Luckily, as an offensive coordinator, Linehan has proven adept at getting superior production out of some less-than-stellar players.
In Minnesota from 2002-2004, Linehan oversaw the second, first, and fourth best offenses, respectively, in total yards. The Vikings were eighth, sixth, and sixth in points scored in those seasons.
In those three years, the team averaged 7.9 yards per pass attempt, 4.9 yards per rush, and 12.2 yards per reception. Compare that to last season's Lions, who averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt (!), 3.8 per rush and 11.7 per reception—only 9.8 per catch if you factor out Calvin Johnson's 17.1 average pulling the team average up to respectability.
This offense was successful with exactly one true star skill position player: wide receiver Randy Moss. It just so happens the Lions offense only has one true star, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is often compared to Moss.
The following players all had their best seasons playing for Linehan:
Moss—I know, he had 23 touchdowns in New England in 2007-08, but actually had more catches and yards in Minnesota in 2003—with 111 receptions, 1,632 yards, and 17 TDs.
Daunte Culpepper with a 110.9 QB rating, 69.2 completion percentage, 4,717 yards, 39 TDs, and 11 INTs in 2004.
Michael Bennett with 255 carries, 1,296 yards, a 5.1 per-carry average, 37 catches, 351 yards, and six total TDs in 2002.
Moe Williams with 174 carries, 745 yards, a 4.3 per-carry average, 65 catches for 644 yards, and nine TDs in 2003.
Jim Kleinsasser with 46 catches, 401 yards, and four touchdowns in 2003.
Nate Burleson with 68 catches, 1,006 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2004.
A catastrophic knee injury helped derail Culpepper's career, but remember, his numbers in seven games (72.0 rating, 6 TDs, 12 INTs) before the injury in the season after Linehan and Moss left were ugly. Sure, he was a talented guy, but the offensive system and having a receiver like Moss obviously helped the Hall-of-Fame-level stats he put up for a few years.
Other than Moss, those guys all played way over their heads, particularly the running backs. In three years, Linehan had three different leading rushers in Bennett, Williams, and Onterrio Smith. That has to be system-related.
Now, the argument can be made that Minnesota had a superior offensive line to what the Lions have, but the Vikes only had two guys with Pro Bowl talent in Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie. The rest of the starting linemen in Linehan's tenure were journeymen like Nat Dorsey, Chris Liwienski, David Dixon, Mike Rosenthal, and Corbin Lacina. That's better, but not significantly better, than the group the Lions will start this season.
The offense in Minnesota was so good because of the passing game. Culpepper can throw the ball deep and the big play to Moss was such a constant threat that it opened up the running game for what was, talent-wise, a very mediocre group of backs who all put up very good numbers.
All laughing at Kevin Smith's predictions aside, he could be onto something. The Lions, on offense, have comparable talent to those potent Minnesota teams. They will score points, they will put pressure on other teams and, like Minnesota did with a defense ranked 30th, 23rd and 26th in points allowed in those three seasons, the Lions will win some games and threaten to make the playoffs, despite what will probably be a shaky defense.