COLUMN: Injury Excuses Won't Suffice For Lions

Injuries Are No Excuse: Deeper and More Talented Lions Must Produce in 2004

Let's get right to the first point.

With or without Charles Rogers, the 2004 Detroit Lions offense possesses the most talented group of players on that side of the ball since 1995. For those of you who don't remember, at that time the Lions had WR's Herman Moore, Brett Perriman, Johnnie Morton, rookie TE David Sloan, some guy named Barry Sanders, and QB Scott Mitchell. While I am by no means comparing this year's group to that ‘95 group, this 2004 unit isn't chopped liver by any stretch.

Unlike last season, when WR's Az Hakim and Bill Schroeder and TE's Mikhael Ricks and rookie Casey Fitzsimmons were the best Lion receiving options after Rogers went down in the fifth game; this season Joey Harrington has WR's Roy Williams and Tai Streets, and TE Stephen Alexander to go along with holdovers Hakim and Fitzsimmons. Add into the mix first-round HB Kevin Jones and a healthy Artose Pinner to go along with Shawn Bryson, and the Lions clearly have no excuse this year if their offensive struggles continue.

There is no reason why Harrington, the above group of skill players, and a healthy front line led by LT Jeff Backus, RT Stockar McDougle, and free agent RG Damien Woody cannot put at least two touchdowns on the board every week this season.

However, there are two things that concern me about the offense after week one. One involves Harrington while the other involves head coach Steve Mariucci.

Harrington Must be More Consistent

Flashback to Sunday afternoon, 10:15 left in the 3rd period. The Lions lead the Bears 10-7 when Lion DE James Hall forces a fumble on Bear QB Rex Grossman, which is recovered by Shaun Rogers at the Bear 41. Soon the Lions, helped by a 39-yard catch-and-run by Kevin Jones off a pass from Harrington, have the ball 1st-and-goal on the Chicago 6. After a 1st down run of -1 yard by Jones and a 2nd down incompletion to Alexander, Detroit is facing a 3rd-and-goal from the 7.

A pass is called. Harrington takes the snap, drops three steps and with little to no pressure from the Bear pass rush, hurries through his progressions and dumps the ball off to his safety-value Alexander, who gains only four yards before being driven out of bounds at the 3-yard line by Chicago's R.W. McQuarters and Lance Briggs.

On the replay of the 3rd down pass, as Harrington is throwing to Alexander, you can clearly see Tai Streets coming clear along the backline of the endzone because Chicago's Brian Urlacher hadn't dropped deep enough into his coverage. As was pointed out by Fox TV color-man Brian Baldinger, if Harrington would have waited another half-second in the pocket (remember he had plenty of time to do so), Streets would have been open for the TD.

Instead, the Lions have 4th down and are left to settle for a 27-yard FG by Jason Hanson to extend their lead to 13-7, instead of a potential 17-7 lead.

While I fully admit that Harrington looked great later during Detroit's 4th quarter game-winning drive which culminated with a 4-yard TD strike to Az Hakim, that missed opportunity on 3rd down a quarter earlier is indefensible for a  quarterback with Harrington's experience. You can get away with those kinds of mistakes against a team like the Bears, but they will come back to haunt you against the Vikings and the Packers.

Those are the kinds of plays that separate the elite QB's from the average QB's, until Harrington begins making them routinely, the Lions offense will continue to sputter.

Mariucci's Game Management (or Lack Thereof)

What I consider even more bothersome than Harrington's all too frequent rush to find his outlet receiver, are Mariucci's blunders in game management. These will also come back to haunt the Lions in a big game in the near future if they aren't addressed.

The first instance came during the 3rd quarter, when the Bears regained possession at their own 14-yard line. After a false start, the Bears are facing a 1st-and-15 at their 9. On the next play, Chicago OG Ruben Brown is flagged for holding, seemingly negating a 5-yard gain by Bear HB Anthony Thomas to the 14. The penalty, if accepted, would move the Bears back the familiar "half-the-distance-to-the-goal," giving Chicago a 1st-and-19 from inside their own 5-yard line.

The decision is clearly a no-brainer. You take the penalty and back Chicago up against their goal line. If the Lions defense can hold, you could put Chicago in a very precarious punting situation from deep inside their endzone. When you consider that the Lions already had blocked a field goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown in the first half, the decision to accept the penalty becomes even more crystal clear.

It's a no-brainer, right coach?

Apparently, not when you're coaching the Lions; inexplicably Mariucci decides to decline the holding call, instead giving the Bears a 2nd-and-10 on the 14, instead of 1st-and-19 from inside the 5.

At this point, like most of you, I was saying "What the hell is he doing!" Apparently, Mariucci was confused as well because, despite declining the holding penalty, it appeared as though Mariucci expected the ball to remain at the 9. How do I know? Well, while I'm not an expert lip reader, I could clearly see when playing back the tape Mariucci pointing and asking the referee, "How come it (meaning the ball) is not back there?"

After likely being told that his decision to decline the holding penalty let the Thomas gain stand, the coach clearly mouthed the words, "Oh S#*t!"

Later, in the final period, after the Bears had regained the lead at 14-13, Mariucci again misplaced his Coaching 101 manual when faced with a decline/accept decision on a Bear infraction. After a change of possession, the Lions were called for a delay of game penalty on first down (By the way, how you get a delay of game on the first play of a drive is beyond me), which put the Lions at 2nd-and-15 at their 46. On the next play Kevin Jones carried 8-yards to the Bear 46, however Chicago DT Tommie Harris was called offside giving the Lions a choice between 1st-and-10 at the Chicago 49, or a 2nd-and-7 at the Bear 46.

Again, it seems to me that with only a three yards difference in field position between declining the penalty and accepting the penalty, you would take the extra down and start fresh with a 1st-and-10 at the Chicago 49.

Naaw! That would make too much sense. Coaching 101 clearly states that you decline the penalty and give your offense a 2nd-and-long situation when trailing by point on the road in the fourth quarter against a division rival.

One last thing that has seemingly gone unnoticed was the Lions decision to waste a timeout immediately after coming out of the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. Remember at that point the Lions were facing a punting situation from their own endzone before Lion punter Nick Harris took the intentional safety to cut Detroit's lead to 20-16.

Couldn't the decision to take the intentional safety been made during two-minute warning's TV-mandated commercial break?

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think that timeouts are football's equivalent of gold. They must be saved at all costs until you really need them. Suppose the Lions subsequent free-kick had been returned for a touchdown by R.W. McQuarters (McQuarters did actually return the ball 37-yards to the Lion 47). The Lions would have needed that wasted timeout at that point, down 23-20 with less than two minutes to play.

With or without Charles Rogers, the Lions have at least .500 talent this season. With their schedule and the improvements they made to the roster over this past off-season, to expect anything less is giving this franchise unneeded concession. It's time for the fans of the Lions to expect payment on three-consecutive seasons of gridiron garbage. With that in mind, if this team is to ever make a serious push into the NFL's elite class, both the Lions' coach and franchise quarterback must produce on a higher level than they did last Sunday in Chicago.

Only then will this franchise and its long-suffering fans be able to truly look forward to lifting the albatross of 1957 from around their collective necks.

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