Can a Return to Old School Football Win Games?

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Where did things go wrong with Detroit? How have they fallen to a team projected to finish with the second-worst record this season and a coach that evokes cannibalism in his opening presser?

I guess three years of Matt Patricia as head coach will make anyone else seem like a great hire.

Truly, that’s where it went wrong. Not that it ever was really right. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991 with Wayne Fontes and Barry Sanders.

But we have to judge the Lions on a slightly different standard. From 2000 through 2013, the Lions finished last or second to last in their division in 13 of the 14 years.

In that span, they ran through five different head coaches: Bobby Ross, Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli, and Jim Schwartz. They ran through 12 different starting quarterbacks. Not even a Detroit native would correctly answer who started the first game for the Lions in 2000. It was Stoney Case. Since Case, the team started Charlie Batch, Ty Detmer, Mike McMahon, Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia, Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, Shaun Hill and eventually, Matthew Stafford.

There was one winning season after 2000 and one 0-16 season sprinkled in.

But then 2014 arrived. The Lions fired Jim Schwartz and hired Jim Caldwell. In Year 1, the team won 11 games, the most since 1991. The best years of Calvin Johnson were in the past, but at least for the Lions faithful, this team was winning games and finally making the playoffs, as they did in 2014 and again in 2016.

But after going 9-7 in 2016 with a loss in the Wild Card round, followed by another 9-7 season and barely missing the playoffs in 2017, the Lions fired Caldwell.

Jim Caldwell’s tenure saw him deliver three winning seasons in four years. The Lions franchise did that only one other time since 1971. Once.

And yet, ownership wanted more.

Oddly, GM Bob Quinn, who was brought on in 2016, was not fired. Ownership didn’t want to overhaul everything. They just wanted a new coach.

For the GM to keep his job but the coach to lose his, the owner had to believe the ingredients were there to win, but the chef was bad at his job. Keep the ingredients, bring on a new chef.

A new chef should do better than nine wins in 75% of seasons. A new chef should do better than a trip to the playoffs every other year.

But they were sorely mistaken. The new chef, who doubled as a rocket scientist, led the team to just nine wins TOTAL in his first two years combined. The team went 6-10, 3-12-1, and then 5-11.

The Matt Patricia tenure, from 2018-2020, was a disaster.

The Lions won just eight games by over three points since 2018. Eight! The fewest in the NFL.

It may seem crazy to think this now, but after fading the Lions ahead of 2019, watching them win just three games, there were reasons to think the 2020 Lions could be capable of winning seven games and going over their win total.

This was a 2019 team that went 3-8 in one-score games with the ninth-most injured roster and did so against the third-toughest schedule. Matthew Stafford appeared in only eight games. The splits with and without Stafford were measurable.

Based on win totals, the 2020 Lions were projected to face the eighth-easiest schedule. They had everyone back from an offense that showed improvement in Darrell Bevell’s first year as offensive coordinator, they added several starters on defense to help shore up that side of the ball, and drafted a cornerback third overall.

I was complementary of the Lions early in games and their offensive game plans during that time. There were still things that needed to be improved and cleaned up, but again, with the Lions, the bar is relatively low. I criticized the team for continuing to waste draft capital on running backs, but there was reason to believe with a healthy Stafford, the team wouldn’t be a complete disaster in 2020.

The Lions should have started off 2020 with a bang. They were up 23-6 over the Bears in the fourth quarter of Week 1. Matt Patricia’s defense allowed three fourth quarter touchdowns, including two in the final three minutes. The Lions lost a heartbreaker.

But through Week 7, the Lions stood at 3-3. Then the season began to unravel. They lost by 14+ points in four of their next five games. Losing by 16 to the terrible Houston Texans was bad. Getting shut out 20-0 against the P.J. Walker-led Carolina Panthers was worse.

The offense could have and should have been better. Patricia’s defense was a total catastrophe. They allowed 30+ points in the final six games of the season.

Such a feat sounds Lions-esque and is easily dismissed, until it’s put into the appropriate historical context.

Only three other times in NFL history has a team allowed 30+ points in six straight games.

Matt Patricia’s tenure is best described as coming in like a Lion and going out like a lamb.

Truthfully, the Lions should have lost their final seven games of the season. They didn’t deserve a 34-30 win over the Bears in Week 13 which saw them trail by double digits for most of the fourth quarter before scoring two touchdowns in the final 2:30 to win the game.

And so we now look at a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator.

There is very little utility in studying the 2020 Lions in too much depth considering the massive overhaul this team underwent in the offseason. This offense won’t look anything like what we saw during the past two years under Darrell Bevell. But Bevell is now the offensive coordinator for the Jaguars, so understanding his strengths and weaknesses will be useful in that regard, so we will dig in some.

