The Detroit Lions Then and Now: Running Backs


Then and Now is a SideLion Report mini-series in which we look at each position group from the 0-16 season of 2008 and compare it to the current roster.

The 2008 Detroit Lions had a lot of problems beyond simply not being able to win a game. One of those problems was a general inability to run the football.

As should be expected from an 0-16 team, the Lions found themselves behind in a lot of football games and that led to a next-to league low number of rushing attempts. When they did try to run the football, they weren’t particularly successful.

34Kevin Smith162389768504.161.02
32Rudi Johnson14762371273.116.91
11Daunte Culpepper51225192.15.05
6Dan Orlovsky107290104.12.93
8Jon Kitna46340105.78.53
36Aveion Cason747041.81.01
81Calvin Johnson163-107-0.3-0.13
5Drew Stanton33200156.76.70
45Jerome Felton1324042.00.30
44Moran Norris1111011.00.10
Team Total16352133210503.883.331

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/23/2011.

Kevin Smith put together a decent rookie season, despite falling short of the semi-magical 1,000 yard mark, but the running game suffered from a lack of depth behind Smith. Rudi Johnson added very little and no one else saw a significant amount of action running the ball. All that could be said for the running game after the 2008 season is that the team may have found good value with Kevin Smith as a third-round draft pick. Rudi Johnson‘s career was clearly not resurrectable and Aveion Cason is a low level roster-filler.


Has the Lions running game gotten any better since 2008? Well, it hasn’t gotten worse but it is hard to vehemently argue that it is much better.

44Jahvid Best161715554453.234.71
28Maurice Morris14903365263.724.01
34Kevin Smith6341330153.922.20
45Jerome Felton162276093.54.81
14Shaun Hill11221230405.611.23
5Drew Stanton6181131206.318.83
21Aaron Brown61758093.49.70
11Stefan Logan1615950216.35.92
13Nate Burleson1478102511.65.82
81Calvin Johnson*154320158.02.11
9Matthew Stafford3411192.83.72
Team Total16404161311454.0100.819

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/23/2011.

The yards gained on the ground is certainly better but it was largely attained as a result of playing in more competitive games. The difference between falling behind and the necessary adjustment to virtually abandon the running game compared to the types of games we saw last season resulted in 52 more rushing attempts and 281 more rushing yards on the season. While that is certainly a positive, the numbers on a per carry basis temper any enthusiasm that might be starting to build as you read these words. The ’08 Lions gained 3.8 yards per carry while the ’10 Lions gained 4.0 yards per carry. That effort was good enough for 19th best among NFL offenses last year, up from their ranking of 28th in ’08. Better is better, but in this case better is still below average.

Of greater concern is Jahvid Best‘s 3.2 yards per carry average. How much of that poor rushing average is attributed to his double turf toe injury remains to be seen but I think it is fair to say it hurt his performance quite a bit. The good news is that next season should feature a healthy Jahvid Best and a new running-mate in Mikel Leshoure. Maurice Morris has been (and perhaps still will be) an effective player in certain spots for the team but it is clear that the Lions future in the backfield is the Best-Leshoure tandem. Their complementary skill sets will allow each to shine in situations where their particular skills are best suited for success. Comparing the backfield now to the backfield then, Best and Leshoure will form a duo more than capable of outperforming Kevin Smith’s ’08 performance while Maurice Morris is an improvement over Rudi Johnson.

I like the running game’s outlook beyond the running back roster as well. Compare the rushing stats from 2008 and 2010 and you’ll notice more attempts from players outside their running back rotation. The offensive staff found success by putting the ball in the hands of Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Stefan Logan as an added wrinkle to their running game. That kind of creativity bodes well for the future of the entire offense.

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