The promising 4-and-2 start for the 2004 Detroit Lions has now, over the course of three weeks, turned into a 4-and-5 nightmare as the Lions have suffered their third-straight defeat. With the losing streak, Motown's mid-October hopes of a possible playoff birth and long-shot divisional title run have become miniscule at best. The saddest thing of all is that the two people most responsible for the current slump are the same two people who were pegged as the duo to lead the Lions to the NFL mountaintop just a season and a half-ago.
Steve Mariucci and Joey Harrington now stand together at the crossroads of a relationship that began nearly two years ago. What happens to their team over the course of the next seven games will likely go a long way to determining if that relationship will continue into next season.
Mariucci and Harrington have both shown an inability to get into any kind of rhythm in either the playcalling or playmaking departments. Neither have been able to give the Lion offense any kind of consistency with which to improve upon. As a result, the play of the entire team has begun to slip across the board.
There are plenty of fans and media members who have been lamenting over the trials and tribulations of Joey Harrington. While I have some questions and opinions about Harrington myself, I have just as many about Mariucci. So to avoid piling on Harrington this week, I will concentrate instead on a critique of the Lions' head coach.
Game Management, Playcalling and a Rudderless Offense
The most important skill that a modern day NFL head coach must possess is the ability to manage their team on game day. From play-to-play, series-to-series, quarter-to-quarter and half-to-half, they must anticipate their team's potential down-and-distance, field position and play selection, as well as their team's timeout and injury situations. If any question or problem should arise during the course of a game on any of these issues, the head coach must have the ability to make the correct decision at a moments notice. This is where an NFL head coach really earns his money. It is also where a great NFL coach gets separated from an average or poor one.
As many of you know, it has become a recurring theme of my 2004 columns to point out what I consider to be a series of questionable game management and coaching decisions by Steve Mariucci. Unfortunately, last Sunday's 23-17 road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars proved to be no exception. Here, in order are those questionable decisions:
The first came on the game's opening drive when Detroit faced a 4th-and-2 from the Jacksonville 28-yard line. From that spot, the Lions could opt for a 45-yard Jason Hanson field goal try and a potential 3-0 lead, or they could attempt to gain those two yards against a tough Jaguar defense to keep the drive alive. Mariucci chose to go for it and on the ensuing play Cory Schlesinger dropped Joey Harrington's pass, ending the series and blowing yet another scoring opportunity.
Why didn't Mariucci opt for the field goal try? Maybe I'm in the minority, but I always feel it's a must to get on the scoreboard first in any football game, let alone an NFL contest. Scoring first immediately places the pressure on your opponent by making them play catch-up and it gives your team the confidence that comes from an early lead. In the NFL, points are precious and any opportunity to gain an early advantage on the scoreboard is essential, especially when your team is on the road. In going over the game on Monday, I kept thinking that somewhere once I had heard or read a statistic that backed up my feelings. I was right. In preparing for this article, I found the following statistic:
From 1999 through the end of the 2003 season, teams that score first in regular-season NFL games are 823-432-1, which is a winning percentage of .655 (1,256 total games).
So there you have it - The team that scores first in the NFL goes on to win nearly two-thirds of the time. Trying the field goal in that situation would have been the right thing to do. Sure maybe Jason Hanson would have missed it from 45-yards out, but I contend a missed FG early in a game is less of a momentum changer than a failed fourth-down conversion.
As it turned out, Jacksonville took over on downs and marched right down the field on a 7-play, 72-yard drive, taking the lead on a 12-yard TD pass from David Garrard to LaBrandon Toefield. . . . Momentum Jacksonville.
Does it even need to be mentioned that those potential three points would have been the difference in the game at the end of regulation?
The next decision, or in this case the lack of one, came with 2:34 left in the game with the Lions trailing 17-10. Detroit had just sacked Jaguar QB David Garrard on third down to force a punting situation. With all three timeouts remaining, Mariucci inexplicably allowed the Jags to burn 34 seconds off the clock and take the game to the 2:00 warning.
