The Watchtower: LIONS vs. BEARS

>> 12.03.2010

The bear watches the tower with interest.

The Bears were the first team I Watchtowered this season. They were also the first team to be Watchtowered in both the 2009 and 2010 seasons.  Now, they’re the first team to be Watchtowered twice this season.  The situation this time around is much different than in Week 1.  The Lions, at the time, seemed poised  for a breakthrough season; they had a clear vision and direction, and were primed with the talent to achieve it.  The Bears, meanwhile, were all over the place: loads of flashy talent, lots of money spent—but two new coordinators, and a sense that Death was lurking over the shoulder of Lovie Smith’s coaching tenure.

Of course, we know what happened: the referees insanely ruled that Calvin Johnson’s touchdown was not a touchdown, the Lions lost, and the Bears have been winning games ever since.  At times they’ve looked wobbly—even farcically inept—but eight times out of eleven, the Bears have beaten their opponent.

   . . . well, at least seven times out of eleven.

Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith

Lin   Ornk   PgG   YpA   YpC   Lovie   Drnk   PpG   DYpA   DYpC   PTS   PTSΔ   YpA   YpAΔ   YpC   YpCΔ  
MIN   6th   26.0   7.60   4.75   STL   22nd   21.6   5.87   4.15   17   -35%   6.88   -9%   7.27   53%  
MIN   6th   25.3   7.16   4.71   CHI   13th   20.7   6.49   4.13   27   7%   11.61   62%   4.04   -14%  
MIN   6th   19.9   5.94   3.69   CHI   13th   20.7   6.49   4.13   14   -30%   8.45   42%   6.64   80%  
STL   10th   22.9   6.69   4.26   CHI   3rd   15.9   5.36   3.96   27   18%   6.47   -3%   4.59   8%  
STL   30th   14.5   5.67   3.95   CHI   16th   21.9   6.2   3.42   3   -79%   6.56   16%   0.74   -81%  
DET   27th   16.4   7.80   4.42   CHI   21st   23.4   6.36   4.33   24   46%   7.45   -4%   2.46   -44%  
DET   27th   25.2   5.95   3.63   CHI   21st   23.4   6.36   4.33   23   -9%   7.70   29%   4.00   10%  
DET   12th   23.5   5.86   3.59   CHI   2nd   15.6   5.77   3.58   14   -40%   5.03   -14%   0.95   -74%  
DET   12th   23.5   5.86   3.59   CHI   2nd   15.6   5.77   3.58              

Last year, I thought I’d identified a strong trend when Linehan offenses meet Lovie Smith defenses, and then the Bears spent last year proving me wrong.  In the first Watchtower of this year, I modified my theory slightly:

Given greater or equal 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. Given mediocre or poor talent, Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 surrenders disproportionately high yardage and points, respective to the Linehan offense’s talent level.

. . . I’ll say that based on extremely weak data, the most likely outcome of the game is a close Lions loss, with lots of sacks and turnovers for both sides, and a final score of 24-30.

The Lions only scored 14 points in the official reckoning—but of course, we know they actually scored at least 20, and would likely have gone for 2.  Even assuming they don’t convert the two, scoring 20 points slides the average/actual delta from -40% to -15%.  The Lions scoring 15% below their mean is not unexpected for the 12th-ranked offense going up against the 2nd-ranked defense.  The “sacks and turnovers” certainly were present, though: the Lions were sacked twice for –32 yards, fumbled three times (and lost two), and threw an interception, to boot.  Still, though, the Lions produced points when they absolutely needed to.  Here was my reaction in the Watchtower Review:

If the Lions were the beneficiary of a systemic advantage that allowed them to move the ball better than usual, either the Lions have an epically bad offense this season, or the Bears are much, much better than commonly thought.

It’s the latter.  The addition of Julius Peppers, and the return of Brian Urlacher to form, has this Bears defense playing like Bears defenses of old.  Allowing only 15.6 points per game on the average, and equally stiff against the run and pass, the Bears’ defense has been keeping the erratic offense in games.  In fact, only the Seahawks and Eagles have topped the Lions’ “20-point” performance against these 2010 Bears.  But, can the Lions repeat the feat?

