Detroit Lions’ offense swaps stats for success

ALLEN PARK — Maybe we’ve all been lied to.

Maybe what the Detroit Lions and the NFL have been selling us for years is all wrong.

Maybe the answer for most teams isn’t a titanium-armed, hero quarterback who makes those few, improbable deep throws that always seem to find their way onto highlight shows.

Haven’t the Lions sold us long enough on Jon Kitna and Joey Harrington and Scott Mitchell and Bobby Layne? Haven’t we always heard more about arm strength than we have about common sense?

Matthew Stafford is on pace for a career low in passing yards and touchdowns. He’s also on pace for a career low in interceptions — and the playoffs.

If you listen hard enough to what the Lions have been preaching all year and what they have put into practice through six games, it makes sense. The Lions finally are serious about forgoing statistics for success under a conservative offense.

Welcome to the new normal, Lions fans.

“I came in with the idea that we’re going to try to make certain that this team is more about winning than about statistical milestones, and I think that’s the most important thing that you have to look at,” coach Jim Caldwell said this week. “Teams win different ways.

“Do I expect that in some point in time you’ll see the offense explode? Yes, I do. I do think you’ll see us be a lot more productive than we’ve been. I think that’s a part of the process.”

The only danger in Caldwell’s thinking is that the offense will at some point “explode.” Why? If the Lions keep winning and Stafford becomes more of a game manager and Calvin Johnson becomes more of a decoy, why should it matter whether the offense explodes?

“If that means we go 14-2, absolutely,” receiver Golden Tate said. “I think in this locker room, we want to win, first and foremost. We want to win games, we want to get into the playoffs, have home-field advantage and go as far as we can. And if that’s a part of the equation, then so be it.”

Last season, when Tate played for Seattle, the Seahawks won a championship with a great defense and the NFL’s 18th-ranked offense.

“I come from an offense that didn’t throw it very much, but we won a Super Bowl,” he said. “You can’t have your cake and eat it at the same time.

“So I just want to win. That’s point-blank end of the story. And if that means we have to be more conservative and trust in our defense more and let those guys go out there and get a three-and-out, then so be it.”

Left guard Rob Sims had a front-row seat for Stafford’s 5,000-yard season in 2011. But he knows gaudy numbers don’t mean much when they don’t add up to victories.

“The big knock against our offense was turnovers and stuff like that,” Sims said. “I think Matthew’s being extra careful because this is new. That’s something he needed to improve; so maybe not making that throw that he would make last year, that gunslinger throw.”

Caldwell was famous for working with Peyton Manning, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi earned respect for coaching Drew Brees. They were hired to fix Stafford. And that, to many people, probably sounded more like it would be a tune-up rather than an overhaul. Maybe just putting a better set of brakes on a Ferrari.

Instead, Caldwell and Lombardi have re-engineered Stafford. They’ve kept the Ferrari. But the engine isn’t red-lining very often. And they’ve bolted on two more doors and turned it into a sensible family sedan that’s safely getting them where they need to go.

It’s conservative. It’s a little ugly. And it’s working.

“I think yes,” Tate said of the new offensive approach. “And also we don’t need Stafford to throw a 60-yard bomb to Calvin every time and hope and pray that Calvin’s going to come up with a spectacular catch. We have a lot more components in this offense.

“I think what we need to continue to work on is just not shooting ourselves in the foot. We need to stay on schedule. We need to stay out of those third-and-longs. If we can do that, we’ll convert more and we’ll score more points, I think.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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