By Chris Morgan
After the 1998 season, the legendary Barry Sanders retired. While a player of his caliber is unlikely to ever put on a Lions’ uniform going forward–particularly in terms of running backs–he was the last rusher to even be among the league’s best for Detroit. In 2004, Kevin Jones rushed for 1,133 yards. That is the last time the Lions had a 1,000 yard rusher, which, in the 16 game NFL, isn’t actually all that big of a deal. The Lions have been one of the worst teams running the ball in recent seasons. And this has been a hindrance to their offense…and to their team.
Now, it is certainly apt to point out that they have been great throwing the ball the last couple of seasons, and despite their rushing numbers last year they made the playoffs on the strength of their passing game. Additionally, teams certainly don’t need a great running back–a true guy who can shoulder the load, anymore. Guys like Adrian Peterson are starting to be the exception in the league today where running back tandems are becoming more common. However, that didn’t stop 15 guys from rushing for over 1,000 yards last season, with an injury keeping Matt Forte three yards short of joining them.
You don’t need a great running game to have success. The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl while their leading rusher on the season gained 730 yards. However, in that season, according to Football Outsiders they actually ranked 10th in running offense. They also ranked fifth in passing and second in total defense. Last season Detroit ranked 10th in passing and 16th in rushing. Detroit, in theory, doesn’t need to be good running the ball, but it makes it much harder when you don’t have a balanced, talented offense.
Detroit has been trying for a while to build their running game from within. The days of turning to guys like James Stewart has passed. However, they haven’t managed to find a back that really clicks. Admittedly, injuries have been a big part of that. Kevin Jones and Kevin Smith both saw their career derailed by injuries. It seems like the same thing has happened to Jahvid Best. Mikel Leshoure has already missed an entire season due to injury. There’s a bit of misfortune in that, to be sure, and Leshoure could still prove himself to be a good running back who can help give the Lions a legitimate running game.
However, this is often the case with running backs. It’s the position with the most turnover in the entire league. Other teams manage to turn guys who are low draft picks and undrafted players into good running backs. They find diamonds in the rough, or they develop systems that help guys succeed, or, in Houston’s case, a combination thereof. Meanwhile, the Lions keep spending high picks on backs. Jones and Best were first rounders. Leshoure was a second rounder. Smith was the first pick of the third round. Much like Peterson is a relic of a dying era in terms of his carries, he’s also a relic of a time when running backs were picked highly. He’s also the rare back who deserved it, but I digress.
Maybe the issue is with Detroit’s draft strategy. Maybe they should be taking running backs late in the draft, and spending their higher picks on other positions. Perhaps those picks could go to helping the offensive line. While the discussion here has been about the backs, the offensive line is also a likely cause of the problems. The Lions haven’t had a good offensive line in a while. They did spend a first round pick on a tackle this year in Riley Rieff. They just aren’t using him yet, which is puzzling. The Matt Millen Era was full of drafting errors, but the Lions certainly aren’t perfect yet.
If the Lions want to become a regular playoff contender, or a Super Bowl contender, they still have issues to resolve. Most point to the secondary, but the running game needs to be addressed as well. Detroit has the passing game, the defense line, and the run defense necessary to contend. Even having a good, not great, running game could put them over the edge. They’ll have to make some moves to make that happen. Another Barry Sanders is not walking through the door.
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Chris has been a diehard Detroit Lions fan through the good (Barry Sanders) and the bad (Matt Millen) and that love has led him to take jobs writing about sports, including as a fantasy sports “expert.” His work can be found on Examiner.com.