Of course, the big difference between these two games is that Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best started the first game, and Drew Stanton and Maurice Morris will be starting this one.  However, Stafford famously didn’t finish that game—and Best mustered only 20 yards on 14 carries.  So, then, the Lions shouldn’t be too far off their typical pace, unless Stanton completely implodes.  Also, note that the Lions’ mean YpA- and YpC-gained figured nearly match the Bears’ means allowed (5.86/5.77 YpA, 3.59/3.58 YpC).  Therefore, given a mild yard-producing advantage for Scott Linehan balanced offenses against Lovie Smith aggressive Tampa 2 defenses, I project the Lions to roughly meet expectations: 17-21 points, 5.50-6.0 YpA, and 3.50-3.75 YpC.  I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Besides injuries (the Lions are missing their top two quarterbacks, and functionally missing their top two running backs), the main factor is the swing from a season-opening road game to a somewhat-meaningless home game.  This is a classic trap game, and it’s already a sellout.  If Drew Stanton (and the offensive line) can play like he did (and they did) against the Giants, the Lions could do at least this well, and possibly better.  If Drew implodes with turnovers, as he did in his only previous start . . . disaster.

Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham:

MM Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTS? YpA YpA? YpC YpC?
STL 1st 33.8 8.91 4.81 KCC 19th 22.1 6.32 3.83 34 1% 8.48 -5% 3.30 -31%
CHI 22nd 20.2 8.32 3.84 DET 23rd 22.4 7.13 4.79 19 -6% 10.63 28% 3.26 -15%
CHI 22nd 20.2 8.32 3.84 DET 23rd 22.4 7.13 4.79            

Here’s what I said in the previous Watchtower:

When the two teams faced one another, it was a study in averages: Martz’s offense produced exactly to its season mean in points, and very nearly so in YpA. Now, the Chiefs did manage to bottle up the run game, allowing only 3.3 YpC—and they also snared three interceptions, and garnered four sacks. Then again, Martz’s offense was notorious for surrendering both picks and sacks in the name of scoring. So, we only have one data point, and it points toward neither side having a systemic advantage or disadvantage. The two teams should play to their (relatively unknown) talent and execution levels.

Given that the Lions allowed 30.9 points last season, and given that they’re presumably improved, I’ll presume that they’re presumably good enough to allow the Bears to reach their season averages for 2010—which, of course, is a total guess anyway, since the one thing Martz does everywhere he goes is inflate scoring over the prior year. Let’s just call it thirty points. This is a guess and not a prediction, and I have extremely low confidence in it.

. . . and in the review:

On defense, Cutler and the Bears moved the ball with incredible ease; 10.62 YpA show that yards were coming in chunks through the air. Despite averaging only 3.25 YpC, the Bears continued to feed the ground game, too: 31 carries at that rate is good for 101 yards. Fortunately, the Lions managed to snare an interception, recover three fumbles, and sack Jay Cutler four times—and the timeliness of said turnovers kept points off the board. Even better was the tremendous four-down goal line stand. It was a signature performance by the defensive line, and it kept the game in the Lions’ control—for a little while, at least.

Going forward, the defense will probably be less spectacularly vulnerable; the Martz offense specifically attacks the Lions' defense's greatest weaknesses. Then again, the defense may well be less spectacular; the Martz offense’s greatest weaknesses played to the Lions’ defense’s strength. Even given the way the back seven was—for the most part—traumatized by the Bears, the Lions’ D played with enough heart, and enough pass rush, to make me think there’s hope for this team despite the painful loss.

That’s proved to be prescient: the Lions have played with a lot of heart, and a lot of pass rush, to this point—but there’s also been an awful lot of trauma in the back seven.  Hope?  Well, sure, there’s been that, but more for the 2011 harvest than the 2010 vintage.  The only important cogs missing for either unit will be Bears’ OLB Pina Tinoisamoa, and Lions’ DE Kyle Vanden Bosch—who put up one of the most amazing individual performances I’ve seen in the first game.  With luck, a finally-healthy-ish Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson, and Turk McBride will keep up the intensity.  Oh, and the Lions will play with DeAndre Levy, who wasn’t available for the first matchup.

