Mike Martz was at the pinnacle of his NFL coaching success when he was orchestrating the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis as the Rams’ offensive coordinator and head coach from 1999-2001.
When thinking back to those Rams teams, most people are immediately reminded of the emergence of quarterback Kurt Warner and the weapons he had in the pass game with Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
But over that same span, the Rams averaged 4.8 yards per carry on the shoulders of Marshall Faulk, which was the highest rushing average in the NFL over that three-year span. The Rams averaged 4.8 yards per attempt in 1999, 4.8 in 2000 and 4.9 in 2001.
Martz, who was the Lions' offensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, and is currently a color analyst for FOX, said the threat of a run game is the one piece of the puzzle still missing for the Lions. He also thinks that piece is making his NFL debut today in Tennessee.
"I think (Mikel) Leshoure will be that guy for them," Martz said. "I think everyone hopes that is the situation because it’ll balance them out and put pressure on the defense and take pressure off of Calvin (Johnson) and Matthew (Stafford).
“People understand how good (Stafford) is and they’re starting to do different things to him and that’s why having Leshoure come back right now will create different coverages. Now they can go back to dictating how the game is going to be played, instead of being pigeonholed into being a passing team.”
The Lions are a passing team and always will be as long as they have Stafford and Johnson. Similarly, the Rams offense from 1999-2001 was predicated on the pass with Warner. But the Rams had Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk to keep defenses honest.
Only 10 teams in NFL history have thrown for over 4,000 yards in a season and averaged 4.8 yards per rush. The Rams from 1999-2001 account for three of them.
“It really doesn’t even matter how much (the Lions) run, (it's) just the threat of doing it,” Martz said of the Lions offense with Leshoure.
“It’s just like Marshall (Faulk), the first thing people had to do was take away Marshall as a runner. Whether we handed him the ball 10 times or 40 times, they were still going to account for him. That dictates defensively and limits them in what they can do.”
Under Martz (1999-2004), Faulk averaged 4.8 yards per rushing attempt.
If Leshoure is as good as most people around the league think he’ll be, Martz says the Lions are a legitimate title contender.
"There are probably only eight or nine really top-notch teams in the league that we can realistically talk about going to the Super Bowl, and these guys are one of them," he said.
"I think they are better than what people realize. I think they’re going to do nothing but get better, especially with a running game now. I think they have an excellent chance, I really do."