Monday, November 19, 2007

Answering the Detroit Lions' NFL week 11 "Burning questions"

It's the Monday after the latest Detroit Lions win debacle, which means that TWFE answers the burning questions asked by the News' Lions beat writer, Mike O'Hara.

Today's hot hot hot topics include what's wrong with the Lions' offense, where's Waldo Calvin Johnson, the odd jump ball throw to Shaun McDonald, and Mike Martz, an offensive genius, or is he just full of himself?

Burning questions from the Lions' 16-10 loss to the Giants at Ford Field Sunday:

Q: What went wrong?

O'Hara: The three biggest things were offense, offense and offense. Throw in a distant fourth -- special teams.

Start with the first three. The offense is supposed to be the strength of the team, but it has been the weak link the last two weeks in losses to the Cardinals and the Giants. Special teams gave up three big returns and had a field goal blocked Sunday. The defense played well enough to win. But worst was how the offense fizzled.

Big Al: Surprisingly, the defense has been decent. Not great, but good enough to win most games. Special teams are an issue, but the bigger one is the current state of the offense. What didn't go wrong with the Lions' offense? Turnovers, penalties, only 25 rushing yards, strange play calling, odd personnel groupings, bad decision making, you mane it.

Unfortunately, the Lions have all of 4 days to fix their broken offense. Missing the playoffs could become more than just a possibility, but a certainty, if something doesn't change.

Q: Specifically, what has to be better?

O'Hara: The mystery is why Calvin Johnson isn't being used more often and in more situations where his talent and physical attributes can dominate a game. He was drafted second overall after strong lobbying by most of the players on offense and the assistant coaches. That included Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator.

What happened Sunday was bizarre. With the game -- and perhaps a playoff spot -- on the line, Johnson either wasn't on the field or was ignored in the offense.

Big Al: That's the question on everyone's mind today. Where's Calvin Johnson? It's become a game like "Where's Waldo" for Lions fans.

Between the non-use of Johnson, the giving up on the running game altogether after the first drive, and Jon Kitna morphing back into a turnover machine, there's plenty that needs to be fixed.

What needs to be better? First and foremost, the running game. During the 3 game winning streak that got us all atwitter over the possibility that the Lions could make the playoffs, they ran the ball effectively. Since then, the running game has been an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, covered in mystery. So has Martz's play calling, for that matter...

Q: What were the significant numbers for the offense?

O'Hara: These three: 15, 11 and 3.

Big Al: Let me guess. 15 is the number of George Foster false starts this season. 11 is the number of sacks given up by Jeff Backus. 3 is the number of first downs converted by running the ball. am I correct?

Q: What do they represent?

O'Hara: By unofficial count, 15 passes were thrown to Shaun McDonald (seven catches, 113 yards), 11 to Roy Williams (6-106) and three to Calvin Johnson (3-45, 1 TD). There's nothing wrong with throwing to Williams. He's a tremendous talent. But the ratio of 15 to McDonald and three to Johnson is a mistake.

Allowing for a statistical correction, the spread is still too wide.

One of the NFL's premier young talents is being overlooked by Martz. The credit went to Martz as the savior when it looked like the Lions had the greatest offense in the world early in the season. Now that it's failing, he gets the same deserved attention -- and it's negative.

Big Al: I guess I'm not correct. That was a trick question! But I digress...

Every time Calvin Johnson touches the ball, good things happen. The kid is a playmaker on a team devoid of them. Yet he's on the field less than half the time, and was nowhere to be found on the final two drives that ended in interceptions. Well, unless you looked on the BENCH, as it's not hard to miss such an imposing physical specimen.

I have no problem with the number of balls thrown towards Roy Williams. He's the only other player you could even consider to be a big time playmaker on offense. Even though McDonald has played well overall, he should not be the primary target in the crunch time of a game. He's the 4th receiver for a reason.

I tend to agree with those who say that Martz runs the offense with his reputation as an offensive "Genius" in mind. It often appears he wants to prove he can be successful with any warm body, not just with elite players like Williams and Johnson. Whatever the reasoning, Martz's is not helping matters by limiting the playing time of Johnson, who dominates when on the field. Which is not often enough...

Q: How is the passing game out of whack?

O'Hara: Look at two series in the fourth quarter.

On first-and-10 at the Giants 35, Jon Kitna launched a pass into the end zone. Johnson, who's 6-foot-5, 239 pounds with a vertical jump of more than 40 inches, leaped and caught the ball for a touchdown with 4:26 left.

Next possession, on second down from the Lions 49, Kitna rolled left to get away from the rush and launched a pass into the end zone toward McDonald -- all 5-10 and 183 pounds of him. That's seven inches shorter and 56 pounds lighter than Johnson. McDonald was double-covered, and Giants defensive back James Butler made the interception.

