With Hire Of Bevell, Lions Rightfully Turning Over Offense To Kerryon Johnson

Are Matthew Stafford's Lions a thing of the past?

Will Burchfield
January 17, 2019 - 8:44 am

© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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You and a friend are at an amusement park, waiting in line for a rollercoaster. 30 minutes go by and you hardly move. Then an hour. Then two. It's hot, you're sweating and neither of you are having fun. Finally you decide you've had enough. You turn to your friend and tell him you're done. He looks at you, his mouth stained by Dippin' Dots, and says you're crazy.

We've already spent all this time in line. We can't back out now

Except you can. And you should. So you leave him there, waiting for a rollercoaster he may never get to ride, and go find a better one instead. And you’re crazy?

A couple weeks ago, Lions GM Bob Quinn was asked about the performance of Matthew Stafford this season relative to the value of his contract. The contract is what it is, Quinn said. His point was that he doesn't judge Stafford based on what he's paid. His larger point was that the five-year, $135 million deal Stafford signed in 2017, for better or worse, is water under the bridge -- and it shouldn't color every decision the organization makes moving forward. 

At long last, after watching potential candidates drop like flies, the Lions hired an offensive coordinator on Wednesday. You may not have recognized his name right away; it didn't show up on many ‘Top Five Targets’ lists. Of course, Darrell Bevell spent the 2018 season out of the NFL. His 12-year run as an offensive coordinator – the first five with the Vikings, the final seven with the Seahawks – came to an end in Seattle after the 2017 season.

The first thing that stands out about Bevell – aside from yoooooo he called the worst play in Super Bowl history (which is as ubiquitous as it is true) – is that he likes to run the ball. In his 12 seasons as an OC, he’s produced six top-five rushing attacks, including a No. 1 overall finish with each team. He’s never produced a top-five passing attack. In general, when his offenses are humming they’re fueled by the run.

The first thing that stands out about the Lions in recent years – okay, maybe not the first – is that they’ve been built on the pass. This is due in large part to their marriage to Stafford, a marriage that doesn’t feel as stable as it used to as it enters year 11. In an effort to make this relationship work, they’ve hired and fired head coaches and coordinators, experimented and failed with wide receivers and O-linemen. At every turn, they’ve tried to justify their investment in their franchise quarterback.

To what effect? A couple playoff appearances, at best. And at what cost? The utter lack of a run game, for one. The various rushing droughts are as well-known as that little tidbit about Bevell, so we won’t rehash them here. The most infamous one, of course, came to an end this season, a season in which the Lions committed to the run like they never have before in the Stafford era. Their best player on offense, before he got hurt, was rookie Kerryon Johnson.

There’s a misconception that because the Lions are paying Stafford $27.5 million per year they have to make him the focal point of their offense. We’ve already spent all this time in line. But sunk costs shouldn’t affect future decisions. If Matt Patricia believes the team’s best shot at competing is controlling the clock on offense with a run-heavy scheme, thereby reining Stafford in, that’s exactly the route he should take. The hire of Bevell is his first significant step in this direction.

To be clear, no one’s suggesting the Lions will altogether stop throwing the ball. Stafford remains a big piece of this team, and Quinn has made it clear he intends to upgrade the personnel around his quarterback this offseason. He wants to put him in better positions to succeed. Bringing in Bevell still accomplishes that goal. From the standpoint of scheme, helping Stafford succeed will mean – at times – keeping Stafford out of his own way.

Can you blame Patricia? Even as he emphasized the run this season, he allowed Stafford to continue driving the offense, perhaps wanting to know if he could trust him. Then Stafford gave him every reason to take the keys away. The season-opener against the Jets. That crucial Week 8 game against the Seahawks. Thanksgiving against the Bears. The list goes on. Meanwhile, the offense’s best stretch of play – and Stafford’s, by far – came in Weeks 3-7 when the Lions ran the ball more than they threw it.

It was a tidy microcosm of the season. In games the Lions logged more rushes than passes, they went 4-0. When the reverse was true, they went 2-10. When they ran it at least 25 times, they went 6-2; less than 25 times, 0-8. Sure, that trend is likely universal – teams tend to run the ball when they’re in the lead (and vice-versa) – but in the case of the Lions the splits are too glaring to ignore.

It’s become a la mode in the NFL to spread it out and throw it. In this way, the hire of Bevell seems behind the times. But is this notion of a passing league overblown? Of the 12 playoff teams this season, all but two ranked in the top half of the league in rushing. Seven of them ranked in the top half of the league in passing. Put another way, three of the league’s top five passing teams missed the playoffs, versus just one of its top five rushing teams. Again, these numbers are self-evident, but they echo an age-old adage: it starts with the run.

It’d be a stretch to suggest Bevell is some kind of wizard in the rushing department. His last four years in Minnesota he had a young Adrian Peterson, his first four years in Seattle he had beast-mode Marshawn Lynch – eight straight years of a Pro-Bowl running back. Naturally, he played toward the strength of his personnel. In Detroit he’ll inherit Johnson, another star in the making. Johnson likely won’t get the kind of carries Peterson and Lynch did – his body isn’t really built for it – but he’s poised to become the centerpiece of a run-first offense.  

Call this an outdated approach. Just remember, we spent much of 2018 wishing the Lions would lean less on the erratic arm of their veteran quarterback and more on the limber legs of their rookie running back, at least until he got hurt. So if you were among those cursing Stafford, if you were rightfully bemoaning his crushing turnovers and foolish late-game decisions, you don't have much of a right to condemn the hire of Bevell. 

As passing has taken over the NFL, building a roster around a quarterback on his rookie contract has become the template for success. There’s no doubt that it works. But the template isn’t necessarily exclusive to quarterbacks. It’s exclusive to great players making less than their market value. The 21-year old Johnson is signed through the next three seasons at an average salary of $1.6 million. His cap hit will max out at about $2 million. Yes, Stafford’s will climb as high as $31.5 million over this same timeframe, but that money is gone. There’s no point in the Lions letting it hold them captive.

The best teams are built around their best players, not their most expensive ones.

Ever since the Lions drafted Stafford first overall in 2009, they’ve been standing in line, waiting for a return on their investment. Then they doubled down in 2017. Given the way quarterbacks were being paid at the time and the general direction of the NFL, you could understand why. But the payout hasn’t come. The idea that they Lions need to keep waiting because they’ve already waited this long, because they've already sunk time and money into the equation, is, yep, crazy.

By hiring Bevell, they’re finally stepping out of the line. They may find something better. They may not. But it looks like they’re ready to ride Johnson and the running game, which at the very least is something new.