Fine. He keeps the job. Now what? Darryl Rogers’ football team has lost nine of 11 games this year, the fans have gone from screaming to yawning, and now it’s Sunday again. When owner William Ford gave Rogers his vote of confidence last week — told the media he wouldn’t be fired, he’d be back next season — he should have handed him a shovel, too. Have fun in the hole, coach.
“What did that announcement really mean?” Rogers, who has two years left on his contract, was asked Friday afternoon, as he sat behind his desk at the Silverdome.
“You know,” he said, shrugging. “I haven’t figured it out yet. I mean, it helps me, that’s obvious. Unless I wanted to take a two-year vacation. . . . “
“Which I don’t.”
He grinned? Well. Listen. If, by now, you have built up a nice, thick hatred for the Detroit Lions, do not — and I repeat this — do not go into Darryl Rogers’ office for an hour’s worth of conversation. You will emerge shaking your head, feeling a mixture of sympathy and admiration, while still knowing the team will be lucky to win six games next year.
Rogers has that effect on people. He spins you around. Makes you feel he’s not the problem. Nice guys don’t make good football coaches. Nice guys don’t have the brashness. Nice guys can’t motivate young players. Can they? Under his tutelage, the Lions have sunk from 7-9 to 5-11 to 2-9. Yet Darryl Rogers, a nice guy, believes there’s hope.
You see the problem.
“Looking at it objectively,” he was asked, “do you think you deserve to have your job right now?”
He thought for a moment. “If I went just on won-and-lost records,” he said, “I’d say no.”
“And if you considered things other than won-and-loss records — ?”
“– like personnel, developing a young quarterback, the strike season,” he added, finishing the sentence, “then I’d say yes, I deserve to still be here.”
And on he goes. Whoever coined the phrase “nice guys finish last” surely wore silver and blue underwear. Rogers, 52, currently commands a punchless offense and an ice cream defense, and, if that weren’t bad enough, he works for an organization that is Neanderthal in its approach to today’s NFL. With the Lions, money is saved not spent. Chances are viewed as too risky, rather than worth taking. Everything is kept safe and “status quo” — which, in Detroit football terminology, means: fair-to-lousy.
Much of that is Russ Thomas’ fault. He is the general manager with the skills of an accountant and the sense of adventure of, well, of an accountant. Bad football teams do not get better by guarding their ledgers. They take chances — a la Indianapolis, New Orleans — they make trades, they get aggressive. The Lions’ front office is as aggressive as oatmeal.
And yet Rogers is not faultless. He came here from the college ranks with Haggar slacks, a goofy voice and a low-key approach. The last may have hurt him the most. Oh, no doubt he needed time to learn the pro game, much as his quarterback, Chuck Long, must do now. But he was given mediocre talent to work with, and his strength may not be in whipping mediocre talent into excellence. Or whipping, period.
“Do you think you’re the best type of personality to coach this particular team?” he was asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “That’s difficult to say. . . . There are a lot of ways to motivate people. Bill Walsh (of the 49ers) is quiet, yet I’d say he’s a motivator. Does Tom Landry motivate? I think he does.
“Having a quieter style doesn’t mean you’re low-key. Those other ‘quiet’ guys get plenty upset when they lose. The ones that last the longest are the ones that don’t get too affected by either success or failure.”
“Still,” he was reminded, “the cynics will say your record suggests a team going in the wrong direction.”
“Not just the cynics,” he quickly replied. “I’ll say it. You don’t have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to know you’re going in the wrong direction.”
Well. Credit the guy for honesty. Rogers, who keeps things to himself
(his private life is strictly off-limits), is at least realistic:
About the Lions’ running game, he said: “We don’t have a running game. We haven’t had one since Billy Sims.”
About the receivers: ” . . . (long pause) . . . I think Pete Mandley is developing into an excellent receiver.”
About the defense: “We have problems.” About his quarterback, Long: “I don’t know how long it will take him to develop. But it’s not fair to blame him for everything. . . . Give him the same situations next year, and I’ll bet he makes a lot more of the plays.”
So go ahead. Curse, spit, kick the TV. But don’t think that Darryl Rogers thinks he has a great football team that’s just not getting the breaks. “We are lacking in personnel is some areas,” he admits, without hesitation. “I don’t think we ever said we weren’t.”
And, as Rogers says, it is the players who play. All the coaches do is call the plays. You tell one NFL player something, he executes, you look good. You tell another the same thing, he blows it, you look stupid. Fans who die with the Lions each Sunday generally scream about ineptitude — an interception, a missed tackle, a lousy block. They don’t attack the defensive scheme, or the play-calling.
So, is Rogers absolved? Not to blame? Not his fault? Not exactly. The team has still gotten worse, if you go by the standings. Rogers, not coincidentally, does not. “I believe the 7-9 team we had in 1985 was not as good as the 5-11 team we had last year. And this year has been so strange, with the strike, and a new quarterback. . . .
We’ll stop. You’ve heard this before.
So we are back to the age-old question about coaching. Is the talent here so poor that any coach would have problems, or is the coaching the weight
that drags down the players? The Lions have been a losing franchise for nearly 20 years — far longer than Rogers has been here. It would be nice to see what he, or anyone, could do with a different GM (perhaps one who would have more aggressively pursued an Eric Dickerson or Herschel Walker). And because Thomas is due to retire in two years, that may happen, should Rogers steer the team forward.
Then again, if he loses the first four games next season, forget it.
“I have to believe things can get better,” Rogers said, sighing,
“otherwise, frankly, why go through this all again?” You hear that, and you realize, no matter who’s responsible for this mess, things have not been easy on the guy. This season has been a series of lousy Sundays followed by lousy Mondays, on which someone always asked if the coach’s job was in trouble. Last Monday, at the weekly Lions luncheon — designed by the PR office in hopes of building community support — the ballroom was glaringly empty, just a handful of media, a table of guests, and the coach. The silence was embarrassing. And Rogers had to walk to the microphone, like a candidate addressing a disinterested church group, and try to sound positive.
“I understand why fans feel the way they do,’ he said now, in his office.
“I read my mail. A lot of it rips me. I still answer it. . . . I don’t read newspapers or watch TV. None of those people are in the position I’m in. It’s easy to criticize, to say what you would do. . . . But you’ve never been there.”
So here is your coach, Detroit. Good or bad, he stays, at least until next
season, inviting criticism, yet explaining it away. It is no surprise that this city seems split on whether Rogers should have been fired. He is like a voice in both ears. From a distance he says: “Ax me.” Up close he says:
“Why?” But if, as Rogers maintains, the bottom line is winning, then for all that happened last week, the bottom line hasn’t shifted very much.
“To be honest,” he said, “a .500 season next year would be a hell of an effort.”
We can hardly wait. CUTLINE Darryl Rogers: Lions’ record going in the wrong direction.