Big Al: I honestly thought that the ball was headed towards either Johnson or Williams. When I saw that moonball of a pass from Kitna pass was for McDonald, the smallest player on the field, my jaw hit the floor.

The offense has been "Out of snyc" for a couple of games. The running game is, once again, non-existent, and Kitna is back to trying to win games on his own, attempting to make plays that just aren't there, and turning the ball over.

The final two possessions were a cumulation of what currently ails the offense in a nutshell. There is plenty that ails it, and it's a damn big nutshell...

Q: Was it McDonald's fault?

O'Hara: No -- unless someone expected him to grow 7 inches and put on 56 pounds. It was a bad, risky throw by Kitna -- and a badly designed play because it didn't involve Johnson or Williams.

Johnson and Williams are the studs on the outside, and neither one had a ball thrown in his direction in the last two possessions. Five were thrown to McDonald and two to Kevin Jones.

Big Al: Not on the play in question. The ball never should have been thrown in McDonald's direction to begin with. The jump ball is designed to be effective when there is a size mismatch between the receiver and defensive back. Unless the D-back is the size of a member of the Lollipop Guild, McDonald will NEVER have a size advantage over a defender.

That play call made little sense when taken in regard with the personnel on the field. With plenty of time left on the clock, there was no reason to go all in on a go for broke deep pass. I blame Martz for the arrogant call, and Kitna for not checking off.

The Lions have 2 extremely talented first round draft picks on the edge in Williams and Johnson. Why they weren't used at the end of the game is a question only Martz can answer. That Marinelli can't, says plenty, and it isn't good.

Q: After the game, coach Rod Marinelli said "personnel groupings" were the reason Johnson was not involved in more pass plays. What's the answer?

O'Hara: Marinelli should bring Johnson to a meeting with Martz and tell him to put him in more groupings.

Big Al: "Groupings" my ass. I have a feeling that Marinelli doesn't have as firm a grasp on Martz's play calling that we've been led to believe. This is not a one game issue, but a season long problem of institutional control that's only getting worse. Unless Marinelli can regain control over his headstrong offensive coordinator...

Martz needs to be held accountable, as his ignoring the running game, and his nonsensical lack of playing time for Johnson, defies explanation. But does Marinelli have the cajones and front office juice to take on the hard headed, legend in his own mind, Martz? A coordinator who is gunning for another head coaching job? Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall during that "Converation?" I have a feeling that meeting wouldn't go well...

Marinelli: You called an alley-oop to the smallest wide receiver we have? What were you thinking?

Martz: He was open. Kitna threw it late and short. Blame him.

Marinelli: Bullshit! You called the play. And why was McDonald in the game, while our 1st round pick was rotting on the bench?

Martz: Simple. McDonald knows the offense better than Johnson.

Marinelli: But Johnson makes plays every time he touches the ball! I'm ordering you to play Johnson instead of that midget!

Martz: Piss off. It's my offense! I'm the genius! What I say, goes!

Marinelli: Are you disobeying my orders, private?!

Martz: Hell, yes! Who you calling private, you God damn infantry grunt!

Marinelli:Instead of pounding the rock, how about I pound you!

Martz, Bring it on!

Yep, I want to be a fly on the wall during that meeting of the minds...


  1. I missed this abomination of a game (also the one before it). But this morning, I was contemplating the Martz situation. I really believe he is as smart as people say- perhaps even as smart as he himself thinks. Overall.

    But it does appear he's trying to do too much with too little. So I begin to wonder: at this point, the Lions offense isn't as good as it should be. Which should come back to Martz. If he can't get his squad to perform at the level it ought, then that hurts his chances for a head coaching gig next year. But at the same time, if he's not getting it done, then should he be coaching here next year?

    So is he ultimately shooting himself in the foot?

    If, as seems to be the case, Marinelli doesn't know what Martz is doing, then there's a serious problem. I don't buy the "package" excuse for not having CJ out there. Isn't the normal approach to put your giants out on the field when tossing a Hail Mary? And if it's not yet the right time for that play, then it would seem the play-caller isn't as sharp as he ought to be.

    It all gives me a headache.

    Final thought: I seem to recall you commenting that Kitna should have audibled out of the called play. Isn't that forbidden? Or was that the former rule that was tossed out this year?

  2. I should have put it as "Checked down," and as you are right, audibles are verboten in a Martz offense.

    I agree that Martz is shooting himself in the foot with his trying to impress with his so-called genius. He's desperate to impress other teams, and get that next head gig, Thing is, he won't be on anyone's list if this continues...