Another season was unraveling for the Detroit Lions.
This time the year was 1999, a few months after super star running back Barry Sanders unexpectedly retired. After an 8-4 start the Lions could no longer run the football. We in the media became critical of offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom, the offensive line and head coach Bobby Ross.
Everybody knew the rushing attack would suffer after Sanders retired. But 31 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Thirty two yards against the Washington Redskins?
The Lions had lost three consecutive games heading into the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. I ran into Croom in the demilitarized zone known as the Pontiac Silverdome kitchen. It’s where coaches ate lunch. And the media gathered there too to wolf down meals provided by Outback Steakhouse and other nearby restaurants.
Players and coaches always deny they read your stories. But they do.
“Hey young man,” Croom said. “I want you to come with me. I want to show you something.”
For the second time I was taken into a coaches office where a frozen image lay on a giant white screen. It was the Lions offense on one side and the Green Bay Packers defense on the other.
The Lion loved using play action when Sanders played. But they rarely ran it the following year.
Quarterback Gus Frerotte dropped back on a first and 10 play, planted the ball into the mid section of running back Sedrick Irving.
“Watch the linebackers,” Croom said firmly.
The linebackers neither moved in or dropped deeper. They stood their ground, barely flinching. He showed more film against the Bears, the Bucs and other teams. Same response. No one feared Ron Rivers or Irving.
“Now check this out,” Croom said.
He changed to game film from the previous season against the Packers. Same Green Bay linebackers. Same game situation. This time quarterback Charlie Batch dropped back, planted the ball into Sanders mid section, before pulling it out to drop back and pass.
The Packer linebackers took two or three aggressive jab steps toward the Lions back field. Batch easily tossed a pass over their heads. He showed more clips from 1998 against other teams. Same response. The hard jab steps toward the line of scrimmage was very noticeable.
“Things are a lot different without Barry,” Crooms said. “Play action no longer works.”
This explained why the Lions offense stalled in 1999.
In 1998 Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards. In 1999 leading rusher Greg Hill ran for 542 yards.
The Lions would go on to lose that final game to Minnesota 24-17, but still qualified for the playoffs with an 8-8 record. Football Outsiders Mike Tanier would call them one of the worst playoff teams in history.
Washington stormed to a 27-0 halftime lead in route to a 27-13 playoff victory.
The Lions ran the ball 10 times for 45 yards in that game.Find Terry Foster Podcast here: