There aren’t 25 bison in that picture, but let’s pretend there are. Twenty-five horned, furry demons, each representing a road defeat. The herd has been rolling the Lions for years now, and now they have to take a stand. The 0-8 Buffalo Bills are the best chance the Lions will have all season to break the streak. It’s now, or never.
Chan Gailey vs. Gunther Cunningham
You may notice a few tweaks in the format. Team Coached, Rank, PpG, YpA, YpC for offense, then the same for defense. Then Real Points, Delta-Points, indicating the percentage away the season mean, YpA, Delta-YpA, YpC, and Delta-YpC. The idea here is to see, at a glance, that in their four meetings as coordinators and/or head coaches, Gunther Cunningham’s defenses allowed Chan Gailey’s offenses to score 20.9% below, 56.9% below, 28.6% below, and 11.6% above their season averages on the year.
. . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. From 1974 to 1993, Chan Gailey bounced around both the college and NFL ranks. He served as an assistant, coordinator, or head coach for six different teams, which includes multiple positions (or multiple stints) at Troy State, Air Force, and with the Denver Broncos under Dan Reeves. It wasn’t until he got a gig as the Steelers’ wide receivers coach in 1994 that his career in the NFL took off. Under OC Ray Erhardt, the Steelers pounded the run game. But Cohwer wanted to open it up a bit—and that philosophical dispute led to Erhardt’s ouster after the ‘95 season. Bill Cowher gave Gailey the reigns—and a directive to score points.
That Gailey did. The Steelers were ranked 11th and 7th in the NFL in scoring during his two years as offensive coordinator, and Gunther faced him with his fearsome Chiefs D both times. In the first meeting, the 21.5 PpG Steelers performed to expectations when facing the 11th-ranked defense, scoring 17 points. They were much more effective through the air then typical (70.9% better!), but could only muster 3.06 yards per carry.
In the 1997 matchup, both units were better. Gailey’s Steelers were racking up 23.2 PpG, but the Chiefs were only allowing 14.5. The Chiefs put the clamps on even better than expected, though, allowing the Steelers just 10 points (56.9% below their average). Oddly, they allowed 6.17 yards per carry on the ground, but held the Steelers to a meager 4.81 yards per attempt. This jibes with something we’ve seen before from offenses that like to spread it out against Gunther’s D: when he lets them run wild but stops the pass, they can’t score for beans.
Chan's success with the Steelers’ offense got him his first crack at the Big Chair in the NFL, with the Dallas Cowboys. With Dallas’ vaunted skill position trio of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, Chan’s offense scored 23.8 PpG, good for 9th in the NFL. With a very robust 7.25 YpA, and a very Emmitt-like 4.04 YpC, Dallas’ offense had plenty of teeth. The Chiefs were significantly down that year, dropping from the #1 scoring defense in the NFL to only the 22nd-best. They were allowing points at a 22.7 PpG clip—and yet, they held the ‘boys to just 17 points; an extremely impressive performance. Interestingly, YpA and YpC were both depressed by just over 20%.
In the final matchup, we have what’s likely to be the best test. It’s a recent Chan Gailey offense versus a Schwartz/Cunningham defense—unfortunately, it’s an 8th-ranked Dolphins offense versus a 25th-ranked Titans D. The ‘fins were scoring 21.5 points per game, while the Titans were allowing a significant 24.2. Expectations would be that Miami would score well above their average—and they did exceed their average, but not by much. They put up 24 offensive points, exactly matching the Titans’ average on the season (remember, Miami was a well-above-average offense!). This time, it’s more like the first meeting, where the offense went wild through the air, but did nothing on the ground.
Given the data above, I’m more than comfortable proclaiming that given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham’s hyperaggressive defenses disproportionately depress the scoring output of Chan Gailey offenses. There is no consistent mechanism in terms of run/pass disruption—and typical depression mechanisms like sacks or turnovers aren’t the causes either (they’re not on the chart this time, but trust me, those numbers weren’t exceptional).
The 26th-ranked Buffalo offense has been averaging just 18.8 points per game, by far the worst Chan Gailey offense we’ve looked at. The Lions, ranked 23rd, are allowing 22.4 points a game. In theory, we should split the difference here—but applying a moderate systemic advantage, I’ll project the Bills to score 13-16 points. I’m not even going to attempt YpA and/or YpC, given how all over the map those numbers are this time, but I have high confidence in this scoring projection.
Even if I’m wrong about the systemic advantage for Gunther, we’re still looking at 17-20 points—not enough to overcome our next matchup.
Scott Linehan vs. George Edwards
Here’s a problem. Except for two years in Washington around the turn of the century, Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards hasn’t been a defensive coordinator before. Since Linehan didn’t face off against Edwards in either of those years, we have no data to go on, save for this season’s averages. The only real “coaching tree” substitute we can look at is Dom Capers, for whom Edwards was the linebackers coach in Miami. From a Capers-y Watchtower:
. . . As we've seen with Gregg Williams and Dick LeBeau, Scott Linehan's balanced, conventional offense is disproportionately successful against an aggressive, blitzing 3-4.
I can’t at all be sure that this applies to Edwards’ flavor of 3-4. In terms of pass rush, they don’t seem effective; they’re 25th-ranked in sacks. But, they’ve faced fewer pass attempts than anyone but the Broncos, meaning their pass rush rate is closer to middle-of-the-pack. They’ve faced so few pass attempts because A) they’re usually playing from behind, and B) they’re terrible against the run. Buffalo’s faced more rushing attempts than anyone else—295 in just 8 games. That’s 36 rushing attempts per game. Despite every team attempting to put it in the cooler via the run, the Bill are still allowing a walloping 4.84 YpC. This still isn’t as bad as the 2008 Lions, but it’s not much better.
So what’s going to happen when the 7th-ranked Lions offense comes to town? Since most of those points were scored with Shaun Hill at the helm, there shouldn’t be any dropoff from the usual rate of production. Even if there is . . . well, we’re talking a team that averages 25 points a game going up against the worst defense in the NFL. Even if we presume there is no systemic advantage, the Lions should score 30-35 points. Due to the total lack of systemic historical data, I have low confidence in this projection.
If Shaun Hill’s performance is limited by his injury—or if the playbook has been cut down because he can’t take snaps under center—then this number could very well fall. However, I see a big, big day for Jahvid Best against this defense, and at least a just-plain-old-big day for the passing game. Unless there is some serious defensive/special teams scoring for the Bills, the Lions should get an early lead and hold it.
Somehow, the tenor of the national conversation surrounding the Bills-Lions game has become “Oh, sweet, the Bills will get a chance to get off the schneid! They pretty good for 0-8; they just almost beat the Bears, you know.” But the numbers just don’t support it. This is one of the best offenses in the NFL going against, by far, the worst—and on the other side, a mediocre offense against a mediocre defense. The Lions have a clear upper hand in this game, and mostly likely will win, 30-14. Hey, twenty-five fell demons of meadow grazing and road defeats! We are apex predators; you lose.