Can Coaching Alone Make The Detroit Lions a Much Improved Team?

David McClureCorrespondent IJune 16, 2009

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 28: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers breaks away from Cliff Avril #92 of the Detroit Lions on December 28, 2008 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Lions 31-21. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Recent comments from several Lions' players have me wondering, just how bad was the previous coaching staff? Could they be the main culprit in the winless season last year?

Matt Millen has obviously taken most of the criticism.  Criticism that he has certainly earned, but was he the biggest problem?

There are players and coaches. That's it. The guys on the field playing, and the guys that teach them how to play and tell them what to do.

Millen was responsible for both.  He picked the guys that coached and the guys that played. Now he's fired.

When you look at the players and the coaches, however, it is not as clear.

Cliff Avril recently had this to say about his new coach, "Coach Karm tells you the reasons behind why we do what we do in practice. Sometimes, coaches just tell you to do things but not why. I feel like this coach is better at communicating in that way."

Many believed it was an indictment on the former staff, an accusation Avril denies, however his statement seemed to be more politically correct than truthful.

I'll take Avril at his word but when you look at last season and Avril's playing time you notice a simple fact that the previous coaching staff wouldn't play young talented players like Avril. It took half the season for Gosder Cherilus, Kevin Smith, and Cliff Avril to see the field with any significance. How did they do?

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After Gosder was inserted the sack totals per game were down and the rushing yards per attempt went up.

Kevin Smith nearly made it to 1,000 yards on the season and averaged over 80 yards per game, while still sharing carries.

Cliff Avril forced four fumbles and had five sacks when he finally was able to start.

Kevin Seifert, ESPN's NFC North correspondent, has recently said that Cliff Avril is one of the top franchise building blocks in the NFC North right now, along with Calvin Johnson and Louis Delmas.

Rod Marinelli preached how you must earn play time. Fair enough, the rookies have something to prove.

I do remember Daunte Culpepper signing and starting with very little practice. Was he able to prove, in less than two weeks, something Smith, Avril, and Cherilus couldn't in several months?

It would seem to me that the coaching staff is more to blame than the players.

The draft picks by Millen have been horrendous at times. Last year wasn't one of those times. Calvin Johnson, Jerome Felton, Cliff Avril, and Kevin Smith are all valuable contributing members of the team.

You can draft talent but you have to develop players. This is where the coaching staffs of the past have fallen short. Most players have slowly digressed when wearing the Honolulu Blue.

Teams such as the Steelers are able to release guys like Larry Foote because they have developed someone to take their place.

Looking forward, if this staff can further develop the young core of players remaining from last years draft as well as the new rookies this season, the Detroit Lions could be a very different football team.

Some predict Cliff Avril to have 10 or more sacks this season. I can't say that I'd be surprised. He's a bit of a liability against the run right now, but certainly is capable of getting into the back field.

If coaching can help Avril get 10 sacks, help Smith get 1,400 yards, help Johnson average over 100 yards per game, and make Cherilus consistent, then the ceiling for this team could be much higher than anticipated.

Maybe that is why Avril and Smith think the playoffs are a real option.

Schwartz has everything to prove. Coaching a good defense is different than coaching a solid football team. He is a smart guy who seems to have a plan, but he still hasn't proved anything as a head coach.

Cunningham is the exact opposite. A veteran coach, he has had lots of success as a defensive coordinator. He brings aggression and a more flexible approach to schemes.

Linehan has a great track record as an offensive coordinator. He may be the Marty Mohrninwheg for Detroit. He didn't have the success as a head coach, but may be one of the best offensive coordinators in the game.

If Linehan can do what he's done with young quarterbacks and running backs in the past, we could be looking at a solid season from both Stafford and Smith. 1,300 yards for Smith on the ground plus a few hundred in the air is a real possibility.

Time will tell, but something tells me we are going to see some surprising play from guys we didn't know could do it.

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