Before the season, Jim Bob Cooter boldly proclaimed the Detroit Lions’ ground game would be improved.
“I know we’re going to run the ball more efficiently,” Cooter said in August. “I’m very confident of that. At the end of the day, I feel confident I have improved and I am improving, and that’s part of the thing. Also, feel good about our players, how much they’re working at getting the nuts and bolts, getting the fundamentals down.”
OK, maybe it wasn’t that bold, since it’s been forever and a day since that component of the team’s offense has been up to snuff. Not being bottom-10 would have been welcomed improvement. Still, it was easy to buy what the young offensive coordinator was selling, for a number of reasons.
First, Cooter’s honest self-assessment that his understanding of run offense was underdeveloped and his clear commitment to bridging that knowledge deficiency during the offseason. Ask those who’ve spent time working with him and they’ll rave about his ability to solve puzzles in the film room. Just knowing the issue had his attention bred easy optimism for progress.
Second, hope came in the form of the personnel. Running backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, while neither a wrecking ball workhorse primed to lead the league in rushing, looked to be a formidable dual-threat tandem the previous year, before injuries quickly derailed the promising potential of both.
And even without an offseason upgrade at running back, general manager Bob Quinn invested significant resources in the team’s blocking, signing offensive tackle Rick Wagner, guard T.J. Lang and massive tight end Darren Fells.
Everything was in place for marked improvement. Yet 11 games in, things have somehow regressed.
Last year, the Lions averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 81.9 yards per game. This season, that’s down to 3.4 yards per carry and 78.3 yards per game. Both rank 30th in the league.
As for the efficiency Cooter anticipated, the only thing the Lions have done consistently is get stuffed. This deep into the season and 31 percent of the team’s running plays are being stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage. That’s the worst rate in 12 years.
Asked to assess his role, as a play-caller, in those failures, Cooter shouldered the blame.
“Yeah, not good enough,” he said. “I need to improve. Our guys are working really, really hard. At the end of the day, it falls on my shoulders to improve every asset, every facet, of our offense. The run game is a major part of that thing and I’ve got to do a better job.”
Many fans complain that Detroit’s run calls are predictable, but that’s because teams run the ball in predictable situations. You run more frequently on 1st-and-10 early in the games, or when they’re leading late. You run when it’s 2nd-and-manageable and 3rd-and-short. You run when the defense only puts six defenders in the box, which many opponents do against the Lions.
Predictability is less of an issue than execution. The Lions struggle so much, especially on those early downs, that they actually run less, by percentage, than any team in the first half of games.
And here’s the thing: The NFL has undeniably morphed into a passing league. You’re not going to consistently win without quality quarterback play. Yet running the ball remains the heartbeat of success.
Look at the leaderboard and you’ll find it crowded with the division leaders. Jacksonville, Philadelphia and New Orleans — with a combined record of 25-8 — top the charts. Seven of the top 10 teams would make the playoffs if the season ended today. The bottom 13 teams would not.
Forget that Detroit has lacked a 100-yard rusher for more than four years. Sure, that’s eye-catching, but not nearly as troublesome as the fact they’ve topped 100 yards AS A TEAM twice this season, a year after accomplishing it just three times.
From an efficiency standpoint, the Lions offense manages to hover near the middle of the pack, thanks to the passing game. We are left to imagine the potential with a run game that was league average.
“When you have to sort of punch one-handed, you don’t have both hands available to you, that makes it difficult,” Cooter said. “You can win ballgames, but you can’t be a really good NFL offense without being able to do multiple things well.
“So, it’s something that I really want to improve, we really want to improve, but we have not done that around here,” Cooter said. “I’d like to be better and it starts with me, it falls on my shoulders.”
Cooter has to keep hammering away because he has no choice. This isn’t college, where you can spread it out and throw 50-60 times per game. NFL defenders are too athletic, the passing lanes will be easily clogged and your quarterback would take far too many hits.
If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, at least down the stretch this season, sorry, we’ve got nothing. Drastic changes are going to need to be considered in the offseason — whether it’s a schematic overhaul, the addition of a run-game coordinator, or going all in on a star running back early in the draft or free agency.
It’s time to revamp the total package. As long as the Lions remain one of the league’s worst rushing teams, a first-round playoff exit might be the best this franchise can do.