This edition of “Tragedies from the Detroit Lions” begins in Kansas City.
The Chiefs, a longtime AFC franchise, have had their fair share of defensive legends over the years.
Bobby Bell was a menacing force coming off the edge, wreaking havoc on opposing offenses throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Willie Lanier was an awesome force at middle linebacker, spearheading an attacking defense that shut down Joe Kapp and the Vikings in Super Bowl Four (it’s enough with the Roman numerals, right?). Derrick Thomas was quite possibly the second most dangerous pass rusher in league history, behind Lawrence Taylor.
In 2008, the once-storied KC defense fell apart in historic fashion, allowing almost 6,300 yards on the season, a franchise record going back nearly five decades. The defensive coordinator for that woeful, record-breaking bunch was a gentleman by the name of Gunther Cunningham. Understandably, he was given his walking papers shortly after this disastrous campaign.
Take a wild guess who hired him for the same position a few months later: Your very own Detroit Lions. And we’ve been trapped in this nightmare ever since.
Inherited a Lousy Defense
Now, to be fair, Cunningham inherited a defense for a team that had not won a single game the year before. The defense he took over ranked dead last in yards allowed, points allowed, and pretty much any other defensive metric you could dream up. Cunningham came to town, implemented his system, and put his stamp on the team.
They finished dead last again.
Cunningham’s charges have spent the last three years alternating between mediocrity and complete ineptitude. But it goes even beyond simple statistics and league rankings. A Cunningham defense never seems to have any type of identity.
The Eagles under Jim Johnson were always pressuring the quarterback, blitzing from unique angles, confusing even the most veteran of signal callers.
Dick LeBeau’s Steelers are always smart and unrelenting, combining clever zone blitz packages with bone-shaking collisions in the secondary.
What has been the calling card for the Detroit Lions defense under Gunther Cunningham? Is being “vanilla” a style? If so, I’ll go with that.
It’s not to suggest, either, that Cunningham is blessed with some overwhelming wealth of talent that he does not know how to handle.
Lacking Serious Playmakers
The Lions have always lacked serious playmakers on defense, and that remains the case in the present day. But that’s all the more reason, when selecting a coach to lift a group that has hit rock bottom, to go after a creative sort with the ability to bring fresh ideas to the table. When he came to Detroit, Cunningham was a 40-year coaching veteran coming off his franchise’s worst defensive season in its history? That doesn’t exactly fit the bill.
But these are the Lions. They’re the Chicago Cubs of the NFL, meaning critical decisions are often made without any real logic or common sense; it’s more, “This probably won’t work, but whaddya say we try it anyway!?!”
But the comparison is not entirely fair; at least when the Cubs mangle a situation and fall flat on their face, they do so with a bit of originality, by daring to be different.
In the early 60’s, the Cubs shattered conventional baseball wisdom and chose to play without a full-time manager. Instead, they employed a “College of Coaches,” a random selection of baseball men that would all take their turn leading the club for arbitrary lengths of time throughout the season.
The experiment was a disaster. They finished the ’62 season with the most defeats in team history (for the Cubs, that’s saying something) and one player commented that he’d “never been on a club with lower morale” in his entire career.
Departing From Norm
This departure from the norm was anything but a success and is still ridiculed in baseball circles to this day. But at least they tried something. They could have brought in some baseball lifer, a retread manager that would have probably looked semi-respectable on paper (like the Pistons did with Maurice Cheeks).
But you don’t win titles, or turn around historically awful defenses, by refusing to take chances. Sometimes you have to take that leap.
You have to go hire a fiery defensive assistant from the college ranks with a binder full of new ideas; or an overlooked NFL linebackers coach, a fresh brain with fresh ideas waiting for an opportunity to shine.
Gunther Cunningham was not that guy five years ago when he was hired and he sure is not that guy today.
The Lions are just weeks away from another autumn full of football, and while a 0-0 record technically means that anything is possible, that timeless sports credo, “Defense wins championships,” will almost assuredly come back to haunt Cunningham’s undermanned army of men.
You make a vanilla hire, and you get vanilla results. Never has such a sweet flavor tasted so sour.