Bitter Swill: Lions Hire Scott Linehan

>> 1.23.2009

you've . . . you've got to be kidding me.

I'm sitting here looking at the sad remains of a pint of Guinness, what's left of the once-proud head lamely pooling at the bottom of my glass.  The nitrogen-fueled fury of the pour and surge is gone, memorialized by the dried lacing clinging to the inside of my pint glass.  I want more beer, but . . . is it worth it?  The last foamy mouthful?  The hollow, bitter swallow that covers my tongue but evaporates before it makes it to my gullet?

This is the worst possible hire.  I'm absolutely speechless right now.  Every move up until now, including the Bob Slowik hire that apparently wasn't a real hire, I've either loved or warmed up to.   But Scott Linehan?

For those not in the know, Linehan started his football career as the quarterback of the illustrious Idaho Vandals, playing for head coach Dennis Erickson (some of you might remember Idaho's defensive coordinator at the time, one John Lewellyn Smith).  He had a cup of coffee in the NFL, then quickly moved to coaching.  First, John L. hired him at Idaho to be the wide recievers coach, then he scored the OC gig at UNLV.  Linehan then returned to Idaho as the OC, then went on to the University of Washington as the WR coach and was quickly promoted to OC.  From there, John L. hired him away to coach Louisville's offense.  In his second year, Linehan's offense led the Cardinals to an 11-2 season, and he accepted a position as the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.

Ugh, excuse me for a minute . . .

Okay, I feel a little better now, but my toilet might never forgive me.

In his three years as offensive coordinator of the Vikings, Linehan drew up the schemes that allowed Duante (*urp*) Culpepper (*gag, choke*) to throw for 12,049 yards and 82 TDs . . . don't get too excited, the Vikes went 23-25 in that stretch.  On the strength of this, Nick Saban hired Linehan to run his offense in Miami.  After a stunning 2005 season where the Fins won their last six games to finish 9-7, the St. Louis Rams tabbed Linehan to be their new head coach. Late Rams owner Georgia Frontiere said of him at the time:

“It’s like picking a star for a movie, you want the right person. My first impression was that he was youthful and upbeat and had great energy. Just a down to earth person. Very genuine. He told me of his plans for the Rams, and it made me want to get the season started right away.”

He got started right away, lifting the team to a .500 season.  However, the 2007 Rams squad was absolutely decimated by injury, as badly as I've ever seen.  The best the Rams could muster was a 3-13 finish.  Hopes were high coming into the 2008 season, but the Linehan-led Rams were hopelessly overmatched, and dropped their first four games, getting outscored 147-43 in that stretch. Linehan controversially benched veteran starting QB Marc Bulger in the fourth game, looking for any kind of spark.  Like the Lions, the Rams had a week 4 bye.  Unlike the Lions, the Rams had seen enough.  Linehan was summarily fired.

So, what on earth does Jim Schwartz see in this guy?  Linehan had been on the sidelines for some really explosive passing games, but never for more than a few years, and in most cases the offense was successful either before he arrived or after he left.  It was never clear that it was his gameplanning or scheme or playcalling that made the difference.  When he finally got to call the shots on his own, he was an unqualified disaster.  Well, Schwartz gave us a clue during the search:

"The philosophy's gonna be ours.  We're not going to count on that guy to bring the philosophy. I think personality is going to be important, experience is going to be important -- those kind of things.  What I'm saying is, we're not looking to hire a guy to bring a scheme to us. We have a good vision of what we want the team to be, and what we're looking for is somebody to be able to execute that vision."

Well, wasn't the philosophy going to be "run and stop the run"?  What on earth is reuniting Scott Linehan with Duante (*hork*) Culpepper going to do for a running game?  We saw how pathetic Culpepper is; he was noticably worse than both Kitna and Orlovsky, and the numbers bear that out.  Sure, we have Megatron, and sure, we can play jumpball with him, but a consistent offense that does not make.  You can't run the ball and control the clock when you're constantly trying for the moonshot TD.  I mean, just look at the numbers:

* In 2002, Linehan's first year as coordinator, Michael Bennett, Duante Culpepper, and Moe Williams combined for 2,507 yards and 26 TDs, with a 5.3 ypc average--leading the NFL in all three categories.

