When last we left our completely useless waste of time, the Lions had struggled to the Week 7 bye, upsetting only Minnesota in the home opener. At 1-5, the Lions will be well out of playoff contention. If, in a currently-unlikely scenario, Duante Culpepper had been starting (in my previous post, I assumed Stafford started from day one), it’s a near-certainty that he will be relegated to the bench at this point. Ford Field might again be facing blackouts, depending on how competitive the Lions have looked throughout this stretch. Most “fans” who had hopped “off” the bandwagon, then hopped back on when the Lions beat Minnesota, will probably hop back off again. Fortunately, things look a little better from here on out.
Week 8: vs. St. Louis
For the first time, the Lions face a team also coming off a bottom-scraping year. The Rams, then under Lions OC Scott Linehan, seemed to have a few pieces in place, but couldn’t reverse the awful momentum of 2007’s crushing disappointment. Things unraveled so quickly that they were barely ever raveled. After just four games, Linehan was unemployed, and the Rams were on their way to a 2-14 finish. Taking over is the man I christened “Candidate 1A” during the Lions’ coaching search, former Giants DC Steve Spagnuolo.
The last significant pieces of the Greatest Show on Turf, WR Torry Holt and OT Orlando Pace, are gone. QB Marc Bulger, the last of the Martz quarterback projects, probably would have been, too, were there fewer holes elsewhere. Going into the draft, OT Alex Barron was the only OT on the roster—and he’s in a contract year. When the Lions passed on drafting Baylor OT Jason Smith, the Rams breathed a sigh of relief, and then jumped on him. The rookie—and his predecessor, the raw and inconsistent Barron--will see a lot of heat from both the Lions’ DEs and the OLBs behind them, whichever sides they each end up playing. RB Steven Jackson—with former Ravens C Jason Brown and former Saints FB Mike Karney blocking up the middle--will keep the Rams chugging slowly forward.
However, without a single starting-caliber wideout amongst the 17—yes, seventeen-- currently on the roster, I don’t see the Rams mustering much of an offensive attack. On the defensive side of the ball, the Rams will expect DE Chris Long—a perfect fit for Spag’s defense--and rookie MLB James Laurenitis, to lead a youth movement. In reality, I expect the Lions’ balanced attack to give the Rams fits, especially through the air—the Rams have absolutely no answer for Megatron, and whichever veteran ends up in the slot may get to test 3rd-round rookie CB Bradley Fletcher.
Week 9: at Seattle
There might not be a team harder to project for 2009 than the Seattle Seahawks. On one hand, Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck will—for the first time in ages—have his two best receivers, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, 100% healthy, as well as free agent signee T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Their leading yardage rusher (Julius Jones) and leading rushing TD scorer (T.J. Duckett) return, and new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp has seen his quarterback go to the Pro Bowl 10 of the 14 years he’s been coaching offense in the NFL. After drafting OLB Aaron Curry #4 overall, franchising and returning OLB Leroy Hill, and reeling CB Ken Lucas back from Carolina, the defense should be improved, as well.
On the other hand, they went 4-12 last season, head coach Mike Holmgren has “retired”, handing over the job to former Falcons HC Jim Mora, Jr.. Hasselbeck will be starting without the coach that drafted and groomed him for the first time, ever—and led the Seahawks to the third-worst passing yardage in the NFL last season. The Seahawks’ second-leading rusher (and it was 698 to 574), Maurice Morris, is now a Lion. DT Rocky Bernard is gone has a free agent, and to replace him with Cory Redding, the ‘Hawks had to trade 5-time Pro Bowler Julian Peterson to the Lions—and blow the fourth overall pick on Aaron Curry to replace him when they could have filled other needs.
The ‘Hawks are coming off a 4-12 season, partly due to a injury-decimated WR corps; partly due to a seeming lame-duck malaise inspired by Holmgren’s pre-announced retirement. Only time will tell, but these handpicked successions rarely go smoothly. I think the Seahawks’ passing game is going to be much improved over last season, but Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett are probably not going to overwhelm as an RB tandem; Grady Jackson could have a big day eating their lunch. The ‘Hawks defense has three great linebackers, not much else, and is switching schemes—sounds familiar, eh?
Week 10: at Minnesota
We’re not sweeping the Vikes this year.
Week 11: vs. Cleveland
There were two teams this season whose offseason moves made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Two teams who had a young talent foundation in place, got impatient, made a coaching change—and then spent the entire rest of the offseason dismantling or alienating that young talent foundation. One is the Broncos, of course . . . the other is the Browns.
After firing former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, the Browns hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini to replace him. They also replaced their top personnel man, former Ravens exec Phil Savage, with former Ravens exec George Kokinis. The Browns then traded away elite TE Kellen Winslow, and consistently and heavily pursued Jay Cutler—despite having two good veterans even younger than Cutler in Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Mangini has rubbed many the wrong way, allegedly snubbing DT Shaun Rogers—twice—and painting over a mural of hallowed Browns legends. WR Donte Stallworth is suspended indefinitely for his DUI manslaughter case--and the other wideout, Braylon Edwards, was the subject of months of trade speculation.