The quarterback of the last 12 years is gone. The Lions’ top-four players in receptions last year were, in order, a WR, a TE, a WR and a RB. Both receivers are gone (Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola). Their best receiver of prior years, but who missed most of 2020 with injury, Kenny Golladay, is also gone.

The 2021 wide receiver corps is arguably the worst of any team in the NFL. The projected starters are Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman. They’ll pair them with rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. The only real contributing holdover from 2020 is Quintez Cephus. It’s a bad unit.

The responsibility of delivering the ball to that bad unit now falls on new Lions quarterback Jared Goff. I didn’t mind the move for the Lions. They need to rebuild. Goff isn’t leading this team to a Super Bowl, but neither was Stafford. However, despite the public perception of the player, I don’t think the Lions brought Goff in to tank the season. New Lions GM Brad Holmes was in the Rams front office with Goff. Goff has guarantees of $27.5 million this year and $15.5 million next year.

Most importantly, you must ask yourself this simple question: could you see Dan Campbell embracing an analytically sound approach like the Dolphins did to intentionally employ terrible, young players for a year to pick at the top of the draft in order to allow a brand new coach to still get massive buy-in and establish a new culture while losing left and right?

Almost more than any other new coach, the whole key for Campbell’s tenure is hard work, blue collar effort, and respecting every teammate and the game itself. I can’t imagine he’s trying not to win games. It’s almost impossible for a coach to save face in the locker room if he’s trying to lose. Successful tanking is done in the front office, not on the field of play.

That does not mean the team can win. Their roster, coupled with their schedule, makes it unlikely. But they appear to be building a foundation here, in 2021, from which they can dig out of in the future.

And while I didn’t mind the move for a team building perspective, Goff is a significant step down for the Lions offense. When you factor in the coaching, the decline is even more glaring.

When Goff was with the Rams, head coach Sean McVay had to scheme most everything open. McVay had to rely heavily on play-action and motion to get matchups and create space for Goff to attack. That window to attack was very narrow.

We can take a look at Goff’s ranks in aggressiveness (AGG) and completed air yards (CAY), and keep in mind that aggressiveness is a player tracking metric which tracks the rate at which a quarterback throws into tight coverage, where there is a defender within 1 yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion. The lower a quarterback ranks, the more open the average throw.

2020: 36th in AGG, 35th in CAY
2019: 35th in AGG, 21th in CAY
2018: 33rd in AGG, fifth in CAY
2017: 37th in AGG, 19th in CAY <- McVay’s first year as coach
2016: second in AGG, 40th in CAY <- Goff’s rookie year

Jared Goff’s rookie season was one of the worst we’ve seen. Goff was chucking the ball into tight windows and averaged just 4.9 air yards per completion. He was a disaster. McVay built a system around Goff such that Goff could find easy completions to receivers that were open and this helped Goff immensely. Recall the 2018 season when McVay had Goff use tremendous tempo and never left 11 personnel. This kept the defense on the field without substitutions and allowed McVay to be in Goff’s headset, making the checks for Goff and finding the open receivers as the quarterback got to the line before the snap.

The 2018 season was Rams’ magical trip to the Super Bowl that fell short, but since that point in time, Goff hasn’t been able to generate explosiveness in the passing game and the Rams passing attack became less vertical, less threatening, and less effective. But in every single season, Goff was always one of the five least-aggressive quarterbacks in the NFL.

The other problem will be pressure. When under pressure the last three years, Goff ranked 29th of 35 quarterbacks in EPA per dropback (-0.43) while Stafford ranked eighth. The Lions’ best unit is probably their offensive line, so that should theoretically help Goff where he needs it most. That said, it’s absolutely disheartening that when pressure will get to him, the Lions will now be substantially worse than they’ve been the last several years with Stafford at the helm.

New offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has been a head coach the last four years, but had the pleasure of working with Phillip Rivers and Justin Herbert. If there’s one thing that the Chargers offense didn’t focus on much was scheming up open receivers like the Rams. Herbert ranked 12th in aggressiveness last year. Rivers always ranked above average in aggressiveness and completed air yards when he was on the Chargers. I don’t know that I love the upside in the shift from the Shanahan/McVay system to that which Lynn will be running.

And speaking of running, Lynn came out in April and said, “People tend to think that I’m ground-and-pound. But I think if you look at my track record, I’m going to do whatever it takes.”

This is great coachspeak, but as we saw from his time as head coach of the Chargers, sometimes a head coach ends up negatively influencing a pla caller to be more conservative or run-heavy than is optimal. Even if Lynn was an Andy Reid air-it-out disciple, with Dan Campbell as head coach, there would be an element of toning things down. Campbell himself already said that he likes running the ball because “there’s a mentality to it.” The last time Lynn called plays was 2016 in Buffalo, and the team ran the ball at the sixth-highest rate on early downs in the first three quarters. Additionally, immediately after he was hired, Lynn said:

"It will be an emphasis to run the ball and run it well. Defenses are too good to be one dimensional. You have to be balanced in your attack and approach. That's going to be our intention. I believe the more ways you can run it, the more ways you can pass it."