It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means: the 20.2-ppg Bears scored 19 against the 22.4-ppg Lions.  Note, however, that that included about thirty minutes of shutout play in between Matt Forte receiving touchdowns.   Given the data at hand, I’m inclined to project a repeat performance: 17-21 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 4.0-4.25 YpC.  I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Not many.  The Bears have been slowly evolving from a high variance, pitch-it-around scheme to a more safe and predictable spread-then-run approach.  Cutler’s cut down on some of the wildness, and the offensive line’s been bailed out with shorter routes and drops.  What they’ve done is take some of the teeth out of the offense, in exchange for committing fewer mistakes—the end result, though, is mostly unchanged: the defense is winning games for the Bears.  The major difference is, they’ve realized it and are playing to that strength.  Unless Martz releases the hounds, and the Bears go full-out track meet against the Lions’ secondary, I see a similar, if less wild, final result.


The one thing I’ve learned over the past two years of doing this preview, is that when the same teams play twice in a season, the results are rarely the same.  But the data points to a repeat—and the injury problems for the Lions should be offset by the difference between a season-opening road game, and a midseason sellout.  This is a statement game in many respects, and turnovers will likely make the difference.  Last time, there were five fumbles (three lost), two picks, and 6 sacks for –42 yards.  I see a similarly messy game this time around; how those turnovers and sacks are distributed will be the difference in the outcome.  I am tempted to call this a draw, but at this point in the season, I’ll go out on a limb one more time—despite having a limb hacked out from underneath me three times already this season.  I hesitantly project a 21-20 Lions victory, if for no other reason than the Lions need it much more than the Bears want it.


Drew Stanton: Detroit Lions Starting Quarterback

>> 12.02.2010

By now, you’ve certainly heard the news: Drew Stanton will be starting for the Lions as they face the Bears this Sunday.  This kicked off a cavalcade of reactions:

  • Sean Yuille at Pride of Detroit:
    “Apparently Schwartz said that the offense won't change with Stanton at the helm. All I can say is I'll believe it when I see it.”
  • Neil at Armchair Linebacker:
    "Hell had to find a way to ferret out the tiny pockets of hope that were still left in the fanbase and then crush their fragile spirits, and what better way to do that than to parade down the streets with a clueless Drew Stanton waving and smiling and throwing Grit at horrified onlookers while the devil rides an evil sleigh made from the bones of Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill?"
  • Big Al at The Wayne Fontes Experience just screamed, senselessly.

I come from a different school of thought entirely.  Way back in March of aught-nine, in this blog’s third month, I penned a little piece I called “On Quarterbacks,” which was much more about Drew Stanton in particular than quarterbacks in general:

Stanton is a player I have an extra soft spot for, because my then-toddler daughter was introduced to football through him. One of the games we'd play with her would be to point out Drew Stanton every time teh camera closed in on him. In fact, one of the first times she recognized a number was during a Spartan football game, and she started shouting, "Green Number Five!" It took us a little while to realize that she was seeing Stanton and calling out his jersey number: a green five. When got a little older, my mother taught her to say "Drew Stanton, what a babe!" (gee, thanks, Mom). Ultimately, DS was kind enough to do an autograph session at the Mall, and my little girl actually got to meet the man in person.

Anyway, when Stanton was drafted by the Lions, it was a dream come true, of course. A second-round pick, at just the right time to draft and groom a QB, and a very Millen kind of QB, a tough-nosed, smart, gritty, vocal leader. The kind of player who legitimately hates opponents and wants to beat them--not for glory, not for stats, not for money, but for the sake of victory. The kind of player who can't stand losing, and will give every last ounce he's got to come out on top. That is exactly the kind of quarterback that most Lions fans have been screaming for for years, yet have not ever seen.

I was both thrilled and scared to tell my daughter about Drew Stanton What A Babe becoming a Lion, because deep down I feared that what happened to Chuck would happen to Drew. That the dark presence that hangs over this organization would roll down upon Ford Field and smite him, and DS would never lead the Lions to anything. Sure enough, it's been two whole seasons now; thanks to injuries, blackouts, and the ineffable Will of Rod, my now-twice-as-old-as-she-was-then daughter has still never seen Drew Stanton play for the Lions.  She roots for the Buccaneers now.

