One year after Lions fired Millen, Detroit's biggest problem remains
Lions pass defense is historically bad and management hasn't noticed
Detroit did not pinpoint defensive backs in draft or free agency
Lions get credit for cleaning house, but losses still mounting
Lions fans celebrated when the organization fired ineffective general manager Matt Millen one year ago today. Yet little has changed since that brief spark of hope came to Detroit.
Today, the Lions are mired in a 19-game losing streak, tied for the second longest string of futility in NFL history. And this dysfunctional organization is still gripped by the same two major problems it suffered when Millen was in charge:
1. They've fielded a series of the worst pass defenses that have ever existed.
2. Team management is apparently too clueless to realize that pass defense is the singular reason why they haven't won a game since 2007 and, as a result, the situation is only getting worse.
Pigskin pundits love to talk about the need to run the ball well on offense and stuff the run on defense. It's a nice a story that gets the testosterone of beer-fueled football fans coursing through the system.
But the truth is the NFL, since the invention of the T-formation in the 1940s, has always been a league that has rewarded good passers and punished bad ones. Teams that pass well on offense or stop the pass well on defense win games, with or without a strong run attack.
Conversely, teams that pass poorly or can't stop the pass on defense are destined for failure. The winless Lions of the past 19 games provide some of the most humiliating examples in history of a team that simply can not stop the pass.
In fact, here are four bone-chilling Cold, Hard Football Facts about the utter futility of the Lions pass defense.
1. The 2007 Lions, the team that launched the current 19-game losing streak, was the first team in history to allow opponents to complete more than 70 percent of their passes over the course of a season.
2. Things went from bad to worse the following year. The 2008 Lions posted the worst Defensive Passer Rating in NFL history (110.8), a critical measure of defensive success.
Only five quarterbacks in history have bested a 110.8 passer rating in a season, and four of them are named Brady, Manning, Montana and Young. In other words Detroit's defense was so bad last year it made every quarterback it faced look like a Hall of Famer at the very height of their powers.
It's no coincidence that the first 0-16 team in history also fielded the worst pass defense in history. As we said, it's always been a passing league.
3. The 2008 Lions were so bad on pass defense that they intercepted just four passes all year. That was the fewest number of picks by any team since -- hold your breath here -- the 1934 St. Louis Gunners, who nabbed three INTs.
But comparing the 2008 Lions to the 1934 Gunners is a little unfair ... to the Gunners.
That short-lived franchise played just three NFL games, posting a 1-2 record in 1934, before fading into oblivion. Yet even this forgotten squad intercepted three of the 52 passes attempted against them. The 2008 Lions faced 443 pass attempts and got their hands on just four of them.
4. It gets even worse, folks: The 2009 Lions might set new standards of ineptitude.
Through two games, the Lions have produced a gruesome 134.9 Defensive Passer Rating. They've surrendered 8 TD passes with just 1 INT. They've allowed their two opposing quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Brett Favre, to complete a staggering 80 percent of their passes.
The Lions can barely even force an incompletion, let alone intercept a pass or stop a drive.
Coupled with a rookie quarterback on offense, this crushingly inept pass defense is a recipe for yet another disaster -- with another 0-16 season a very real possibility.
For example, the Cold, Hard Football Facts have a new Quality Stat (a stat that has a direct correlation to winning football games) called Passer Rating Differential. This stat compares a team's offensive passer rating to its Defensive Passer Rating.
The Lions are already the worst team ever in this category -- their Matt Stafford-led offense has produced an abysmal 40.5 passer rating. Subtract the staggeringly bad 134.9 Defensive Passer Rating, and you have a Passer Rating Differential of minus 94.5.
That number will probably improve over the the season ... but it's still so bad it's hard to fathom.
For example, there are only a handful of teams in history who can boast a team-wide passer rating of 94.5, period -- almost all of those teams in the past 20 years. Yet the Lions are minus 94.5 points in the hole when we compare their offensive production to their defensive production.
Like we said, the NFL rewards great passing teams and punishes bad passing teams -- so you can see why this truly awful Passer Rating Differential is a huge problem.
It all starts at the top
So here's the problem in Detroit in a nutshell:
The Lions fielded one of the worst pass defenses ever in 2007.
It got worse in 2008.
It looks like it will be even worse once again here in 2009.
What's management done to rectify the situation? Just about nothing but embarrass itself.
In the 2008 draft, fresh off a season in which they allowed opponents to complete more than 70 percent of their passes, the Lions did not draft a single defensive back until their very last pick: safety Caleb Campbell from Army, that hot-bed of Hall of Fame defensive backs. Apparently, Glen Davis and Doc Blanchard were already taken.
Lions ownership made one step in the right direction -- firing general manager Matt Millen exactly one year ago (Sept. 23, 2008), but nothing's improved since then, either on the field or in the front office.
This year, fresh off a season in which they surrendered their record 110.8 Defensive Passer Rating, the Lions made a colossal draft-day gaffe when they selected a quarterback with their top pick.
Stafford could prove to be the second-coming of Joe Montana. But you could pair him with Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in their primes and he's not going to win many football games playing with the worst pass defense that's ever existed.
The Lions had 10 picks in this year's draft. Six of those picks, including the first two, were expended on offense. Only one pick, second-rounder Louis Delmas (Detroit's third selection), was used to help improve the secondary of the worst pass defense in history.
The Lions did clean house, remaking much of the roster: the entire defensive backfield that kicked off this season, for example, is different than the one Detroit fielded last season. But remaking the roster and improving the roster are two different things. Here's a look at Detroit's starting secondary this year:
Journeyman cornerback Anthony Henry, acquired from the Cowboys in the offseason, has had a good NFL career with 30 picks. But 10 of those INTs came back in his rookie year in Cleveland in 2001.
The other Week 1 corner, Eric King, had started just three games in four NFL seasons. He's never picked off a pass. But he was good enough to win a starting job in the Detroit secondary this year. Phillip Buchanon got the starting nod at corner in Week 2. He's another journeyman who's bounced around with four teams in nine NFL seasons, landing with Detroit this year.
Starting strong safety Marquand Manuel, another 2009 offseason acquisition, is playing with his sixth team in eight NFL seasons. He's spent just two years as a full-time starter, including last year on Denver's pathetic defense. But he, too, was good enough to earn a starting spot in Detroit's remade secondary. He's paired with rookie free safety Delmas.
This group represents Detroit's effort to rebuild the worst pass defense in history: no big-name free agents, few high draft picks on the roster, and little hope of success -- once again -- in 2009.
Sooner or later, the Lions brain trust will figure out what's wrong with their team and stop drafting wide receivers and quarterbacks with their top picks. Until then, we'll just keep counting the losses.
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