What the Detroit Lions can learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers about firing Lombardi


Sep 13, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) talks to head coach Sean Payton in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Saints 31-19. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When the Detroit Lions opted to mimic the New Orleans Saints’ offensive philosophy in 2014 many of us were excited.

Why shouldn’t we have been? That offense, as ran by Sean Payton had been one of the most prolific in the NFL finishing in the top ten in total, scoring and passing offenses 4 of the past 5 seasons.

Current Lions Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi was introduced to Sean Payton’s offensive system in 2007. After seven years of exposure to Payton’s system Jim Caldwell deemed Joe Lombardi uniquely qualified to help transition the Lions into the scheme New Orleans rode to a Superbowl victory in 2009.

The Lions have been fully invested in transitioning to Lombardi’s offense too opting to preempt need in the 2014 and 2015 drafts to add personnel the team thought their new offensive system required. They have cut players who were productive under the team’s former offensive construct and have even shown tolerance when the Lombardi’s system lessened reliance upon, and subsequently, the production of All Pro Wide Receiver Calvin Johnson.

To date, the Lions have received little return on their sizable investment. Consider these numbers.

YearTotal OffenseRush OffensePass OffenseRedzone %Scoring Offense

***Offense Rankings under Scott Linehan***

***All Data Compiled from NFL GSIS***

YearTotal OffenseRush OffensePass OffenseRedzone %Scoring Offense

***Offensive Rankings under Joe Lombardi***

***All Data Compiled from NFL GSIS***

Oct 24, 2014; Bagshot, UNITED KINGDOM; Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (left) and quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) at practice at the Pennyhill Park Hotel & The Spa in advance of the NFL International Series game against the Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers above clearly show the Lions were better under Scott Linehan than they’ve been thus far under Joe Lombardi. It should also be noted the Lions have actually taken a step backwards in terms of their total and rush offenses although there has been an uptick in passing, redzone and scoring offenses. Nonetheless, fans have begun to question whether the offensive transition has been worth it. Some have even begun to suggest the Lions should fire Joe Lombardi en route to installing yet another offensive system.

While entities outside the organization may speculate on Lombardi’s future it’s a good bet the powers that be in Allen Park are entrenched in a position of support for Lombardi. The Lions think of themselves as a patient organization not dissimilar to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This was why Jim Schwartz evaded being fired for so long even though he averaged 10 losses each season during his Detroit tenure. It’s also why the Lions will likely give Joe Lombardi at least three seasons to prove his worth.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are relevant to this discussion for another reason as they recently went through a similar change of offensive philosophies.

In August of 2014 Celebrity Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Calvin ‘Snoop Dogg’ Broadus took to Instagram with a profanity-laced tirade calling for the immediate firing of Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley. Several Steelers fans chimed in with their support of Broadus’ assertion and though no one within the organization openly admitted it, Haley entered 2014 on the hot seat.

Haley joined the Steelers as offensive coordinator in 2012 and his offense had not been very successful during the first two years of his administration. There was also rather public ‘friction’ between Haley and Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Issues aside, Head Coach Mike Tomlin stayed the course with Haley and his decision seems to have paid off as illustrated by the following chart.

Todd Haley and Joe Lombardi are similar in that both inherited offenses that played better the year prior to their arrival than they did a year after. In his first two seasons Haley actually made the Steelers offense worse in 4 of the five categories listed above. In like manner, Lombardi made the Lions categorically worse than they’d been under their former offensive coordinator.

At the end of Haley’s 2nd season the Steelers correctly identified their offensive line as a primary hindrance to Haley’s offensive scheme. In 2014 the Steelers made a coaching change, but instead of firing Todd Haley, they hired Mike Munchak, one of the NFL’s finest offensive line coaches, to improve their quality of play at the point of attack.

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This subtle change rectified a litany of issues and the Steelers offense finally got in sync. As illustrated in the chart above the Steelers offense has ranked in the top 7 in passing, scoring and total offenses each of the past two seasons.

At the end of this season, the 2015 Detroit Lions may find themselves in a very similar circumstance as the one the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers faced. While there hasn’t been a celebrity calling out of Joe Lombardi the hashtag #FireLombardi is becoming increasingly more prevalent among Lions faithful on social media. Also, there’s no way to escaping that poor offensive line play has thwarted every aspect of Lombardi’s offensive design.

Sep 20, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison (96) sacks Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) in the second half at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings won 26-16. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

According to Pro Football Focus, when Matthew Stafford has the luxury of passing without pressure he’s completing 78.8% of his passes and has a QB Rating of 102.5. However, when he’s under pressure Stafford is only completing 32.3% of his passes and has a paltry 43.1 QB Rating.

The Lions attempted to revamp their offensive line this off-season, but the early returns aren’t favorable. After week two Matthew Stafford is tied with Russell Wilson (also 0-2 on the season) as the 2nd most pressured quarterback in the NFL. While some of that pressure can be credited to talented defenders and the intellectual prowess of defensive coordinators, all too often Lions offensive linemen are consistently losing their individual matchups.

While it has yet to take form in Detroit, the Saints offense is a proven and effective offensive construct. Instead of scrapping the entire offensive game plan it’s possible the Lions could follow the Steelers’ blueprint by making a coaching change at offensive line level instead.

Jun 19, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo (left) talks to offensive tackles Rick Wagner (71) and Brett Van Sloten (61) during minicamp at the Under Armour Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan have served the team well in the past, but the unit they coach is arguably the NFL’s worst performing unit. Should the Lions procure the services of a new offensive line coach like a Juan Castillo or Russ Grimm it could improve protection enough to allow the offense to actually execute Lombardi’s game plan.

That’s the only way the Lions would have enough information to make an informed decision on whether Lombardi and his offensive scheme can actually work in Detroit. To those hoping for Lombardi’s firing, this move could serve a dual purpose by putting Lombardi on notice that the next coaching change the Lions make is likely to occur at the coordinator level.

It’s popular to fan the flames of contempt for Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi and call for his firing, but the ramifications to this move outweigh any benefits that might be gained. What more, Head Coach Jim Caldwell could refuse to fire Lombardi and an impasse could result in the team looking for a new head coach. There’s also the prospect the Lions could hire an even less talented offensive coordinator than Joe Lombardi.

Although it may be painful to watch the only real choice the Lions have today is to stay the course and hope that in so doing the Lions find the same success Pittsburgh is currently enjoying.

What say you Lions fans? Should the team fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi or focus on improving the level of coaching at the offensive line level? If you like the idea of firing Lombardi, who would you suggest as his replacement? Do you like my choices of replacement offensive line coaches or do you have someone else in mind? Let me know on Twitter; I can be reached at @dmacali818.

Next: Matthew Stafford: Elite or Not, He's the Right Man for the Job

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