Highlight Reel Updates!

>> 1.02.2010

My latest article for Mlive.com’s Highlight Reel has been published; I encourage everyone reading this page to check it out.
During the crazy rush of the holiday season—and Phil Zaroo’s and my concurrent vacations—I wrote two more articles that "missed deadline", as they say.  With Phil’s gracious permission, I’ve added them to the TLIW archives as Highlight Reel Diaries Volume I and Volume II, as appropriate.
For those who’re fans of Big Ten football as well as the Lions—here’s hoping the Spartans keep the momentum going!


the watchtower: Lions vs. Bears

>> 1.01.2010

In the previous Watchtower, I really struggled.  There was no data for the Ken Whisenhunt-Gunther Cunningham matchup; they’d never coached against each other.  The limited data for the Cardinals’ DC, Billy Davis, indicated a very strong systemic advantage when facing Scott Linehan offenses—which is bizzare; 3-4 defenses typically struggle against Linehan’s schemes.

However . . .

Every single piece of data I have, both objective and subjective, points to a Cardinals blowout. However, there has not been a more “off” and “on” team over the past two seasons than the Cardinals. The one thing they haven’t done in this Warner/Fitz/Boldin/Whisenhunt era is meet expectations—they beat teams they shouldn’t beat and look amazing doing it, and they lose to teams they have no business losing to, and look horrible doing it.

Further, I can’t imagine that a Jim Schwartz team comes back for a home game after a bad performance and rolls over from the opening gun--if so, it should raise some serious red flags. My instincts tell me this will be more like a 35-21 loss—but if Culpepper plays, and Fitz and Boldin don’t take the game off, I don’t see how the Lions keep it that close.

The only hope for the Lions is the Cunningham/Whisenhunt matchup—they’ve never faced each other before, and Gunther’s certainly much more experienced. Maybe, just maybe, a little dose of Guntherball flummoxes Warner early, and the sacks and turnovers come—as they did on Monday Night.

My instincts turned out to be as right as the numbers were wrong: the Lions lost, 31-24.  What does this tell us?  Only that it’s extraordinarily rare for a team to take a 40-plus-point beatdown two weeks in a row.

After a week off of doing the Watchtower—sorry, again!—we find ourselves at the end of the line.  This home contest against the Bears is the last game of the Lions’ season—and, therefore, the last Watchtower of the season.  As I’ve hinted at before, and as Neil commented response to the last post, it’s getting harder and harder to do this.

With Matthew Stafford on the shelf, and neither Drew Stanton nor Daunte Culpepper playing well enough to allow the Lions to win, this all seems pointless.  However, it’s not pointless to the Lions who are fighting for jobs in 2010—so let’s at least take a cursory look.

Gunther Cunningham vs. Ron Turner

Tur Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA YpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
CHI KCC 26th 17.7 5.78 3.64 11th 18.8 6.60 4.12 10 6.44 1 1.84 2-11
CHI DET 22nd 19.3 6.08 3.89 31st 30.5 7.83 4.36          

In the previous Watchtowering of the Bears, I used both data from the actual Bears’ OC, Ron Turner, and his brother Norv.  This was a conscious attempt to expand the data set, knowing I might be including spurious data.  It wasn’t too ridiculous—besides being brothers, the Turners were assistants to several different coaches from the same tree.

However, this didn’t give me anything useful, and I concluded:

So, IF we consider Ron and Norv Turner interchangable--and we don't--then given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3 appears to match expectations versus a Turner Bros. Coryell-style downfield passing offense (albeit while generating very high sack and turnover numbers). That is to say there is no systemic advantage or disadvantage for either team.

Thanks in part to a horrendous performance by the Lions’ special teamers, the Bears turned an average starting field position in Lions’ territory into a whopping 48 points.  This was not a systemic thing.  Up until Monday’s 36-point game against the Vikes, the Bears had only topped 20 points three times: against the Lions, Browns, and Seahawks.  Moreover, Cutler’s arm and Chicago’s group of speedy—if not skilled—wideouts posed all sorts of matchup problems for the Lions’ secondary.

So, what happens this time?  The Bears’ scoring offense has been, as I said, underwhelming.  In fact, it’s been barely any better than the Lions’ offense!  With an anemic 6.08 YpA, and unimpressive 3.89 YpC, they may well outstrip their averages again—but without another record-setting performance by their special teams, they shouldn’t outstrip the Lions’ average-allowed figures.