However, this wasn’t the case in 2020 in Detroit. For whatever reason, Bevell couldn’t stop using Adrian Peterson. And no matter how many ways he ran it, he was always worse than rookie running back D’Andre Swift. Whether the box was light, standard, or heavy, Swift was superior in EPA/att and success rate. Whether it was inside or outside zone, counter, stretch, power ,or lead, the story was the same, with the lone exception of several Peterson touchdowns weighing into the EPA.

Another confounding thing about the Lions’ run game was their run rate out of heavy personnel. In a game’s first three quarters, they ran the ball on 60% of plays. The NFL average was 55%. Feel free to run the ball more often if you’re productive with it, but look at the Lions splits on these plays:

Lions Runs: -0.20 EPA/att, 4.1 YPC, 51% success (NFL avg = -0.03 EPA/att)
Stafford Passes: 0.10 EPA/att, 8.0 YPA, 48% success (NFL avg = 0.08 EPA/att)

The Lions were significantly worse than average when running the ball but better than average when passing, and yet they ran at a much higher rate than average.

Another thing that I picked up on in 2019 which continued in 2020, and which should absolutely be incorporated into our Jaguars analysis this year, was how much better Bevell’s offense was in the first quarter as compared to all other quarters.

In each of the last two seasons, the 8-23-1 Lions led or were tied at the end of the first quarter in 19 of 32 games (53%). The Jets, a team with more wins than the Lions, led/tied at the end of the first in only 15 games. Washington, another team with more wins than the Lions, led/tied at the end of the first in only 14 games. Panthers? More wins, yet led/tied in 17 games after one quarter. Same for the Giants.

This made the Lions a perfect fade for in-game betting. I can’t tell you the number of in-game bets we won by fading the Lions after their script wore off the last couple years.

Their record when tied or leading after the first quarter? 4-14-1. Leading by an average score of 8.2 points to 2.6, the Lions were outscored in the final three quarters by an average of over 10 points the rest of the way: 26.5 opponent points to 16.2 Lions points.

We’re analyzing at the macro level by looking at game results and points scored. On the play-by-play level, it clearly showed up (which is where I discovered it in the first place). Look at the Lions splits in 2020:

First quarter passes: 0.18 EPA/att, 51% success, 7.8 YPA
Rest of game passes: 0.01 EPA/att, 47% success, 7.5 YPA

First quarter rushes: 0.02 EPA/att, 57% success, 5.0 YPC
Rest of game rushes: -0.11 EPA/att, 47% success, 3.7 YPC

It factored more in the run game, but was still clearly apparent in the pass game as well. Bevell did a better job of scripting runs, using personnel and setting up the runs in the first quarter. After the script wore off, so did the rushing efficiency.

Last two years combined:

First quarter passes: 0.22 EPA/att, 52% success, 8.7 YPA
Rest of game passes: -0.01 EPA/att, 44% success, 7.2 YPA

First quarter rushes: 0.00 EPA/att, 55% success, 4.4 YPC
Rest of game rushes: -0.11 EPA/att, 47% success, 3.9 YPC

A large part of the problem hinged on first downs and the run game. Look at the splits just on first-and-10 runs

First quarter: 0.05 EPA/att, 62% success, 6.3 YPC
Rest of game: -0.09 EPA/att, 42% success, 3.7 YPC

Making things even more frustrating when we look at those runs against first-and-10 passes in the final three quarters.

First-and-10 passes Q2-4: +0.05 EPA/att, 55% success, 8.3 YPA
First-and-10 runs Q2-4: -0.09 EPA/att, 42% success, 3.7 YPC

There were many other issues I noticed with the Lions offense that Bevell could correct when he goes to Jacksonville, but these are some that may linger and are useful knowledge for handicapping the Jaguars.

As it relates to the 2021 Lions, they won’t have to worry about Bevell’s playcalling, they can now focus on Lynn. The Lions have the NFL’s least expensive offense in 2021, clocking in at a cool $76 million in total dollars. They have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, with their offense playing what I predict will be the second-toughest schedule of opposing defenses. They aren’t favored in a single game in 2021.

If overall performance is primarily dictated by offensive efficiency, this will be a tough season for the Lions and their fans. I wish I could preach patience, but I don’t know if I have long-term confidence in this staff to even optimize a re-build with the first overall draft pick in 2022, should they finish 2021 with the worst record. The most optimistic I can get is: it can’t get much worse than the Patricia era. Godspeed Lions fans.

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