Free Press writers examine the Lions’ 30-16 loss to the Rams at Ford Field, and debate the Matt Patricia blueprint going forward Dec. 2, 2018.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett and Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press
The Los Angeles Rams clinched a playoff spot Sunday afternoon at Ford Field. This isn’t a surprise. They’ve been one of the best teams in football all year.
I mention this to remind you that these same Rams lost 12 games two years ago. That’s right: 12.
Then fired their coach. Hired a 30-year-old offensive wizard. And led the NFL in offense the next season.
Well, that isn’t the half of it. That same coach, Sean McVay, now 32, is the talk of the league. Or at least his mind is. And that mind has turned the Rams into a Super Bowl favorite.
In less than two years.
So … it can be done. That’s the good news.
The bad news?
The Lions are a long way from the kind of offensive attack we saw Sunday in the 30-16 loss. And the Rams weren’t at their best.
Matt Patricia deserves some credit here. He mixed up the back end of his defense and confused L.A.’s young quarterback, Jared Goff. Goff also missed some throws he’s been making most of the year.
Still, the Lions’ effort and scheme held the Rams almost a touchdown under their scoring average and more than 100 yards under their total yards average. It was an impressive plan and display designed by a coach who arrived in Detroit as something of a wunderkind himself — Patricia is just a little older.
And yet, defense is not the future of the NFL. Not the immediate future, anyway. The top teams in the league this year are also the top offenses. This isn’t a coincidence.
Now, maybe league brass will tweak the rules the next few years and give defenses the kind of physical freedom they once had. But I doubt it. Science and worried families of teenage sons should keep that from happening.
Which means the Lions have some catching up to do. In personnel, sure. But mostly in structure and philosophy.
While Patricia employs an aggressive and nimble outlook on defense, unafraid to mix up his strategy week to week and to demand that his players keep up, he hides behind an oddly conservative outlook on offense.
You can point to offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter all you want. He isn’t building any kind of game plan without Patricia’s approval.
Too many times Sunday the Patricia-Cooter tandem dialed up feeble-minded plays when the down and distance and, frankly, season, called for something bold.
Run on third-and-long? Toss a quick out on the same? Hand off up the middle inside the red zone when a shot at the end zone through the air was there to take?
You can quibble with any call when it doesn’t work, and I’m not here to do that. Partly because it’s silly to assume a different call would’ve worked in its place. The math doesn’t work like that.
And while offensive style and approach can be about percentages, it’s about something harder to see as well.
When the Lions break the huddle with almost no chance of picking up a first down because of a play call that the fans — and the players — can sniff out, maybe that particular call is part of the long view, meant to keep the status quo until the offense gets the ball back on the next possession.
The problem is it’s tough to know if that next possession will come. Or if it does, how the parameters of the game might have changed by then.
Meaning some times you’ve just got to throw the damn ball. Take a chance.
This isn’t to say that the young Rams coach favors tossing it out around 60 times a game. But from the start of the game Sunday, the difference in how each offense attacked was striking.
It’s true that McVay enjoys a roster of speedy — and healthy — receivers and one of the best running backs in football. (Hello, Todd Gurley.) It’s also true McVay took over a four-win team with a second-year quarterback the previous coach didn’t think could play and …
… well, you get the idea.
Goff didn’t have his most efficient passing day in Detroit. Yet this didn’t stop McVay from dropping his young quarterback several steps behind the line of scrimmage and letting it fly down the field.
It was, I don’t know, refreshing, and looked like post-modern football, just as most of the best teams in the sport do when they play offense. It’s a relentless, aerial assault, where the pass is used to set up the run, not the other way around.
The Lions, on the other hand, are stuck in mud, and before you blame the injuries and trade of Golden Tate, remember that this offense wasn’t much better at the start of the season.
Meanwhile, McVay reportedly reached out to offensive coordinator Cliff Kingsbury last week. The innovative mind behind the high-scoring teams at Texas Tech.
Kingsbury got fired by the good folks in Lubbock, Texas, because his teams didn’t win enough; at some point you have to play defense. Yet his name has surfaced many times since his dismissal because of his offensive track record.
That McVay reached out to Kingsbury says plenty about the 32-year-old coach. He’s got the best, most balanced offense in the game and he’s seeking voices that could make it even better.
Yet the Lions step to the line of scrimmage with a plan built for another generation, and that generation has passed.
This off-season, Patricia has a chance to bring his offense into the light. It’s where the game is headed.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.