Recently, Detroit Lions receiver Golden Tate III indicated (or implied depending on who you ask) that players from opposing defenses have told him this season that they knew exactly whether the Lions were running the ball or passing it before the play unfolded. Some have said it's untrue, and even Tate has seemingly recanted or reclarified is comments a bit, but I find it absolutely plausible. Why? Because I've been reading the offense for years.
Now, I'm not a player, I'm not and never have been on the field, and the vast majority of the games that I've seen have been from the comfort of my own home. I wouldn't even say I'm 100% accurate. But I'd estimate that about 75% of the time I can look at the way the offense is lined up and can tell you whether it's a run or a pass, and to which side. This has nothing to do with the individual players, so it's not about having one dimensional players as was suggested by the commentators on tonight's game (Monday Night Football, October 6th, 2015 against the Seattle Seahawks). Honestly, I can't even tell you exactly what quality it is that makes the offense legible, but there's definitely something to it and I'm surprised that this is only just now being realized.
I first noticed that I could read the offense when Barry Sanders was still playing. Maybe it's the Lions' general attitudes and emotions as the game is played; if the Lions are getting desperate, they tend to lean more on passing plays than run plays. This season, as I tweeted earlier this evening, the Lions have been playing more conservatively — which could even be considered wise, though the great teams take risks — and committing to the run, even when they should move on. The problem with the Lions is that they have yet to find that crucial balance of smart football and taking risks that not only make the highlight reels like Stafford and Johnson used to do, but win games. What do I mean? A local Detroit newscaster just indicated in the postgame report that the Lions had zero plays over 20 yards tonight. Two years ago, before Jim Caldwell, there would've been shots down field to Johnson at least once or twice a game. When was the last time Stafford threw Johnson a 30 or 40 yard pass? Have they even practiced that recently?
Sure, defenses have been geared to protect against that, but they've been geared to protect against that for years. So I understand the desire to lean towards smart, conservative football to take what the defense is giving you, but you have to also give them reason to fear the big play, which in turn will open up those shorter and smaller plays. It's a feedback loop that all the better teams use, including the Packers, Patriots, and Cardinals. But the Lions, all too often, are one dimensional... Either doing nothing but those big plays or doing none of them.
With regards to tonight's loss... The Lions only seemed to get the idea on that last flawed drive. There was absolutely nothing that Johnson could have done better on that catch, including the fumble. In fact, I wouldn't call it a fumble but a great play by the Seattle defense. (Not counting the apparently illegal tap out of bounds of the football; that was a failure on the officiating to not make that call.) If the defensive player had made the punch a split second too late, Johnson a hair quicker or had rotated slightly to one side or the other, or someone had been just a step off, that would've been a successful touchdown. I personally wasn't aware of the rule about the ball getting knocked out of bounds, but frankly, the only time the Lions seemed to have a good balance of play calling all season thus far was on that drive. The Lions had way too many opportunities to exploit turnovers to have had to depend on a single play of a single drive at the end of the game.
The Lions are the last winless team this season. The play calling made it that way, frankly. That je ne sais quoi that makes the offense easily read only adds to the misery. The Lions are where they deserve to be right now. I just hope that something can be done to fix things before we have another winless season.