What few pieces the 2008 Browns had in place are now either gone or disgruntled; it’s difficult to see them improving on last year's 4-12 record, especially in the AFC North. Theoretically, the defense shouldn’t have to deal with much transition, as Mangini should have no problem taking over Crennel’s Patriots-style 3-4. However, the Browns really weren’t running that defense effectively to begin with. While Kevin Smith might not have a great day against a sure-to-be-motivated Big Baby, I think Stafford and Megatron will have a big day, and the Lions’ defense will come flying through the line wherever Browns’ LT Joe Thomas isn’t.
Week 12: vs. Green Bay
With the momentum of winning 3 of 4, the Lions face the Packers at to Ford Field. By my estimations, the Lions are now at 4-6, probably only 3 or 4 games behind the Pack with five left to play. I still think that the Packers are going to be an offensive juggernaut, and I still think they’re going to have a tough transition to Capers' 3-4. I handed us a loss at Lambeau—I don’t think we win a shootout on the road--but I’m going to hand us a win here. Stafford should be settling into a groove, and win after win is building his confidence at this point.
Week 13: at Cincinnati
Call me crazy, but I think this is the year that the Bengals get back on track. Chad Ochocinco’s rededicated himself—as has the returned Chris Henry. Carson Palmer should be healthy and ready to go, and the Bengals have now added beastly former USC LB Rey Maualuga to go with beastly former USC LB Keith Rivers. Raw, spectacular rookie talents OT Andre Smith and DE Michael Johnson could provide the pass protection and pass rush that the Bengals sorely lacked last year. Honestly, it’s reminding me of the magical 2004 and 2005 seasons, where the Bengals really took everybody by surprise.
Now, I don’t buy into either Smith or Johnson as perennial Pro Bowlers, and there’s got to be a reason Maualuga fell well into the second round. However, for just this season, I think Marvin Lewis could pull one last rabbit out of his hat.
The Lions are going to have a hard time covering Ochocinco, Henry, and free agent acquisition Laveranues Coles. Okay, let me rephrase: the Lions will be completely incapable of covering Ochocinco, Henry, and Coles—and Palmer has more than enough talent to take full advantage. Lest you think the Bengals will be one-dimensional, RB Cedric Benson finally showed everyone he could be the kind of back he was drafted to be. Besides the rookies, former Cowboys DT Tank Johnson and S Roy Williams should bring the Bengals presence up the middle they sorely lacked last season. Here, I think, the “"Hey, we’re almost at .500!!” bubble bursts.
Week 14: at Baltimore
We are not beating the Ravens on the road. Sorry, folks.
Week 15: vs. Arizona
Coming off of a Super Bowl appearance—and loss—the Cardinals appear absolutely primed for the classic Super Bowl Hangover. OC Todd Haley was picked off to become the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. DC Clancy Pendergast, in one of the odder turns of the offseason, was fired by the Cardinals after a fairly successful campaign. Haley immediately snapped him up to be his DC in KC. Now, OL coach Russ Grimm has been promoted to fill his spot—and Grimm has been a hot coordinator, and even head coach, candidate in the past--but Arizona nonetheless will have to deal with double coordinator change. QB Kurt Warner is yet another year older, and disappointing “franchise” QB Matt Leinart will have yet another offseason to try to eclipse the old man. Surprisingly successful rookie RB Tim Hightower then surprisingly hit the rookie wall, and veteran Edgerrin James has spent all offseason begging the Cardinals for a trade—and so has stud WR Anquan Boldin.
While you’d think the reigning NFC Champions would be an impossible foe for the Lions to slay, in reality the Cardinals franchise is kind of all over the place. The Cards were a mediocre team in 2008 who “clicked” in an incredible way, slaughtering foes in the last couple weeks of the season, and playing great football all the way through the playoffs. Due to all of the changes I outlined above—plus an underwhelming draft, their first-round pick only muddying the offensive backfield even further with RB Chris “Beanie” Wells—I actually think Arizona walks into Ford Field an underdog.
Week 16: at San Francisco
There’s an individual who has this date circled on his calendar. A big-mouthed, fleet-footed defensive back who’s just waiting for the Lions to come into his new house and stick it to them. Unfortunately, Dre’ Bly is about a foot too short to cover Calvin Johnson.