Um.  What?

* in 2003, Minnesota's three-ring running back circus of Moe Williams, Onterrio "Whizzinator" Smith, and Michael Bennett spearheaded a rushing attack that compiled up a 4th-ranked 2,343 yards on 493 carries (4.8 ypc) and 15 TDs.

Holy wow.

* In 2004, the Vikings rushed much less often as Culpepper was going crazy through the air--they had the 4th fewest attempts of any team--but they maintained a 4.7 yard-per-carry average, 2nd best in the NFL, to rack up 1,823 yards.  This despite the fact that Onterrio Smith led all Vikings rushers with just 544 yards, and Culpepper was the next-highest rusher.


* In 2005, rookie Ronnie Brown and Ricky "Sticky Icky" Williams combined for 1898 yards on 444 attempts, good for an 8th-ranked 4.3 ypc average.

Remember, this was when Ronnie Brown was a bust.

* In 2006, Linehan's first year with a stud running back in the stable, Steven Jackson carried the ball 348 times for 1,528 yards (4.4 ypc) and 15 TD . . . not to mention 90 receptions for 806 yards.

As a friend of mine once said, "That's totin' it".

Color me stunned.  I thought Schwartz had foolishly decided that reuniting Culpepper with Linehan would recapture some sort of magic, and the Lions could play pitch-and-catch with Megatron in lieu of rebuilding the O-line or establishing the run.  Actually, Schwartz has already come out and said that the Minnesota reunion has nothing to do with it, and Linehan's hire will not affect whether Culpepper stays or goes. It turns out that Linehan actually has a bulletproof resume as a run-first coordinator, using a bruising rhythm many-carries-per-game run scheme to draw in the defense, then bomb it over their heads.  With Linehan in the fold, Schwartz has now hired two men who've both been coordinators and head coaches before to sit at his right and left hands.  He's unafraid to hire strong coordinators because he values their strength and experience--and confident in his own ability to lead.

I'm staring at that last bit of bitter, empty foam in the glass.  I suppose I'll have to swallow it--and my pride--on this one.  And with that, I propose a toast to the Grandmaster.  Salud.


Gunther Cunningham: Lions Defense Will be Explosive, aggressive

>> 1.22.2009

Well by the time I finished my post on Gunther Cunningham, he'd done a con call with Detroit media that answered almost every question I'd raised. Gunther, are you going to attack and blitz and gamble like you used to, or are you going to go into a shell as you have been in Kansas City?

"I've gone through three years of playing zone defenses because I was loyal to Herm Edwards, that's what he wanted. People here in town knew that I was different than that. My idea is to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, always has been, always will be. I think Jimmy knows that and I think he's a lot like that, although he was more zone conscious this year than he's ever been. But like I said at the beginning of this conversation I think the two of us will sit down and we'll decide what is the best thing that we can do and that's going to involve the organization's part of whatever Tom (Lewand) and Martin (Mayhew) decide on who we draft on defense and who else we get and how we do it. But my idea of coaching defense, it's explosive, it's aggressive, it's to go after people and make the players do things that they don't think they can do.

Well . . . sweet!  Damn, that sounds awesome.  So Gunther, what about our young defensive talent?  I don't know if you know, but Cliff Avril could really be an asset to you--you might not need to go after a  pass rusher if Avril suits your fancy.

"I know one thing that I liked (Cliff) Avril when he came out. I thought he was a special athlete and the ability to rush the passer. He's undersized, but you have to put him in the right position. I don't think it's any different than what the Pittsburgh Steelers did with (James) Harrison. He kind of bounced around there, got a couple sacks a year and Dick LeBeau did a great job of putting him in a place where you can use that. When you look at (Ernie) Sims, when he came out, I thought he was a human dynamo at the time. Well, you have to make sure you protect guys like that so they can make plays. And to me, with Jimmy and my's background of working together and him being a defensive coach, I'm sure we can go through and try to fit the players in the right position."

