Friday, March 05, 2010

Offense Close to Being OK, But Lions Better Off Focusing on Defense

In producing a list of the all-time great NFL quarterbacks, anyone who knows a lick about pro football wouldn't have Terry Bradshaw anywhere near the top. A sane-minded individual wouldn't put Bob Griese up there, either.

The list would include, in the upper echelon, Francis Tarkenton and Danny Marino and Jim Kelly. Hell, probably even Dan Fouts.

You wouldn't risk being portrayed as a buffoon by including Trent Dilfer or Mark Rypien. Or even Doug Williams, with all due respect.

Yet Bradshaw is a four-time Super Bowl winner. Griese won it twice. Dilfer and Rypien have champion's rings. Same with Williams.

But Bradshaw had an average arm and didn't possess any extraordinary skills. Griese was mobile and precise but not overpowering in stature. Dilfer was mediocre, Rypien serviceable. Williams was big and strong but erratic.

Now compare that to the skill level of Tarkenton and Marino and Kelly and Fouts.

Bradshaw and Dilfer, especially, played on teams glorified for their defenses. Same, to a degree, goes for Rypien and Williams. Bradshaw, for example, would sometimes only attempt 10-12 passes a game, because his punishing running game and the abusive "Steel Curtain" defense didn't require much more from the offense than 14 points a game for the Steelers to win.

Now you have some ammo the next time someone tries to con you into thinking that defense doesn't win pro football championships.

It's been relegated to cliche, and painted as a myth; fool's gold, even.

Yes, it can be hackneyed, but that doesn't make it any less true.

The Lions had a scary offense in 1995, and for a change I mean that it was scary for the opponents, not the fans.

There was the whirling dervish, jitterbug running back Barry Sanders looming in the backfield on every snap. The wideouts were the highly competent Herman Moore and Brett Perriman. Johnnie Morton was a solid No. 3 receiver. The tight end was the promising David Sloan. One-hit wonder Scott Mitchell slung the ball to them, to the tune of over 300 completions and more than 4,000 yards.

The Lions ended the '95 season with a seven-game winning streak, finishing 10-6 and ready to take on the world.

But they couldn't even handle Philadelphia.

The Eagles torched the Lions' defense in the playoffs to the tune of a 58-37 demolishing that wasn't nearly as "close" as that score would indicate.

The trouble with that 1995 Lions team of the dazzling offense wasn't scoring 30 points; it was trying to keep the other guys from scoring 31.

Some normally sound thinking ink-stained wretches around town, like the Free Press' Michael Rosenberg, have tried to make the case that loading up on offense is the quickest way for the Lions to attain respectability. That may be true; in fact, it may even be likely.

But if the Lions want to kick through the glass ceiling of respectability, and reach for championship sky, they must repair their broken defense.

Coach Jim Schwartz has buttered his bread on the defensive side of the ball all of his coaching life, just about. So it should have been no surprise that he was camped out on the driveway of DT Kyle Vanden Bosch, not WR Nate Burleson, when free agency began at 12:01 this morning.

Literally, camped out.

"I could be anywhere in the world right now," Schwartz told Vanden Bosch via cell phone as the coach's car idled in his former pupil's drive. "But I'm here because you're the guy I want."

This is according to Vanden Bosch, who related the episode to a Tennessee radio station.

Schwartz knows that if his team is going to blow past respectability in the left lane of the NFL freeway and head for the Super Bowl, he needs the horses on defense. It's also why the Lions, despite the signing of free agent Burleson, seem to be focused more on "D," trading for Cleveland DT Corey Williams and targeting a DT with their No. 2 overall draft pick.

Safety Louis Delmas, coming off a strong rookie season, is much like QB Matthew Stafford. Just as Stafford needs a running game and blocking and a second option to go with WR Calvin Johnson, so does Delmas need pieces to the defensive puzzle.

Delmas needs a pass rush. He needs cornerbacks. He needs solid linebacking play. I have a feeling Delmas is a player that the Lions will build around, defensively. So give him some help.

Enter Vanden Bosch, and Williams, and probably the No. 2 overall pick.

If the Dolphins had given Dan Marino, during his 16-year career, a running back and a halfway decent defense, Miami would have been Super Bowl champs again, and maybe more than once.

Rosenberg and others who think like him are on the right track; the Lions of 2009 appeared to be closer to respectability on offense than anywhere else. And if 9-7 and 10-6 is OK with you, then God bless you.

But if you want a parade down Woodward Avenue honoring the Honolulu Blue and Silver in the near future, don't forget the D.

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