Sunday, June 04, 2006

If Quantity Equals Quality, Lions' Passing Game Will Shine Under Martz

Today’s NFL quarterbacks wear wristbands filled with pass plays, running plays, and plays to call with two minutes or less remaining. They are printed, on the plastic-covered band, in small type for easy reference, yet the QBs still have to look to the sidelines, or at least rotate their heads until their radio-filled helmets can tune in the signal from the play-calling wizards upstairs. Heaven forbid they call upon one of the wristband plays on their very own.

When we played street football, our play-calling was bounded by lamp posts and fire hydrants and parked cars. And the quarterback used those landmarks, along with a finger traced along his palm, to distribute the pass patterns for his teammates to run.

“Kenny, you go to the blue Lincoln, then cut sharp to the left. Chris, take it to the hydrant, stop, then curl back.

“Eno, you go long.” The gridiron equivalent of rightfield.

Football wasn’t my sport.

The Lions have been holding some of those mini-camps in Allen Park, and their new quarterbacks are getting their fill of pass plays. More than can be traced on a palm, or even listed in agate type on a laminated wristband.

Mike Martz is the Lions’ new offensive coordinator, and he’s one of those play-calling wizards. Genius is a word overused in sports, a world not known for its restraint when it comes to superlatives. People who know about such things frequently have called Martz a genius. Maybe it’s true, in a relative manner. Around here, if the coordinator calls a pass play on 3rd-and-8 that is designed to get eight yards or more, that man is a genius. Maybe even a savior – another of those overused sports words.

According to Nicholas Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press, Martz had about 160 passing plays installed for the Lions’ first mini-camp, last month. He has about 240 ready for the current mini-camp.

That’s 400 ways to say “Hut-hut!,” fade back, and look for a receiver. How many wristbands does that equal to?

The voluminous amount of plays aren’t Joey Harrington’s to learn anymore. The Lions are off in another of their “different directions” when it comes to the quarterback position. They have 400 passing plays, and have taken about that many different directions in the past 42 years of Bill Ford’s ownership. Every direction, of course, except up.

Mike Martz: Genius du jour

The learning of the plays is now up to Jon Kitna. Or Josh McCown. Or Dan Orlovsky. Kitna says he’s the starter until told otherwise. McCown thinks it’s anyone’s job. Orlovsky is happy to be here – and thinks he can be the play-learner if need be.

Regardless, it’s Martz – the genius/savior – who must somehow cram nearly half of a thousand passing plays into the helmet-encased heads of three players he barely knows, and do it within a few months.

There’s evidence that it’s not an impossible task.

Mike Martz better be a genius in the same way as Einstein – not in the sports vernacular.

Martz took over the offense of the St. Louis Rams in 1999. He was working with an Arena League castoff and other nobodies, and in his first season he turned Kurt Warner into Johnny Unitas and the Rams went 13-3 with the NFL’s #1 offense and won the Super Bowl. And this was one season after the Rams went 4-12 and ranked 27th in total offense. Then, in 2001, the Rams made it to the Super Bowl again – this time with Martz as the head coach. A genius promoted. The Rams’ offense even had a catchy nickname: The Greatest Show On Turf.

“I think he’s [Martz] just trying to throw it all out there, see what we can handle,” Kitna told the Freep.

“The volume is up there, but that’s why it’s so good. People can’t get beads on it on defense.”

It’s not the defense that Lions fans are worried about. They want to make sure their quarterback can get “a bead” on it.

And there’s evidence that THAT’S an impossible task.

No championships since 1957. One Pro Bowl quarterback since then (1972, Greg Landry). Mostly popgun offenses that have scared nobody on defense, and everybody who follows Lions football. Five yard passes on the aforementioned 3rd-and-8.

Mike Martz better be a genius in the same way as Einstein – not in the sports vernacular.
But the Lions, at least, saw what they needed, honed in on who they wanted to provide it, and persisted until Martz said yes. They did it all during the whirlwind courtship except bring a dozen roses and a box of chocolates to his doorstep.

Harrington tried the quarterback school for a couple of days in March, and decided he’d be happier elsewhere. Maybe it was the hundreds of passing plays that scared him off. Maybe it was the new head coach, Rod Marinelli. Whatever it was, Joey is gone now, a Miami Dolphin. And, to show that God has a sense of humor, the Dolphins are the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day opponent this season. Better yet, the projected Dolphins starter, Daunte Culpepper, has a gimpy leg. The rest I leave with you.

So the Lions are going to cram plays into the helmeted head of Kitna, 33 and a castoff of the Cincinnati Bengals, of all teams. And into the cranium of McCown, younger but a castoff of the Arizona Cardinals, of all teams. That the Lions are going into their season with two guys who were unwanted by two teams with an even more inglorious past than their own, is typical in its absurdity, and delicious in its irony.

But that’s okay. Mike Martz is an offensive genius, don’t forget. If 400 passing plays doesn’t convince you of that, then I don’t know what will.

Of course, it’s not whether Martz is a genius that will determine the fate of the Lions’ offense in 2006. It’s whether his quarterbacks are. Even Einstein couldn’t teach the theory of relativity to a bumpkin, I wouldn’t think.

No comments: