Detroit Lions' surge fueled by ... defense? Touché, Football Gods

The Football Gods have repeatedly shown a keen sense of humor, particularly when bestowing success on some coaches.

I've seen it firsthand.

In 1998, as offensive coordinator for the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, I was blessed with an extraordinary group of difference-makers (including Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Robert Smith and Randall McDaniel). We became, at the time, the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL. The team's success gave me a rep as some kind of offensive guru and helped me land the head coaching job in Baltimore. Of course, on our way to winning Super Bowl XXXV in my second season with the Ravens, we ... struggled mightily on offense. That championship team didn't fill the air with footballs, didn't set any scoring records. What we did do was field what was arguably the greatest single-season defense in NFL history. So I was an offensive guru with a team built for defense. I'll take it -- and the ring still fits. The Football Gods are still chuckling about that one.

In January 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired head coach Tony Dungy despite the fact that he had built one of the most distinguished defensive reputations ever and boasted one of the game's top units on that side of the ball. A year later, Dungy watched his old team -- led by the very defense he'd constructed -- win a Super Bowl. But Tony was already hard at work building another perennial power, the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts. And in the 2006 postseason season, the defensive mastermind watched his AFC-leading offense prevail over my team's league-leading defense en route to an eventual Super Bowl win. The Football Gods were, once more, rolling on the ground in laughter.

And those practical jokers are at it again this season.

Since Matthew Stafford came onto the scene in 2009, the Detroit Lions have been an offense-dominated team, capable of winning shootouts -- but not really constructed for slug-it-out road contests in Green Bay or Chicago. The year they drafted Stafford, they also hired Jim Schwartz, who'd made his name as the defensive architect of Jeff Fisher's stout units in Tennessee.

Schwartz's defense ranked last in the NFL in 2009, and the unit never finished higher than 13th over the next four years. When Schwartz was fired at the conclusion of last season, Lions brass decided that the key to success was to find the right offensive mentor for the franchise QB. Management wanted a guy who could squeeze a little more production out of the offense and, along the way, coax Stafford into throwing fewer interceptions. Enter Jim Caldwell, known for his aptitude on that side of the ball, most notably coaching Manning and, more recently, Joe Flacco on their Super Bowl-winning runs.

You already know how this turns out: As we approach the midway point of the 2014 season, Detroit (5-2) sits atop the NFC North with ... wait for it ... the best defense in the league.

The Lions' D is first in total defense, second in points allowed and third-down efficiency and third in red-zone efficiency. In their win over Green Bay, they held Aaron Rodgers to a single touchdown pass and just 162 passing yards. (Since that loss, Rodgers has gone on a four-game tear, throwing 13 touchdown passes and not a single interception, with the Packers averaging more than 36 points per contest).

Meanwhile, the Lions rank 24th in total offense and 25th in scoring.

Having been a head coach before, Caldwell knows full well that even though teams tend to hire guys because of their offensive or defensive acumen, when you take over as the head man, you are neither an offensive guru nor a defensive genius. You are just the head coach, and you need to construct your team in whatever way gives you the best chance to win. With first-time defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Caldwell can take great pride in what his defense is doing, and he can anticipate the offense improving when he gets receiving great Calvin Johnson back in the lineup.

Still, you have to love the Football Gods' sense of humor. They are the true Kings of Comedy, and they help keep the egos of coaches (and former coaches) in check.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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