Holy crap!  That's like, the best possible answer, ever!  Now Gunther, we've had trouble with coaches and their assistants not being on the same page.  Can you describe your relationship with Jim Schwartz?

“The relationship we developed at Tennessee is one of those things that comes to you about once in a lifetime in coaching. I was fired (in Kansas City) as the head coach and went to Tennessee and I had other opportunities, but at that point in my life I felt like I needed to go back and prove to myself who I was and what I was good at. And to go to Tennessee and to meet Jim Schwartz and to see what he was all about, and for him to accept me the way that he did and have him allow me to help and send him on his way, when I left there he called me on the phone in the car and we had this good-bye session and he said, 'Gun, I love you.' And when he said that, basically broke a guy that had been in the league for a long time.”

Wow, that's . . . that's some real heavy stuff right there.  Dang.  Wow.  For all the talk of Gunther being a drill sargeant off his meds, that shows some real heart and a deep connection with Schwartz.  I am getting more excited for this hire by the minute . . . every time I hear more about these two and the defense they plan to build, I get more amped.  Let's hope this stops before training camp, or I'll get the vapors!

Another item of note: the next hire's already been made: former Broncos DC Bob Slowik is the new defensive backs coach.  Slowik certainly didn't cover himself in glory as the Broncos' DC . . . in fact, he was considered to be on the hot seat before it was discovered that his boss was getting PYKAG'd.  When he took over as Packers DC in 2004, much was made of his new blitzing, gambling, attacking defense that was going to kill everybody--and then Peyton Manning shredded it for 5 TDs in the first half of the first game and that was that.  So we know Slowik's natural instincts are to attack and be aggressive--and while it's true that he's not been a great defensive coordinator, he's overqualified to be a DB coach.  This is shaping up to be one very experienced, very aggressive coaching staff.  They aren't "hot" hires, they aren't "name" guys, they aren't "up-and-comers" but I LOVE it.


Lions Hire Gunther Cunningham. Guten Tag, Guntherball

>> 1.21.2009

So Jim Schwartz has inked his top lieutenant: longtime KC defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Cunningham is the Lions' new defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.  Often the "assistant head coach" tag is applied to position coaches--either up-and-comers who are destined for coordinating gigs (a la Todd Bowles), or senior assistants who have the trust and ear of the coach (a la Rod Marinelli in Tampa and Chicago).  To be both the defensive coordinator AND the assistant head coach implies that Gunther will be Schwartz's right-hand man, having a very strong hand in gameplanning, calling the plays, and leading the defensive position coaches.  Cunningham and Schwartz coached together in Tennessee in 2001, where Cunningham had landed after a long tenure as the Chiefs' DC and then a short tenure as the Chiefs's head coach.  He was the linebackers coach and assistant head coach (ah ha!) while Schwartz served as defensive coordinator.  Cunningham left after three years to reclaim his headset as the defensive coordinator in KC--but now, with the uncertainty surrounding Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards, Gunther has taken on the task of rebuilding one of the absolute worst defenses in the history of the NFL.

This hire tells me quite a bit about Schwartz.  First, he understands the size of the task ahead of him.  Leading a group of talented veterans who know what to do and how to do it is one thing--he saw how that was done in Cleveland/Baltimore, and he did it in Tennesee.  However, rebuilding this defense from the ground up is not something that a first-time head coach can do and do well.  He sees that he needs a strong, experienced defensive coordinator who can handle a lot of the administrative tasks and grunt work of running the defense while he gets oriented in his new role as head coach.  Check out this excellent piece by Nick Cotsonika of the Free Press; it goes in-depth on how Schwartz is really starting to feel the magnitude of time and effort he's going to have to put in to do the head coach stuff the way he wants to; he knows he won't have time to carry the load doing the DC's job as well. Further, Gunther went from being a defensive coordinator with an impeccable resume to being a head coach, and was fired after only two years.  Having that 'what not to do' experience at your right hand--and in your ear--I would think would be an invaluable resource for a first-time head coach.  Finally, Gunther doesn't take lip, he gives lip (thanks John Madden!):

He's exactly the sort of guy I said I'd like to see as DC if Schwartz were hired; a guy with a lot of fire.  I don't know if Schwartz sees himself as a subpar motivator, as a Good Cop who needs a Bad Cop, or if Gunther's coaching style didn't enter into his decision at all.  Still, I think it's a good dynamic.  Finally, Schwartz has hired a guy who fits with his defensive philosophy.  What is that philosophy?  That's a very good question . . .