Therefore, despite a matchup advantage that has a lot more to do with talent and personnel than system, the Bears should outperform their season averages—but not exceed the Lions’ season average-allowed numbers.  I project 28-32 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 3.00-3.50 YpC.  I have low confidence in this prediction.

Augmenting/Mitigating Influences

First, the biggest influence is going to be the meaning of the game. The first contest was the 1-2 Lions visiting the 2-1 Bears, in a critical early divisional contest.  This will be the 6-9 Bears visiting the 2-13 Lions—and those Bears just finished a dramatic, deep-into-overtime win over the Vikings.  That Monday Night Football went so long it extended into Tuesday!

So the Bears have a short week after a season-reclaiming signature win, and the Lions will host a sellout crowd.  All of the elements are in place for the Lions to close this season out on a high note.  If the defense can play as they have the past few weeks—limiting offenses like the Bengals’ and Cardinals’—instead of the way they did in Week 4, this will be a close, winnable game . . . if the offense can actually find the end zone.

Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith

Lin Smit Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG YpA YpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
MIN STL 6th 26.0 7.60 4.75 17th 20.5     17 6.88 1 7.27 8-54
MIN CHI 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 13th 20.7     27 11.61 0 4.04 4-10
MIN CHI 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 13th 20.7     14 8.45 3 6.64 5-34
STL CHI 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 3rd 15.9     27 6.47 1 4.59 3-24
DET CHI 27th 15.9 5.30 3.95 21st 23.5 6.31 4.35          

The first time around, I concluded:

Given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring.

the most likely outcome involves Stafford getting rattled by the Bears, getting sacked 3-to-5 times and surrendering at least two turnovers. Despite moving the ball as well as they have all season, the Lions should score below expectations (currently 19, though a 3-game average is nearly useless).  This is much less well defined, but my guess is that the Bears will match or slightly outperform their scoring expecations (also currently 19, equally shakily), with one dimension of the offense working much better than the other.

And this all was pretty much spot on:

  • Stafford was sacked five times, for a loss of 42 yards.
  • Stafford lost a fumble on one of those sacks, and threw an interception.
  • The Lions generated a season-high 398 yards of total offense, and scored 24 points--for reference, they scored 20 points off of 231 offensive yards in Week 1.
  • The Bears scored 41 offensive points. As a team, they ran 20 times for 151 yards (7.55 YpC) and 3 TDs. They passed 28 times for 141 yards (5.04 YpA) and 2 TDs.

If we apply that to the Lions’ current averages, and account for the Bears’ defense’s averages, my projection looks like this: 13-16 points, 6.00-6.25 YpA, and 4.50 YpC.  I have medium to high confidence in this prediction.

Augmenting/Mitigating Influences

Of course, the ongoing problem with projecting the Lions’ offense has been the game of musical chairs at quarterback.  The Lions’ offense is simply a different beast with healthy Matthew Stafford . . . and it’s bestial without him.  Whether it’s Stanton or Culpepper is at the helm, the Lions’ offense is incapable of generating touchdowns.

On the other hand, this game really does set up well.  All of the momentum, intangibles, hunches, home-field advantage, etc. swings in the Lions’ favor—and they’re also much better at home than on the road.  If whoever is playing quarterback can avoid turnovers, this game will be much closer than the data would indicate.

Unfortunately, neither Stanton nor Culpepper has shown an ability to avoid turnovers. A couple of early INTs, and the rout could be on . . .


I’ve said throughout this piece that I don’t think this game necessarily follows the data. The Lions are unquestionably better at home than on the road, and the defense is also unquestionably better now than it was in Week 4.  The Week 4 contest was also totally skewed by they absolutely horrific performance of the Lions’ special teams units, an area which has been addressed in personnel.

That having been said, the Lions’ offense has been so completely moribund, that I have a hard time believing they’ll meet even my meager projections.  Therefore, I’ll go with the data: 28-32 points for the Bears, 14-16 points for the Lions.  My instincts tell me this is a very winnable game, but the data just doesn’t support it.


Snow on Snow on Snow

>> 12.28.2009

Technically, I’m still on vacation.  But this morning, I had an errand to run, so I woke at my usual time.  Throwing on jeans, a T-shirt, coat, and Lions cap, I trudged out to my snowed-over car.  I sighed, pulled my scraper out, and attacked the windshield.

The scraper zipped across the glass, revealing a swath of the interior. To my surprise, there was no ice underneath the snow!  I smiled, flipped the scraper over to the brush side, and made quick work of the rest.  I hopped into the front seat, turned the key, and the engine roared to life.  Local AM sports talk radiated out of my speakers, and the dashboard informed me: “OUTSIDE TEMP 22”.

