Four years ago today, the Lions steamrolled the Packers 40-10 on Thanksgiving day; then–Detroit running back Reggie Bush rushed for 117 yards. That was a long time ago—1,461 days, not that anyone is counting. No Lions player has reached triple digits in a game on the ground since. The Lions have gone 63 games without a 100-yard rusher now, the fourth-longest drought for a team in nearly 60 years. If a Detroit rusher fails to crack the century mark this season, the Lions will enter 2018 on a 68-game streak, four shy of Washington’s all-time record of 72 consecutive games set in the 1960s.
Fair or not, a 100-yard rushing performance has become the benchmark by which running backs are judged, and the Lions are now one game shy of four full seasons without once reaching that bar. In that time there have been 386 different 100-yard rushing performances by the rest of the league’s players, an average of about 12 per team. The Lions have the league’s least-prolific rushing attack since 2014—they are the only franchise that hasn’t eclipsed 5,000 total rushing yards since then—but the inability for any running back to reach 100 yards is a level of consistent mediocrity that encapsulates the Lions’ perennial struggles to achieve the ordinary.
One hundred is an admittedly arbitrary threshold (but it does have its own emoji). Plus, the milestone has transitioned nicely to the fantasy football era, where it is a shorthand for double-digit fantasy points.
But lowering the bar to a more modest 80 yards actually makes the Lions look worse. Here’s a list of every time a Detroit running back has gained 80 rushing yards in a game since 2014.
Joique Bell, 85 yards, Week 11, 2014
Joique Bell, 91 yards, Week 13, 2014
Joique Bell, 83 yards, Week 14, 2014
Ameer Abdullah, 86 yards, Week 2, 2017
Ameer Abdullah, 94 yards, Week 4, 2017
That’s the entire list. During that span, the rest of the league has had 619 such performances. Hell, during that time there have been 14 runs that gained 80 or more yards. While it’s bonkers that the Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in 63 games, it might be more bonkers that none of their backs eclipsed even 80 yards in a game for all of 2015 and 2016.
It would be easy to think the Lions’ lack of a 100-yard rusher is a sign of the times. Over the past decade, NFL teams have shifted away from force-feeding the ball to bell-cow running backs as they began employing shared backfields to incorporate a diversity of skill sets into increasingly dynamic offenses. This, still, does not explain the Lions’ ineptitude. From 2014 to 2016, Detroit finished 28th, 32nd, and 30th in rushing. This season, the Lions are 30th. The struggles extend to Detroit’s playoff games, too. In the Lions’ three playoff appearances in the Matthew Stafford era (2011, 2014, and 2016), they are 0-3. In those games, Detroit rushed for a combined 171 yards while their opponents rushed for 417 yards.
A variety of factors have allowed this statistical manifestation of mediocrity to survive. The Lions’ offensive line play has been below average for this offending stretch. Detroit’s offensive line was ranked 21st in run blocking by Football Outsiders in 2014 and 22nd in 2015 before dropping to 31st in run blocking last year, and they have managed to fall to 32nd this season despite signing guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Ricky Wagner in the offseason.
But the offensive line only tells part of the story. The famed Comeback (Lion) Kings are often playing from behind. Stafford’s 16 fourth-quarter comebacks since 2014 are the most by a healthy margin, which indicates his #clutchness, and also that the Lions are often forced to abandon the run while trying to make up deficits. Stafford is also consistently among the league leaders in pass attempts, partially because of how often the Lions are trailing and partially because that has been Detroit’s game plan under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
Detroit’s best hope to revive its run game—and break the streak in the process—is Abdullah, the Lions’ 2015 second-round pick out of Nebraska. Abdullah was electric in college and is the best home run threat the team has had since Bush. He’s already come close, reaching 94 yards on 20 carries in Week 4 against the Vikings, but he hasn’t cracked 60 yards in a game since then.
It’s entirely possible the Lions set the all-time record for consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher in 2018, a stat that doesn’t really mean anything but also gets right to the heart of the problem: Detroit is no longer the doormat it was a decade ago, but the Lions are still a deeply flawed team on a week-to-week basis. With its current core, which includes the highest-paid player in NFL history in Stafford, Detroit should be contending in the NFC, but it’s difficult to imagine the team making a Super Bowl without a consistent ground game. If the Lions want to make an effective postseason run, they have to start running effectively.