WSJ: Lions "the NFL's worst defense, ever"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Football writer Reed Albergotti of the Wall Street Journal (the Wall Street Journal has a sports page?!) explores how the Lions defense got so terrible.

The headline says "The NFL's Worst Defense, Ever: Bad Drafts and Strategic Bungling Have the Lions Bleeding Yards at Record Pace." To be fair, nowhere in the article does Albergotti call the Lions' D the worst ever, and editors, not reporters, write the headlines. Albergotti does note, however:

The team's defense has allowed 1,033 points in 34 games—the most since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

Despite a new defensive-minded head coach and a completely re-engineered roster, the Lions lost their first two games this season by a combined score of 72 to 40, putting its defense back in its familiar place at the bottom of the league.

All this presents an enduring mystery: In a league like the NFL that's expressly designed to help bad teams help themselves, how can a defense whose players will earn $45 million this season be so stubbornly horrible?

Albergotti imparts to the nation reasons for which we here are all too familiar (my paraphrases):

1. Committing to, then bungling, the Tampa 2, which can work with smaller, less strong players BUT requires discipline and knowing the playbook and your responsibilities so well as to be instinctive. The Lions got smaller, weaker, less talented and the players never grasped the defense.

2. Ridiculous hires (Rod Marinelli as head coach and The Son-in-Law as defensive coordinator, neither of whom had experience in the job they were doing.)

3. Millen's impossibly bad drafting.
Though he's famous for picking bad wide receivers, Mr. Millen's greatest shortcoming may actually have come on defense. He used a second-round pick in 2007 for defensive end Ikaika Alama-Francis, who is no longer in the NFL, and two third-round picks in 2004 and 2005 for cornerbacks Keith Smith and Stanley Wilson, who are not on an NFL roster. In addition, from 2004 to 2008—when Mr. Millen left the team—nearly all of the players the Lions drafted in the late rounds haven't panned out.

Albergotti talks about how Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham are transforming the defense again. Going bigger and stronger, running a more traditional 4-3. Clearly the transition isn't complete. (Albergotti defends the Lions in this respect, though -- that New Orleans offense also shredded a typically stout Eagles D the following week.)

Albergotti concludes thusly:
Mr. Schwartz hasn't been around long enough to get very much depth on defense, and a season-ending injury to defensive end Jared DeVries was a significant loss.

"What Jim Schwartz took over, in my opinion, was worse than an expansion franchise," says former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick, who will call the Lions game against the Redskins for Fox on Sunday. "There's only so much you can do in a year."

A fair and accurate assessment? Share your thoughts in The Den.