If the Millen/Martz/Marinelli three-headed monster, and multiple untimely injuries, hadn’t snuffed out Drew Stanton’s hopes of ever becoming The Lions’ Quarterback (instead of a Lions quarterback), the selection of Matthew Stafford did.  As soon as the ink was dry on Stafford’s massive contract, the forecast for Drew Stanton’s Lions career read “Cloudy with a slight chance of Charlie Batch in Pittsburgh.”  From that point, Hometown Boy Career Backup was the best Detroit Lion he could hope to be.

Unfortunately, Drew hasn’t made enough of his few chances to get even there.  His first—and until Sunday, his only—NFL start didn’t go so hot: 11 of 21 for 130 yards, no scores, and 3 INTs.  Combined with his various relief and mop-up appearances, he’s completed 55 of 104 attempts for 611 yards, two TDs, and seven interceptions.  That’s a career passer rating of 49.0.

His limitations as a passer are undeniable.  At his best, Drew’s passes are in the right place at the right time, but lack zip, especially on deep routes.  At his worst, his throws are wildly inaccurate and easily intercepted.  As Neil is so fond of pointing out, though, Drew’s stock in trade is Grit: with heart and effort and general athletic ability, he goes out and makes plays and does his best to win, no matter the odds.  In college, it worked—sometimes spectacularly.  Drew did engineer the biggest comeback in NCAA D-I history, after all.

Unfortunately, the same hasn’t been true so far in the pros.  In preseason, we’ve seen Stanton scramble for scores and throw 50-yard bombs—but when the bullets have been live, he’s been a dud.  Some of it’s because his team’s been terrible.  Some of it’s because he gets almost zero practice reps outside of training camp, so never practices with the starters and barely practices at all.  Some of it’s because his best chance to make it in the pros was with slow, steady, careful grooming to build good habits and iron out bad ones.  Some of it’s because . . . well, his limitations as a passer are undeniable.

Even so, this season we saw some real progress out of Drew. When he came in cold against the Giants, he turned in a performance that was a little shaky—but, yes, gritty.  He made plays when he had to, and nearly shocked the Giants at Your Company Name Here Stadium.  He impressed everyone, even Giants head coach Tom Coughlin:

"The third quarterback came in and, geez, he played very, very well,'' Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

And Dominic Raiola--part of a Lions offensive line that worked incredibly hard to give Drew time against one of the better pass rushes in the NFL--voiced his support of Drew, too:

"Drew is mentally tough. You're not going to tell him he can't play and then he'll go in the tank. The guys are behind him -- he got better and he did a good job for us,'' Lions center Dominic Raiola said. "Drew's come a long way. He's so improved. People who think he's not an NFL quarterback ... he looked like one out there to me. He did a great job of preparing and he gave us a chance."

. . . and Stephen Peterman, too:

"I thought he did great,'' guard Stephen Peterman said. "He came in and stepped in and played a helluva game. He made checks and looks that you wouldn't expect from a guy who hasn't been in there. He did a great job."

In the wake of the Bills loss, I angrily blamed Jim Schwartz for starting a severely hampered Shaun Hill (who was too hurt to practice the whole playbook that week), instead of giving Drew a solid week of preparation with the starters.  Surely, I said during the Fireside Chat, if you knew that that was all Shaun Hill could give you, you have to start Drew.  If you can’t count on your third quarterback to play when your second-stringer is too hurt to take snaps under center, then what is he doing on the roster?  Schwartz answered that very question this week:

"There's a reason we've kept him around, and you only keep a guy around if you have confidence to put him in a game," Schwartz said. "His role has been third quarterback, and now it's time for him to be able to answer that and be able to go."

Obviously, actions speak louder than words: if Shaun Hill, playing at about 52% of his usual ability, gets the nod over a healthy Drew Stanton, then in fact you don’t have confidence to put him in a game.  Then again, actions speak louder than words—Schwartz and Mayhew have had plenty of opportunities to cut Drew loose and bring in someone else.  The Lions have not been shy about churning the roster; there’ve been no sacred cows.  Even beloved, respected, hometown boy, brought-in-by-this-regime Jon Jansen was sent packing when the Lions thought his roster spot would be better served on someone younger.  In fact, they have brought in several other quarterbacks: Brooks Bollinger, Kevin O’Connell, Zac Robinson—and they just worked out Josh McCown and J.T. O’Sullivan earlier this week.  If any of those guys offered a floor, or ceiling, higher than Stanton, Drew’d be gone.

