For the Detroit Lions, this has been a tale of two seasons. In the first half of the year, they were 6-2, but in the second half, they were 2-6, ending the season with four straight losses.
For the Lions even to make the playoffs is a testimony to the coaching and leadership of Bobby Ross. After all, what would you say about a team that didn't have two of the league's top offensive weapons for most of the season? First, future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders abruptly retired last summer. Second, all-pro wide receiver Herman Moore missed nine games because of injuries. The Lions also have had a long list of injuries in the offensive line and secondary.
Most teams would be looking at a losing record and a top-five draft choice with these obstacles. Ross should take a bow for keeping this team together.
A four-game losing streak, however, is not the way you want to go into the playoffs. Besides their recent play, the Lions will have to overcome some disturbing historical trends:
1. No 8-8 team has won a playoff game.
2. The Lions have not won a road playoff game since 1957, a string of seven losses.
Despite these facts, the Lions do have a chance. They beat five playoff teams during the regular season--St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Washington and Seattle.
However, four of these victories came in Detroit, where they have the advantage of a home crowd and a noisy domed stadium. But there is also a confidence factor that Ross can turn to in regrouping his team for today's game.
Offensively, Detroit is led by Germane Crowell, Johnnie Morton and Moore, who recently returned to the lineup. When these three wide receivers are in the lineup, they will cause problems for any team. They also have a top-notch tight end in David Sloan.
In the first game, Detroit's wide receivers had success with double moves against the Washington cornerbacks. Also, Moore was just returning to the lineup in that game. He was not much of a factor. That could change today.
Much will be made about the return of quarterback Gus Frerotte to Washington. Frerotte is at his best when he can plant his back foot and stand tall in the pocket to throw. He has a strong arm and a quick release. I would look for Detroit to play to its strength and try to spread the defense with three wide receivers most of the day.
In victories over St. Louis, Minnesota and Washington, Frerotte has shown the form that got him to the Pro Bowl in 1996.
The real issues for Detroit are its beat-up offensive line and struggling running game. The Lions have started eight offensive line combinations this year. During their four-game losing streak, they have given up almost five sacks per game and averaged only 41 rushing yards. In their latest move to revitalize their running game, the Lions will start Cory Schlesinger, who played fullback for most of this season and carried 43 times for 124 yards. His best attribute is his ability to run between the tackles.
So if the Lions can't protect their quarterback and get some balance in their offense to force the Redskins to respect the running game, it won't make any difference who the quarterback is. But if they can do those things, the Lions have proven they can beat a good team.
On offense, they must give their quarterback enough time to execute the way they did in their five victories over playoff teams.
The Detroit defense is coached by Larry Peccatiello, an assistant with the Redskins from 1981 until 1993. He had a large role in the Redskins' success when the team went to four Super Bowls, and Larry is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league. Philosophically, Larry believes in taking away what a team does best and making it beat you left-handed.
His problem today is in what he should take away. Washington is one of the most balanced teams in the league with two 1,000-yard receivers (Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell), a Pro Bowl alternate at tight end (Stephen Alexander), a 1,500-yard running back (Stephen Davis), a running back who caught 69 passes (Larry Centers) and a Pro Bowl quarterback (Brad Johnson).
Defensively, the Lions are led by their front four highlighted by two stars--defensive end Robert Porcher and defensive tackle Luther Elliss. In the earlier game against the Redskins, the front four took control of the game by sacking Johnson five times. When Detroit can control the game with its front four, it can use seven players in pass defense.
When Detroit has struggled this season, it has been in pass coverage. The Lions have fought the injury bug in the secondary. Their secondary leads the league in pass interference penalties and has been the victim in number of big plays.
In the earlier Washington game, Detroit emphasized taking away the big play by playing soft coverage in the secondary. The Lions were able to get away with this because of the pass rush.
When they do this, they leave themselves vulnerable to the running game and the hitch and slant-type patterns to the wide receivers. But even with the soft coverage they've used, teams will still try to go deep on them for the chance of drawing a pass interference penalty.
The final factor in today's game, which may be more important than anything else I've written about, is the Redskins' record crowd of 80,000-plus that should be deafening with their noise. At least the Lions won't have to duck seat cushions like the Atlanta Falcons did when they came to RFK in the 1992 playoffs. Or will they?
CAPTION: The strength of the Detroit Lions' offense is the wide receivers, including Germane Crowell, above, and Herman Moore, so Redskins must pressure quarterback.
The Analyst: Charley Casserly, es-'Skins GM
Charley Casserly joined the Washington Redskins as an unpaid intern in 1977 and performed a variety of duties until his departure last summer. He was a scout in the player personnel department before being named assistant general manager under Bobby Beathard. He was promoted to general manager in 1989 and was the architect of teams that made three straight playoff appearances, including the 1991 team that won Super Bowl XXVI.
He also was a member of the league's competition committee and a leader in the campaign for instant replay.
Before departing the Redskins last summer, he made a series of moves that helped the team return to the playoffs. He engineered the draft-day deals that allowed the Redskins to select Georgia cornerback Champ Bailey and stockpile extra draft choices. He negotiated the deal that brought Pro Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson. Previous Casserly drafts brought Michael Westbrook, Albert Connell, Stephen Davis, Tre Johnson and other prominent players.
Several NFL sources say Casserly is the leading candidate of both the New Orleans Saints and the new expansion team in Houston to be named head of football operations.