A game that was supposed to be a measuring stick for a rebuilding franchise turned quickly into an embarrassment last Sunday, as the Philadelphia Eagles ran roughshod over the seemingly overmatched and overwhelmed Detroit Lions.
The sad thing was is that the game was lost before the clock even started.
Detroit head coach Steve Mariucci and his defensive coordinator Dick Jauron were completely humiliated last Sunday by their counterparts, Philadelphia's Andy Reid and Jim Johnson, respectively. In front of a home crowd and a national TV audience, Detroit played close to the vest offensively and defensively from the opening kickoff, while the Eagles slammed their foot on the throttle and never let up.
After both teams exchanged offensive possessions, the Lions got the ball offensively for the second time at their 20-yard line. After a 1st down pass to Tai Streets from 8-yards and three-consecutive running plays which gained a combined 13-yards, Detroit faced a 3rd-and-2 from their 41.
At this point, Steve Mariucci reached into his bag of tricks to pull out one of the strangest play-calls of his Detroit tenure. As Detroit moves to the line of scrimmage, Lions tight end Stephen Alexander splits out wide, all alone, at the top of the screen. At the snap, Joey Harrington immediately zips a pass to the stationary Alexander, who catches the ball and is immediately swarmed under by Eagle SS Mike Lewis and SLB Dhani Jones.
The swashbuckling play gains one-yard, leaving the Lions with a 4th-and-1, and on comes Lion punter Nick Harris to punt the ball away once again.
If anyone can think of a more ridiculous play selection against an aggressive and speedy Eagles' defense than that one, please let me know. No quick-out, no play-action, not even a quarterback sneak. Instead, Mariucci decides throw the ball to one of the slowest players in the Lions' offensive stable, making him a stationary target to boot.
Did Mariucci think that this play would catch the Eagles off guard, or was he still following his pre-planned script of 15-to-20 plays? Regardless, it was a peculiar decision that set the tone for the entire afternoon.
Not to be outdone in the play-it-safe department, Dick Jauron's "Bend-But-Don't Break" defense snapped like Tim Krumrie's leg in Super Bowl XXIII on the Eagles' ensuing possession. Philadelphia began their drive by marching 87-yards in 6 plays, picking apart the Lions' passive zone defense with competitions of 6, 25, 5, 48, 4-yards, respectively, giving themselves a 2nd-and-Goal on the Lions' 5-yard line.
Then it got worse.
As Eagle wideouts Terrell Owens and Todd Pinkston came to the line for the next play, Lion cornerbacks Fernando Bryant and Chris Cash inexplicably gave them a 5-yard cushion by lining up on the goal line. It was as if they both corners were saying, "Here's the end-zone fellas! Come and get us!"
Was I the only one at this point who was wondering why, just five yards from the endzone, Detroit's CB's weren't up on the receivers to at least try and give them a jam on their release? Hell, if you're gonna play this soft, why not just get your extra-point team on the field a couple of plays early to warm-up for a snap or two before the real PAT takes place.
I'm sure Andy Reid was laughing on his tubby insides like Woody Woodpecker when he saw Cash and Bryant line up the way they did. It was no surprise to me when Todd Pinkston went right at Chris Cash, setting him up with a double move. It also didn't surprise me when a penalty flag hit the turf, after Cash grabbed Pinkston out of his break, setting the Eagles up with a 1st-and-Goal on the 1.
Two snaps later, Donovan McNabb scored on a QB-sneak . . . and the rout was on.
Jauron's defensive calls made the Lions' defensive backs and linebackers sitting ducks all afternoon. Fernando Bryant was lined up nearly ten-yards off the ball at the snap on Terrell Owens' 29-yard scoring catch less than a minute later. That TD was set up when Joey Harrington fumbled on the Lion 21 while scrambling from the Eagle pass-rush that would remain in his face for most of the afternoon.