I gave the throttle a few quick blips, then rubbed my hands together while I waited for the coolant temp needle to budge.  The sports talk was centered entirely around Michigan State basketball, and for that I was thankful.

You see, it was one year ago that I found myself in this same position—only then, winter’s grip on my car, and my spirit, was much tighter.  The temperature was eight below zero, I’d spent ten minutes chipping the ice off my car, and the radio had spit venom about the Lions just having completed history’s first 0-16 NFL season.

The dizzying range of emotions—dejection and determination, hopelessness and hope—that I went through that morning inspired me to grab a Blogspot account and put it all “on paper”.  This year?  It’s almost the opposite.

The Lions are better this season than last.  They’ve won two games, and have taken many others deep into the fourth quarter.  They’re also further along in the franchise-building process: they have a quarterback who’ll be their starter for the next few seasons, and a rookie has developed into a starting-caliber player at every level of the defense (line, linebackers, secondary).  They have a few veterans who’ve played well this year, and will be back next year.  Most importantly, the head coach and coordinators will be coaching these same systems throughout next year—ensuring continuity for the first time since 1997-1999, when Sly Croom handled the offense, and Gary Moeller assisted Bobby Ross with the defense.

Though Ross, of course, stepped down in the middle of the '99 season, those three consecutive seasons included the Lions' last two non-losing campaigns, as well as their last playoff appearance.  I'm not suggesting the Lions should clear their travel calendars for January 2011—but the complete lack of continuity, of building, of progress is at least partly to blame for the Decade Of Failure.

Simply knowing that this franchise has a direction, regardless of what direction it is, is comforting.  We know exactly what will happen this offseason: the Lions will add talent to what they already have.  There will be no addition by subtraction, no change for change’s sake, no “looking for a spark”.  Indeed, that’s the best part: there already is a spark—it just has to be fanned into a fire.

While I cannot pretend that anything I say or do will ever cause the Lions to win or lose a game, what I can do is keep the flame of fandom burning.  Believe it or not, that will be just as harrowing of a task as it was last season.

You see, a week from now, the waiting will be over—and the “getting on with our lives” will begin.  Unlike the 2008 campaign, where incredible passion about the new front office and furious speculation about the coaching search frothed and surged within hours of the final gun, 2009’s ending will be a languid drift into permanent sleep.

It’s often been said that fan apathy is far more dangerous than fan anger.  Will the fans won’t come back, after having checked out for so long?  The 2009 home opener sold out; everyone wanted to see the New Lions with their new coach and their new quarterback in their new uniforms with the new logo.  It’s hard to imagine the Same-as-Last-Year-But-Better-We-Hope Lions having the same draw.

So enjoy this last round of cider, folks.  Let’s swap a few more tales before we again don our hats and boots and gloves, and trudge back out onto the barren tundra.  Maybe some folks will even stick around through the lean, bitter months.  We can tend the little blue fire together.  We’ll pack up snow to protect against the wind, and we’ll keep plenty of sticks on hand to fuel the flames.  I can’t promise it’ll be fun, but it’ll be more fun than doing it alone.

For now, though, let’s just enjoy what’s left.  Let’s hope the Lions give the Bears all they can handle.  Let’s hope they go out on a win.  Let’s cheer on every Lion, young or old, starter or backup, on a multi-year deal or  on the back of a bus ticket.  Let’s see if these men can stoke the blue fire for us one more time, before Winter descends on us with everything it’s got.


Lions at 49ers: Gameday Post

>> 12.27.2009


First: I hope your Christmas was as merry as mine!  I’ve had a wonderful time with my friends and family over the holiday break.  Good times, good food, and good drink were had.  Far-flung siblings and siblings-in-law were reconnected with.  Of course, wonderful new toys were acquired, and much reorganizing is currently underway . . .

Today feels kind of like a freebie.  Drew Stanton is in, and as long as he’s not completely, irredeemably horrible, it’ll be nice to see him out there.  The Niners are exactly the kind of hot/cold opponent the Lions could either beat, or be decimated by.  If the Lions are competitive for most of the game, I’ll be satisfied.

My apologies for the lack of a Watchtower this week; with the preparations and celebrations, there simply wasn’t time.  I’m also working on some very special Christmas-related content, so keep your eyes peeled for that.  In any event, feel free to share a mug of something with your Lions fan family in the comments below!


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