Horse racing’s most honored legend is Secretariat. A horse notorious for slow starts who had a habit of coming from behind the pack to win. Big Red had heart, stamina and a will to win over any obstacle that was truly amazing.
At the quarter pole of the NFL season race there is little to suggest that the Detroit Lions have the heart of “Big Red.”
In the world of team sports, when a talent laden team is mired in a slump of epic proportions, fingers begin to point at the coaching staff as the reason for the team’s poor performance. For the Lions, those fingers are being pointed at head coach Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and special teams coordinator Danny Crossman.
After allowing four return TDs via kickoff and punt coverage breakdowns over a two week span against opponents that Detroit should have beaten handily, it’s easy to point the finger at Crossman as the architect of a failure that can be best characterized as catastrophic.
After largely failing to get pressure on opposing QBs while free-falling to last in total defense in the NFC North, it’s easy to point the finger at Cunningham as the architect of a stale, non-innovative defensive scheme where the defensive line stays in it‘s base formation augmented by a standard blitz package.
After watching a talented, high powered offense lead the league in dropped passes while vainly trying to run the ball against defenses who dare them to run, it’s easy to point the finger at Linehan for running an offense so predictable that it’s too easily schemed against.
Ultimately, fingers will point at Schwartz, who endorses schemes that are failing to produce victories. Fans are screaming for the firing of Crossman immediately. Cunningham and Linehan are coming under pressure as well.
In a series of articles, I will analyze the three phases of the game: Offense, defense and special teams seeking some insight as to how the Lions came to this point—a team that could easily have an 0-4 record. Let’s start with the unit that’s most heavily engaged by the haters: Special teams.
Danny Crossman isn’t the Problem on Special Teams
Watching Crossman coach special teams coverage squads daily in training camp, it was clear that many veteran players simply weren’t motivated to contribute here. Crossman tried many combinations of players to find those who were hungry enough to do the thankless job of covering kicks and punts.
As a player, you have to really want to contribute on a special teams coverage unit.
It seemed that only those players who were in danger of losing a roster spot were willing to step up. One of these players, rookie CB Jonte Green, has been burned twice for TD returns, but he wasn’t alone out there; there were others who were equally culpable. Most, if not all of them are depth players.
In years past, Crossman’s job was made easier with the presence of LB Isaiah Ekejiuba, WR Maurice Stovall, FS John Wendling, WR Rashied Davis and LB Zack Follett. These were the special teams aces who refused to fail. Players who brought “heart” and leadership to special teams.
But, as the overall talent of the team improved, these players became expendable due to injuries, salary cap issues, or falling on the depth chart at their respective positions.
Thus far, no single player has taken the reins of leadership on special teams. The Lions were hoping to get a spark out of free agent acquisition RB Kassim Osgood, but the results have met with mixed reviews thus far.
The cure isn’t the firing of Crossman. The fix is an infusion of veteran starters—whether they like it, or not. If they need motivation, Schwartz can move them down the depth chart until they get the message that there is a sense of team urgency on special teams that transcends their positional contributions.
How much better would the Lions special teams coverage be with “high motor”, sideline-to-sideline players like DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, OLB Justin Durant, or MLB Stephen Tulloch be?
We might find out sooner, rather than later. Clearly, the Lions special teams needs leadership that can instill the heart of a champion. A Secretariat-like run to the finish has to begin here.
Next Up: The Detroit Lions Defensive Scheme: Is Gunther Cunningham Crazy?