Everyone knows that Terrell Owens is one of the NFL's premiere receivers but, like Minnesota's Randy Moss, isn't it a fact that the best way to play Owens is to get up in his face and challenge him with physical play? When Owens and Moss are played aggressively quite often they become frustrated and distracted, taking them out of their comfort zone. Fernando Bryant is a big boy isn't he? Why not a least give your big off-season free agent cornerback a chance to challenge Owens man-to-man, instead of expecting him to keep up with T.O. after spotting him a ten-yard head start? Instead, Jauron forced his best pass defender to play football euthanasia.
The most galling thing about the whole defensive game plan was that the Lions remained in it for the entire game. Even after falling behind 14-0, Jauron refused to allow his defense to become the aggressor. Instead, the Eagles third TD drive, which culminated with a 1-yard TD pass from McNabb to TE Mike Bartrum, looked like something reminiscent of the Nazi Blitzkrieg slicing through France in June of 1940. For you Lion-sadists out there, here is the drive's box score:
Drive: 12 plays, 87 yards in 7:28
McNabb 14-yard pass to Westbrook on 3rd-and-12 to Philadelphia 25
McNabb 13-yard pass to Lewis to Philadelphia 38
McNabb 16-yard pass to LJ Smith on 3rd-and-4 to Detroit 40
McNabb 14-yard pass to Mitchell on 3rd-and-8 to Detroit 24
Westbrook 23-yard rush to Detroit 1
For the Eagles, it must have been like stealin' candy from Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers after Dick Jauron had placed him in a straight-jacket.
I don't want to hear about how the Lions have injuries and a lack of depth. It's a cop-out for bad coaching. If the Lions' coaching staff feels that they are so undermanned, at least be the aggressors and go down fighting. How hard would it be for Jauron to turn young, fast, talented guys like Shaun Rogers, Cory Redding, Teddy Lehman, James Davis and Alex Lewis loose to attack the line of scrimmage by blitzing and stunting? You can be sure that if Jim Johnson was coaching the Lions defense, they wouldn't resign themselves to a slow death like Jauron did last Sunday. To force the Lions' young defenders to just drop into soft zones and let the Eagles pick them apart is an insult to their abilities as NFL players and competitors. It is an even bigger insult to do it to established veterans like Dan Wilkinson, James Hall, Earl Holmes, Fernando Bryant, Brock Marion and Bracy Walker.
I could go on-and-on about the defense but I won't. There are other fish to fry.
Harrington: The Good . . . and the Ugly
I thought that considering the fact that his offensive line was destroyed by the Eagles' pass rush, his head coach didn't open up the offense until the Eagles led 21-0, and he played most of the game without his starting running backs, Lion QB Joey Harrington played a pretty good game. Harrington is playing the best football of his career right now. His overall numbers this season and his play down the stretch in the Lions first two victories bear that out. He and Roy Williams managed to keep last Sunday's game from becoming an absolute debacle. Their second touchdown, with Harrington delivering the ball in the face of an Eagle blitz and Williams breaking three tackles in route to the end-zone, was one of the most memorable Lion touchdowns since the days of Barry Sanders.
However on one play, Joey made a decision that was totally unacceptable for any QB, in any level of football, who has hopes of leading his team to a championship. On a 3rd-and-13 play midway through the 3rd quarter, with the Lions trailing 24-7, Harrington scrambled upfield to avoid the Eagle rush and then, with two Eagles closing in, he choose to slide . . . eight yards short of a first down.
It was a terrible decision by Joey, one that he can never let happen again.
Hurry-Up Offense . . . and Hit the Showers
Did anyone find it strange that the Lions never used a hurry-up offense once during the game? Even after falling behind 21-0, 24-7, 27-7, or 30-7, they never went to it. They just continued to huddle-up and waste valuable seconds. They played like they were nursing a lead instead of trying to overcome one. There was never any urgency at all displayed by the offense. It was embarrassing to watch that kind of melancholy effort at the professional level.
Don't blame the Lions' players for having their lunch money stolen from them last Sunday, blame Steve Mariucci and Dick Jauron. They and their staff were completely out-coached by the Eagles. If you coach scared, it's only natural that your team is gonna' play that way.
Maybe this weekend, Mariucci and Jauron can make a trip together to the Land of Oz to get a dose of courage. It would only be fair to their players if they did.