Why wasn't a timeout called by the Lions to stop the clock and save those 34 precious seconds? A football dolt would know to call a timeout in that spot! It is simply inexcusable for a coach on the professional level to let that kind of a mental lapse occur when your team is trying to come from behind.
Then, after another brilliant punt return by Eddie Drummond to the Jacksonville 38-yard line, Mariucci, with three-timeouts burning a hole in his pocket, called four-straight passing plays. Those plays gained a total of five yards and burned a mere 21 seconds off the clock.
Hey coach, here's a suggestion for future reference: When you've got three timeouts and are only 38 yards away from the tying score late in a game; for the love of Barry Sanders, Billy Sims, Dexter Bussey, Steve Owens, Doak Walker and Dutch Clark could you PLEASE CALL A RUNNING PLAY!
A Draw! A Sweep! A Dive! An End Around! A Inside Trap! A Buck Lateral! A Statue of Liberty! Anything! Just call a damn' running play!
"Hell no!" says the coach. "Let's just throw a 5-yard pass to a back, three-straight incompletions, and then give the ball back to the other team and let them try to run out the last 1:22 of regulation. Then I can show up once again at Monday's press conference and talk about how we need to be patient with the running game."
I'm sorry folks; this kind of garbage is the coaching equivalent of Three Mile Island. I hope I'm not the only one that is alarmed by this.
All I can say is Thank God the defense (who forced a three-and-out) and electrifying Eddie Drummond. By the way, Eddie should be given major credit for doing what was once unthinkable . . . making people actually forget the legendary Mel Gray.
It all boils down to this: Steve Mariucci, Detroit's offensive playcaller and chief decision maker, has failed this season. His weekly-declarations about a dedication to the running game have yet to show up on game day, as his number one running back Kevin Jones has yet to carry the ball 20+ times in a game. While it's clear that Joey Harrington's confidence and play is at an all time low, it's also clear that Steve Mariucci has done little if anything in the way of X's and O's to help his offense get into any kind of rhythm. Are the Lions a running team or a passing team? They are neither, and it is not due to a lack of talent or injuries. That is an excuse. This offense has no identity because the guy who calls the plays has yet to give it one.
There are no bread and butter plays in the Lions' arsenal. This offense still lacks imagination and aggressiveness. Where are the downfield throws? Where are the spread formations? Where are the rollout passes? Where are the waggle plays to the tight end? Mariucci's Lions just simply line up in the same tired formations, week after week, run the same plays and hope that it all just starts to click somehow. It is apparent that as the season has gone on, opposing defenses have dialed into the Lions' tendencies.
Would New England's Bill Belichick and Charlie Weis have this offense, with all its injuries and supposed lack of talent, sputtering this badly? How about Denver's Mike Shanahan? Kansas City's Dick Vermeil? Baltimore's Brian Billick? Tennessee's Jeff Fisher? Pittsburgh's Bill Cower? Philly's Andy Reid? St. Louis' Mike Martz? How about Arizona's Dennis Green? The list goes on and on.
If Steve Mariucci is ever going to lead the Lions to a Super Bowl title, he will likely have to defeat one or more of the above coaches head-to-head along the way. Maybe I'm in the minority but I think when it comes to offense, each of the men listed above can coach circles around Steve Mariucci.
Steve Mariucci's Lion offense is not progressing, it is regressing. With each successive three-and-out, the burden on the Lions' defense grows that much larger; so it shouldn't be a surprise that they are now starting to crack too. When you combine Detroit's offensive woes with a laundry list of game management blunders and an overburdened defense you have what you have now, a 4-and-5 team on the brink of total collapse.
What was once a promising start for this group of talented, opportunistic players has turned into a stumbling stretch run where they are now all fighting for their football lives. Can the Detroit Lions turn their season around? Sure. Stranger things have happened.
Just don't hold your breath; you might turn Honolulu Blue while waiting.