Remember this man?  If you don't, click the picture.  He's former (and, tragically, late) Chiefs badass Derrick Thomas.  In his nine-year career, he made the Pro Bowl nine times.  He sacked the quarterback 126.5 times, including seven in one game (still an NFL record).  Drafted as a pass-rushing linebacker, as he got into the prime of his career he started flexing between OLB and DE, being used situationally to wreak maximum havoc.  Gunther Cunningham was the man behind Thomas and that brutal Chiefs defense.  In my mind, the 90's Chiefs were the Ravens of their day: blitzing to sack the quarterback, blitzing to stop the run, attacking from snap to whistle, attacking from coin flip to final gun, creating turnovers, and just generally vicious.  Like the Ravens, they didn't feature much of an offense, yet were consistently contending for the AFC crown.  From Wikipedia:

"During his original tenure as defensive coordinator, Cunningham's defenses allowed an average of only 16.4 points per game, the best mark in the NFL and had a turnover margin of +30, tops in the AFC. Under his lead, a number of players excelled, including stars such as Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, James Hasty, and Dale Carter. Cunningham's defenses led Kansas City to an overall record of 42-22."

Note the stats they used there: scoring defense, turnover margin, wins.  Not 'yards allowed', the official yardstick of NFL defenses.  Cunningham gears his defenses to excel in the exact same dimensions that Jim Schwartz believes are the real hallmarks of successful defense: allow few points, stop the run, get lots of quarterback pressure, generate turnovers, and stop drives.  Well, what's the problem then?  Why isn't this a slam dunk hire?

Because in 2008, the Chiefs didn't do any of those things.

* They allowed 27.5 points per game, ranking 29th in the NFL.

* They allowed 2,543 yards rushing (5.0 per carry); only the Raiders and Lions were worse.

* They sacked the quarterback only 10 times, the lowest total in NFL16-game-season history.

* They generated 24 turnovers, 19th best in the NFL.

So what's going on here?  How did Gunther Cunningham, well known as one of the most intense, demanding, aggressive, and successful defensive coaches in the modern era, build such a limp-wristed, feather-loafered defense?

The answer seems to lie in two maladies that have plagued the Millen-era Lions: coaches and staff leading the troops in different directions, and total lack of firepower on the field.  Cunningham was defensive coordinator under Herm Edwards--another Tampa 2 disciple.  As we know all too well, the Tampa 2 relies on the front four generating pressure with nearly no blitzing.  The Tampa 2 emphasizes stifling the opponents's passing game with quick pressure and a suffocating tight zone scheme.  The Chiefs were clearly playing Edwards's brand of defense over the past two years; never blitzing and always in soft zones.  Moreover, the Chiefs were essentially talentless on defense before Gunther took over; recently resigned GM Carl Peterson made few moves to address this, and even those were spectacularly ineffective (see Mitchell, Kawika).

So, Gunther had no talent to work with, and was running another coach's scheme that ran counter to everything he's traditionally believed in.  Is it any wonder that this failed?

Frankly, I'd be lying if I said this hire didn't give me pause.  Gunther's nearly a decade removed from being the mastermind of the most feared defense in football, and he's done very little in the interim to show he still has it in him.  Many Chiefs fans believe than in his 40th year in football, the game has passed him by.  At this point, only time will tell.   Either the Lions could build an aggressive, blizting, turnover-generating, 3-4/4-3 flex, flying from everywhere, smack-you-in-the-mouth defense, or they could be almost exactly the same unit they were in 2008: a soft zone defense that's both conservative AND ineffective.  Or, they could be somewhere in between--at this point, nobodycan possibly know.

