’s what and do what’s needed. In the meantime, which is the only time, we can see what the future will hold.

What’s like the Zen Master Jackson, Mornhinweg thinks outside the box, both on offense and defense. It’s in his nature to try new things in order to discover better ways of doing things. Even if it means trading a fourth-round draft pick for an old hand QB, or developing a rookie QB on the road.

This demonstrates Mornhinweg understands a most import principle of pro football: You’ve got to take risks to get the team where it needs to be — at the head of the pack.

Just the facts, man.

Those not easily swayed by rhetoric might consider: As of Saturday, Nov. 3, 2001, the Detroit Lions offense was ranked 8th in the NFL, averaging 331.5 yards per game; that’s 4th in the NFC, behind St. Louis, San Francisco, and St. Favre. The Leos were rated 6th in passing in the NFL, actually are ahead of Green Bay in passing, 278.7 to 261.3 yards per game (YPG).

That all changed after the embarrassment in San Francisco, however. This step back may be blamed on mixing the signal callers. But, then again, there were what? Nine offensive series, TOTAL, and six were three-and-out. In them, Johnnie Morton uncharacteristically drops three passes in one series alone. Larry Foster shows he’s a player who needs to correct one fault when he drops a first-and-goal pass late in the game.

After Game 7: The Lions total offense dropped to 21st in the NFL, now at 302.9 YPG. However, we find around the dark cloud a Honolulu Blue & Silver lining.

We also see the Lions are ranked 9th in NFL with 1,762 total passing yards, or 251.7 YPG. That’s truly good news for Lions Quarterbacking: Most teams ahead of the Lions have eight games under their belt. Others with seven are St. Louis and Indianapolis, pretty fair passing teams. Green Bay also has seven games, but they’re situated as the 10th in passing yardage. Go by YPG, and the Lions are ranked 4th! Glory be!

What’s more remarkable for the "passing" success: The overall offense stat includes the Leos’ measly rushing game, averaging 76.6 YPG, ranked last in the NFL. LAST. This is not exclusively the running back’s fault. Most of the offensive line has not lived up to even the worst pre-season estimations.

I know, I know. Figures lie and liars figure. And stats can prove any argument. But, please consider how truly remarkable the passing numbers are, considering how awful the passing game has been for most of the past 44 years. And therein is the bottom line: It may be hard to notice with all the noise about 0–7, but the Lions passing game is becoming respectable.

Awake, Lions Fans, and cheer! Arise and hold up your heads, proudly! What we have been waiting all these long decades for is here! Professional cheerleaders rooting: "WE’VE GOT A PASSING ATTACK! WE’VE GOT A PASSING ATTACK!!!"

Now who do you think we Lions Fans have to thank for the turnaround in the passing game? Not Charlie Batch or Ty Detmer. It’s the Zen-like Marty Mornhinweg.

Support your local guru.

So, the offense is improving. When was the last time we could say that? That’s where Barry Sanders came in, upon his enlistment into the Detroit Lions with the third pick in 1989 draft. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen too many RBs worthy of laundering Sanders’ jersey since then, either on the Lions or anywhere in the league.

No, Marty Mornhinweg is providing exactly what the Lions need — a quality offensive system. For now, he obviously does not have all the players he wants. But he’s trying. And whatever he’s doing, it’s working — WCO players or not.

Mornhinweg said the question he asks the coaching staff is: "Is he the kind of player who can help the team win a championship?" A few players clearly are or are not. The difficulty comes in separating out the majority who fall in the middle. That’s a tough job for anyone, especially a rookie head coach.

There really is no comparison, offensively, to last season. While still ranked toward the bottom of the league, the team now converts third downs with a pass, sometimes, with a run, other times. Last season it was pretty much all James Stewart, all the time.

You may also see the change in the Lions game from the pre-season to last week. Especially on the offensive side, the team has improved from game to game. While the D gave up TD in bunches before the O started to click after the first few games, the D has started to stabilize. Special teams let the team down against Tennessee, but rebounded against Cincy.

Sooner or later, Mornhinweg’s entire team will all be on the same page. He and GM Matt Millen won’t have it any other way.

Good thing Zen’s on our sideline

Now call me a Homer or call me a Leo-yanna. I don’t care which. I do know Mornhinweg deserves our support in this process. You may or may not join me in supporting him. This, still, is a free country.

Now, while the fans may or may not give the head coach their support; the team OWES Mornhinweg their support. They’re well-paid professionals and the coach represents the ownership, the management, and the team itself. If a player is loyal, he will listen and respond. Especially once he understands what the coach is trying to accomplish.

Some evidently are listening. They will be around. And they are welcome. Just three examples of the team work that means so very much:

1. Deep in the secondary, Free Safety Kurt Schulz stops pursuing a receiver and starts to clap his hands when he sees Robert Porcher level the 49ers QB early in the game. Many would never notice such a small gesture.

2. From on top of the pile, Fullback Corey Schlessinger makes the extra effort to get as much forward progress as possible and reaches out to downs the ball on the opposing player’s backside. It’s a game of inches, they say.

3. On the sideline, Rookie QB Mike McMahon tells Guard Brendan Stai not to worry about an offsides penalty on the sideline. It’s important to stick up in small ways.

And while each of these little moments means next to nothing, in terms of the outcome, taken together, they demonstrate many players on the team are taking what Mornhinweg says to heart. And once the coach’s approach to teamwork becomes habit, winning will follow. And it, too, will become a habit.

What’s so weird about that?

Successful people today are those who think outside the box. Those like Phil Jackson, who’ve reached the top of their profession, lift the cover and step out of the box to explore a new and unexplored universe. There they pursue their passion and find, study, then understand the deep, yet obvious, stuff like Zen, the Buddhist philosophy that often brings individual enlightenment.

Some in the Silverdome have heard the Zen koan that asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Why just last week, I thought I heard that sound after a botched field goal or two.

Koans are riddles designed to get acolytes to wonder, and think and know. Perhaps more suited to the Lions, and Mornhinweg’s unique coaching approach, are the question posed to one Zen master: "How do you change the world?" Silently, he lifted a finger.

Well, Lions Fans know that Mornhinweg will have to do more than lift a finger to turn around 44 years of momentum toward mediocrity. To prove he’s the right guy for the job, Mornhinweg will have to ruffle some feathers, from the locker room to the front office to the cheap seats where I watch.

From there, I remember another Zen koan which says: "Know a grain of sand in its entirety, and you’ll understand the universe." For Lions Fans, substitute "football" for "grain of sand" and "Super Bowl" for "universe." You, too, may see what Mornhinweg’s all about — winning.

That’s not weird, at all. It’s just different for the Detroit Lions.

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