The Niners’ interim-cum-new head coach Mike Singletary, might be a little rough around the edges, but he’s a tremendous man who’s well respected around the league for his work with the Ravens and the Niners, as LB coach and defensive coordinator, respectively. His work with mega-stud MLB Patrick Willis certainly can’t be ignored, and he and his staff coaxing a creditable performance from QB Shaun Hill speaks bodes well, as well. RB Frank Gore brings the kind of steady inside running game that the Lions will struggle to stop. LT Joe Staley will be as excellent of a pass protector as the Lions’ DEs will face this season, too—if #10 overall pick WR Michael Crabtree makes an impact, the Niners could have a very good offense. The defense, with big bodied Isaac Sopoaga up front, and LBs Willis and Takeo Spikes in the middle, were the 14th-best rushing defense last season, and 13th-best yardage defense overall. With a full offseason under Singletary, the Niners hope that defense will firm up even more.
I still don’t buy the quarterbacks; fourth-round rookie Nate Davis might have more NFL potential than either Hill or former #1 overall pick Alex Smith, who’s allegedly “neck and neck” with Hill for the starting gig. Gore has been on a steady decline, and RB Glen Coffee is another bruiser without burst. I think the Niners’ offense will be stoppable for the Lions’ defense--but the Lions’ run game will be stoppable by the Niners’ defense, as well. Whether or not the Lions will be able to pass over CBs Nate Clements and Dre Bly will be the key to victory.
W L, 14-10 (updated to reflect major gaffe*)
Week 17: vs. Chicago
The Lions take Ford Field at 6-10, squaring off against the 7-8 Bears. Kevin Smith blows holes through the Bears’ Tampa 2, racking up 120 yards and 2 TDs. Louis Delmas picks off Jay Cutler and takes it back to the house. In the ultimate fourth-quarter insult to Rod Marinelli and the Bears, Ikaika Alama-Francis collapses the pocket on third down and brings down Jay Cutler to end the Bears’ final drive. The Bears, through the magic of tiebreakers I don’t fully understand, finish last in the NFC North. Jim Schwartz is Coach of the Year. Sammie Hill eats a bear in celebration. No, not an opposing player, an actual bear.
*Thanks are due to the anonymous commenter who spotted my egregious arithmetic fail. I accidentally had eight wins detailed here, instead of the 7 that I meant to. I think the Lions will take 2 of 3 between Arizona, San Francisco, and Seattle--I gave the W to San Francisco and Patrick Willis, because he frightens me.
So, we have the Lions finishing at 7-9, wildly outstripping the (minimal) expectations set for them, and building incredible momentum towards next season. It’d be a magnificent turnaround. While perhaps not as magnificent as the Dolphins’ or Falcons’ 2008 turnarounds, the jury remains out on whether those two teams stay amongst the league’s best. The Lions, however, will have, yes, poured the foundation for a consistently successful team. With a mix of very young talent placed for the long run, and very experienced—fine, old—talent in place for now, the Lions will at least resemble a legitimate football team.
Now, will they really win seven games, the year after the only 0-16 season in the history of the NFL? Well . . . is it that incredible? They won seven games in 2007, with largely the same roster as they won zero games with in 2008. There’s no doubt that the Lions are significantly improved in talent, size, and experience across the board. It’s inarguable fact that the coaching staff is going from one of the least-qualified, least-well-prepared, and most out-of-their-depth in the league, to a brilliant young HC with two extremely experienced and successful NFL coordinators—who, crucially, believe 100% in the new head man and his approach.
The funny thing, to me, is that we can’t really know how the Lions will play until we see them on the field. In fact, we can’t really know how any team will play, in any year, until we see them on the field. In the modern NFL, turnover is so high—both on rosters and coaching staffs—and the Xs-and-Os arms race is almost inconceivably fast. New schemes and plans that work incredibly well Week 1 are neutralized by Week 16. Players that come out of nowhere to surprise opponents are scouted, mapped, and game-planned out of existence in weeks (see Gado, Samkon). You can’t possibly look at a team’s roster and record, add what got added, subtract what got subtracted, and extrapolate a conclusion; it just doesn’t work that way—and the 2007 and 2008 Lions are indelible proof of that.
Football teams are incredibly complex systems. They’re full of moving parts, developing young players, declining veterans, deep emotional connections, public and private strife, inches and yards, breaks and bounces, injuries, turnovers, and lucky breaks. They’re coaches sleeping at their desks, and coaches hitting the golf course at noon. They’re a superior training staff, or a staph-infected trainer’s room. There are a hundred thousand million tiny variables that factor into the on-field performance of an NFL club. Every single season, each NFL club is a new thing, a new potion, a new mix of hundred different reactive ingredients; they must be evaluated on a case-by-case, year-by-year basis. Moreover, there’s a reason they say “That’s why they play the games”. There’s a reason they say "On any given Sunday . . .", the better team doesn’t always win. You can’t say right now whether the Lions will win or lose against any other team, because you don’t know how good the Lions are, and you don’t know how good the other teams are, and you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen when helmets and pads clash between them.
So, wait--why did I just make you sit through 4,722 words? Hey, I told you it was a completely useless waste of time!