This was probably Schwartz's most critical hire, and he erred on the side of experience, trust, and consistency of philosophy over 'hotness' or 'name value'--which is a choice I have to respect and agree with.  So say "Ja" to Guntherball--but pray the new Lions look like the old Chiefs, and not the current ones.


Detroit Lions Asylum, est. 1929. The Inmates, proprietors

>> 1.19.2009

While trolling for information after the hire, I stumbled upon the Free Press article full of 'player reaction' quotes.  For a guy who most fans wouldn't mind seeing leave, they had a lot of quotes from Travis Fisher in there.  Overall, the impression I got was that these players have barely heard of Schwartz, but like the brand of football the Titans play.  The last quote in the article really caught my eye, though:

"I think having a guy in there is great," center Dominic Raiola said. "I think you needed to put a guy in there sooner than later. A lot of this stuff is starting to pick up, especially going down to the Senior Bowl, because that's the main thing. We obviously need people to help us. Hopefully he'll do a good job doing that."

At first, it didn't quite strike me--I mean, there's nothing about that quote that's false.  But it echoed around my head for a second, and a thought started brewing . . . Raiola was happy not that Schwartz was hired, but that somebody was hired.  In his mind, it was most important to have a coach in place before the Senior Bowl in order to hire a staff and evaluate talent, not to hire the "right guy".  To me, this seems backwards--obviously it's better to have a staff in place in time the Senior Bowl than not in time, but I would think it's paramount that they hire the right coach and staff.

But think about this from Raiola's perspective.  He was drafted in 2001, with Millen's first draft class.  I remember him in training camp that year, trying to fight off Dan Wilkinson while Millen played middle linebacker in dress clothes.  He's been through Mornhinweg and 'take the wind'.  He's been through the pomp and circumstance of Mooch's installation, and the well-coiffed mediocrity that came after it.  He's been through several bitter Thanksgiving failures, and firings thereafter.  He's been through "Millen's first post-Ford-meddling" hire, and he's been through 0-16.  He's been through the West Coast Offense, the New West Coast Offense, the Martz Offense, and the Power Run With Martz Routes I Don't Know What You Call That But It Sure As Hell Is Not Offense.  All the while, he's been booed at and hissed at, chanted and ranted and raved against, and derided as the source of all the Lions' numerous woes.  All he's done is given it everything he's got, week in, week out, for eight straight terrible seasons.  This season it got so unbearable, he spun around on a heckler and gave him the bird.  I'm not about to defend that, but it shows how the eight years of terrible football and a vicious crowd have ground down his spirit.

At this point, it must feel absolutely futile, bordering on irrelevant.  This will be his fifth head coach, and God knows-how-manyth offensive coordinator.  All he does--and all he'll do--is work his tail off, punch the clock, cash his paycheck, and get ridiculed for it.  At this point, how can he feel like anything about this hire will be anything different?  It's just a new name on the masthead.  Heck, he must be at least half as frustrated as some of the fans (sarcasm)!  Reading between the lines of his quote, it looks like he sees what Marinelli has hinted at and what Schwartz has outright said several times: nothing is going to change until the roster is rebuilt.  

The importance of this draft, with so many high picks and so many holes to be filled, cannot be overstated.  There's a desperate need for good evaluations, solid decisions, and--perhaps most importantly--a clear direction and consistent philosophy in this 2009 draft.  As the search continues for coordinators (Guntherball?  Really?), I am more concerned with getting a proven talent evaluator in house.  For what it's worth, my vote goes to former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist.  Fired after disagreeing too often with now-former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, he's done some really impressive work for PFT this season, scouting and breaking down games at a very high level of detail.  Since he's currently unemployed, the Lions could bring him in immediately to assist with this draft--and if he's not the right guy for the long term, fine, let him seek full control elsewhere.  But, for crying out loud, don't let any opportunity for more help slip by.


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