Sunday, July 05, 2009

For First Time In Decades, Lions Seem To Have A Plan

It’s deliciously ironic that the last time the Lions had a semblance of a plan, it was designed by a moon-faced, cigar-smoking oaf of a coach.

One fall Sunday, back in 1988, owner Bill Ford levied one of the worst indictments any owner could on his football coach.

He had just seen his team get creamed once again, another mercy killing in a season careening out of control, and he gave the reporters a rare postgame analysis.

“We’re losing,” Ford said, “and we’re boring.”

It wasn’t long before the coach, Darryl Rogers, was shoved out the door.

The Lions of 1988 showed up at every Sunday gunfight with a penknife.

The offense was slow, plodding. The aerial attack was virtually non-existent, matched only by the nearly invisible running game.

It reminds me of a classic line by that crack-up/coach John McKay.

“We didn’t block,” he said about his Tampa Bay Bucs after another beatdown, “but we made up for it by not tackling.”

The Lions of ’88 couldn’t pass, but made up for it by not running.

Bill Ford was spot on: They were losers, and they were boring.

And the Silverdome was half-empty on Sundays, which also hastened Rogers’ canning.

Ford handed the keys to his Edsel to defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes with five games left in the wasted season.

After managing two wins in those five games—both against the nearly-as-woeful Green Bay Packers—Ford ripped the “interim” part off Fontes’ label and made him a full-fledged NFL head coach.

The jolly, maudlin Fontes may have projected a clown-like persona, but he had some ideas.

He had a plan, in fact.

The owner was right about the boring part, so why not un-boring things up a bit?

Fontes, during his five-week audition, managed to hire an offensive guru named Darrell “Mouse” Davis. Mouse espoused something called the Run-n-Shoot offense, in which anyone who wasn’t a lineman or the quarterback was a wide receiver.

Fontes’ order to Mouse was simple: Don’t be boring.

So Mouse scurried into town, his playbook and head filled with passing patterns and player movement and all those little receivers running all over the field.

It was a quantity-over-quality theory. The Lions weren’t blessed with talented pass catchers, but Mouse and Fontes (sounds like a vaudeville act) figured that if they sent as many of them into the secondary as the rules would allow, they might get lucky.

And the Lions, at least, wouldn’t be boring.

Wayne Fontes had a plan. For sure. He lucked into drafting the jitterbug running back Barry Sanders in his first draft. He picked up some more receivers, still not filled with talent but a little better than what he inherited from Rogers.

Then, in 1990, Fontes moved on to Phase II of his plan.

He had the run part down in the Run-n-Shoot offense with Sanders. He just needed a straight shooter.

Fontes chomped on his cigar and gave us that big Portuguese smile as he announced the drafting of Andre Ware, the gunslinger from the University of Houston.

Ware didn’t turn out to be a straight shooter, after all. His passes had a funny habit of drifting from their intended targets.

So Ware didn’t work out, but Mouse and Fontes plugged away. Eventually, Mouse left the Lions, mystified, but Fontes kept at the Run-n-Shoot, trying to emulate the success the Houston Oilers were having with it.

The Oilers, of course, had much better pass catchers. And a straight shooter, indeed, in Warren Moon.

That helped.

Fontes may have been a lot of things that weren’t so great, but he was the last Lions coach who had a plan and actually set about to implement it.

Until now.

The Lions' braintrust of (from left) GM Martin Mayhew, coach Jim Schwartz, and President Tom Lewand seem to have their ship headed in the right direction

There’s nothing clown-like or jolly or ostentatious about Jim Schwartz. He comes to the Lions with a defensive background, but that’s where the similarity to Wayne Fontes ends.

Oh, except in the plan-having department.

The Lions—and here’s where you need to fasten your seatbelt and make sure your tray is in the upright position—have a direction now. And it’s not just coming from the coach’s office.

It’s a cop out to say that, just because the Lions finished 0-16 last season, things simply can’t get any worse and that anyone would look better following such a lousy act.

To a degree, that’s true.

But Schwartz, the new head coach, and Martin Mayhew, the promoted general manager, are beginning to tantalize me with their approach to getting the Lions out of this sticky, gooey mess that they were served up upon their hiring.

Mayhew first impressed me last October, when as an interim (that word again) GM he fleeced the Dallas Cowboys—shaking them down for a first round draft pick for the confounding receiver Roy Williams.

He impressed me again when he nabbed All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson for the overrated lineman Cory Redding.

The plan was simple, but not any less effective, if done right.

The Lions, Mayhew said, must get faster, stronger, and bigger.

So that’s what he’s setting about to do.

Aside from acquiring Peterson, Mayhew has smartly signed some free agents and made other, lower-profile trades. I say smartly because he’s not simply throwing money at his problem. He’s grabbing a mix of grizzled and younger veterans who fit into the overall scheme.

He’s doing it in lockstep with Schwartz, who displayed confidence in his job security by hiring experienced men to lead his offense (Scott Linehan) and defense (Gunther Cunningham)—two former NFL head coaches.

Mayhew was a Matt Millen disciple, which is like saying someone learned about racial equality from the Ku Klux Klan. But Mayhew is proving, to me, that he must have left Millen’s office rolling his eyes on many an occasion, overruled but not out-witted.

Mayhew seems to have a handle on this whole personnel thing. He made a couple of terrific draft picks—again, my opinion—in tight end Brandon Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas.

He’s giving Schwartz, through other pickups, some halfway decent NFL players with which to work—enough, I suspect, to at least keep the Lions from being laughed at from sea to shining sea; until Mayhew can go back to the store and get some more provisions.

I haven’t seen this kind of level-headed, competent approach to putting together a Lions football team since Fontes tried the Run-n-Shoot to complement his hard-hitting defense.

Fontes’ teams won a little bit, and certainly weren’t boring. In that way, he accomplished his mission.

Schwartz and Mayhew. Doesn’t sound so much like a vaudeville act, does it?

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