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Where Art Thou, Barry Sanders?

The Detroit Lions have set a dubious rushing mark after going 70 straight games without a running back reaching 100 yards

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back away, Cleveland. The Detroit Lions want the Hall of Shame all to themselves. Last year, the Browns joined the 2008 Lions to become the only teams to go 0-16. Not to be deterred, the Lions on Sunday set the post-merger record for consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher, breaking a tie they held with—who else?—Cleveland.

Going 70 games without a 100-yard rusher is a far cry from the 14 consecutive three-digit rushing games Barry Sanders set during his 1997 MVP season, an NFL record. But since Reggie Bush’s 117-yard Thanksgiving performance against the Packers in 2013, a carousel of Lions running backs have failed to hit the mark even once. It’s been so long that every former Detroit rusher to reach 100 yards is now out of the league.

In Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the 49ers, Detroit tallied 53 passing attempts against 18 rushes. LeGarrette Blount’s day ended early in the fourth with an ejection, but at 38 rushing yards on the day, he probably wouldn’t have hit triple digits anyway. The Lions needed to rely more on the pass game down the stretch to fight back from a large deficit, but this isn’t much of an excuse for Detroit’s game plan. Despite solid efficiency on the ground—through three quarters, the Lions averaged 5.3 yards per carry—play-caller Jim Bob Cooter scarcely turned to his running backs (no Detroit player carried the ball more than eight times). And while the Lions’ top rusher, Kerryon Johnson, had 43 yards on the ground, running back Matt Breida led the Niners with 138 yards.

Brieda—a second-year undrafted free agent whose previous career high was 74 yards—proves that a star running back isn’t a prerequisite for having a 100-yard game. But don’t tell that to former head coach Jim Caldwell. Last year, he responded with cutting snark when a reporter asked him how difficult it is for a player to rush for 100 yards in a game.

Caldwell, who was 0-for-59 in getting a back to 100 yards up to that point, should’ve said “not difficult” because, well, it’s not difficult. From Bush’s Thanksgiving performance through Week 1, there have been 421 regular-season 100-yard rushing games. That’s an average of six 100-yard rushers per week and 13.5 100-yard rushers per team not named the Lions in that time span.

This is a sampling of players who have had a 100-rushing yard game since Bush: Colin Kaepernick, Cordarrelle Patterson, Denard Robinson, Tim Hightower, Knowshon Moreno, and current Denver Broncos third-string quarterback Kevin “The Gunslinger” Hogan.

Since Bush’s Thanksgiving game, the Lions have had a few rushers—emphasis on few—flirt with the mark. When Detroit demolished Green Bay 40-10 that Turkey Day, the team took sole possession of first place in the NFC North. Then, the wagon began to stall—the Lions dropped two straight and found themselves on the brink of postseason elimination. Lucky for them, they were two-score Vegas favorites against the 5-9 Giants. Also lucky for them, Joique Bell—who had 94 yards on the ground against the Packers—came to play.

Under the auspices of then-head-coach Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Detroit ranked in the top half of the league in rushing attempts, thanks to the solid one-two punch of Bush and Bell. As the game headed to overtime, Bell had carried the ball 20 times for 91 yards. With his first rush in extra time, Bell broke the 100-yard plane, with an 11-yard burst down the right side. The Lions had nipped the lamentable streak in the bud after just three games.

Only they hadn’t. A holding call on tight end Dorin Dickerson set the team back 10 yards and led to a Detroit three-and-out. The Giants scored on the ensuing possession, eliminating the Lions from the playoffs (and eventually eliminating Schwartz and Linehan from their employment) and effectively setting the path for Detroit’s record-setting drought.

Detroit’s next best shot at having a three-digit rusher wouldn’t come until their 2016 Week 16 game against the Dallas Cowboys. Zach Zenner was in the middle of a breakout game. In the first half, Zenner rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries, adding two scores to keep the Lions level with the Cowboys, 21-21. Then, Zenner was given a grand total of two more runs the rest of the game. Head coach Jim Caldwell’s reasoning? “Things change in terms of what we’re looking at. We have an offense that adjusts to what we see and sometimes it’s a little bit more pass than run.”

Adjust they did. In the second half, the Lions would go on to put all of zero points on the board, losing the game 42-21. This predictable aversion to running was par for the course with Caldwell and his offensive coordinators Joe Lombardi (whose decision to ignore the run game in favor of short passes contributed to his firing after less than two seasons) and Cooter. In Caldwell’s four seasons, Detroit ranked 25th, 30th, 31st, and 31st in rushing attempts.

Meanwhile, in four seasons as play-caller for the Cowboys’ offense, Linehan has overseen 30 games with 100-yard rushers. To his credit, Lombardi at least acknowledged his futility at solving the Lions’ running embarrassments. The same can’t be said for Cooter who, late last season—at a point when the team ranked 31st in rushing yards—defended his dynamic run game.

“We could draw up nice round numbers like a hundred and figure out exactly why we have gotten to certain spots,” Cooter retorted. “Improvement is needed. I’m not too worried about round numbers.” But for a team that in its last 32 games has rushed for 100 yards only thrice as a unit, maybe round numbers would be a useful target.

New head coach Matt Patricia chose to retain Cooter after Matt Stafford and the wide receivers (read: everyone but the running backs) declared their support. Given Cooter’s running allergy, the decision was dumbfounding, and so far, Detroit’s offense doesn’t look any better than it did under Caldwell. In fact, after the Jets trounced the Lions 48-17 last week, New York defenders boasted that they knew exactly what plays Cooter was dialing up, giving Lions flashbacks to the predictability of the Lombardi era.

Sure, Matthew Stafford has a cannon of an arm, but quick throws, screen passes on third-and-long, and the occasional run down the middle can get a team only so far—since 1982, every Super Bowl champion has had at least one 100-yard rusher during the campaign. Luckily for the Lions, they have perhaps their best chance this season to snap the drought next Sunday against New England, which ranked 31st by DVOA in defending the run last season. Unfortunately, the Patriots have a new defensive play-caller because their old one is now the head coach in Detroit.