I realize, at this point, that I sound like a fool.  I realize, at this point, that everyone else long ago boarded the Drew Stanton Sucks So Bad it’s Funny train, even though the reality of his situation hasn’t changed: he’s still a 2007 second-round draft pick, and he’s still only getting his second real shot at playing quarterback for this team.  He’s getting a full week of practice reps with the ones, a full week of preparing as the starter, a sellout home crowd, and a team eager to play for him—and get the victory over the Bears that was taken from them.

Go get ‘em, Drew.


The Detroit Lions, the NFL, and Luck

>> 11.30.2010

Two weeks ago, Michael David Smith of the Wall Street Journal’s online edition wrote that the Detroit Lions may be the unluckiest team in NFL history.  Despite, at the time, outscoring their opponents, the Lions had won only 2 of 9 games.  Certainly, Lions fans expected better—and hoped for much better.  Infuriatingly, the Lions seem much improved, but there’s been no change in the bottom line.  However, it’s hard not to consider Bill Parcells’ famous line, “You are what your record says you are.”  Many fans, bloggers, and media pros subscribe to this idea: no matter how much more competitive the Lions look, they are not actually better until they have more Ws next to their name.

So, what do we make of this?  Do we ignore what our eyes tell us?  Do we disregard increased production on both sides of the ball as window treatments on the Titanic?  Or, do we foolishly embrace false “progress” because we’re so desperate to believe?  How much of the Lions’ 2-9 record can be blamed on happenstance, and how much of it is just the Lions’ lack of ability?  Fortunately, Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats recently wrote an article exploring exactly how random win-loss records are in the NFL.

Imagine flipping a perfectly fair coin 10 times. It would actually be uncommon for the coin to come out 5 heads and 5 tails. (In fact, it would only happen 24% of the time). But if you flipped the coin an infinite number of times, the rate of heads would be certain to approach 50%. The difference between what we actually observe over the short-run and what we would observe over an infinite number of trials is known as sample error. No matter how many times you actually flip the coin, it’s only a sample of the infinitely possible times the coin could be flipped.

As a prime example, the NFL's short 16-game regular season schedule produces a great deal of sample error. To figure out how much randomness is involved in any one season, we can calculate the variance in team winning percentage that we would expect from a random binomial process, like coin flips. Then we can calculate the variance from the team records we actually observe. The difference is the variance due to true team ability.

I strongly, strongly encourage you to read “The Randomness of Win-Loss Records” at Advanced NFL Stats in its entirety.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Okay, back?  Great.  Lost?  Don’t worry: I’ve got you covered with some bullet points:

  • 42% of an NFL team’s regular season record can be accounted for by randomness, otherwise known as sample error.
  • The correlation coefficient (r) between observed team records and a team’s true ability the square root of 0.58, which is 0.75.
  • After a full season of 16 games, your best guess of a team's true team strength should regress its actual record one quarter of the way back to the league-wide mean of .500.
  • The theoretical maximum accuracy of any predictive model is about .75. (from the comments, and Burke’s earlier work about luck & NFL outcomes).

If 42% of the Lions’ 2-9 record can be accounted for by randomness, that’s 4.62 games’ worth out of the eleven.  Assuming that the Lions have had nothing but bad luck to this point—they’re at the very nadir of randomness—then we flip it to nothing but good luck, we can see the theoretical maximum given this talent.  So, if Lions had gotten all the bounces: no Stafford injury, no Megatron Referee Fail, no Wendling/McCann freak TD return, no Alphonso Smith Disasters, Drew Stanton competes that pass, Shaun Hill doesn’t airmail that two-pointer (neither of which would happen anyway because Stafford would’ve been healthy, remember?), a few fewer specious penalties for the Lions, a few more for the opponents, recover a few more of the forced fumbles, catch a couple of dropped INTs . . . the Lions could be as good as 6-5 right now.

Before you freak out: that assumes both a 16-game season, and that the Lions are currently having the rottenest luck possible.  An 11-game sample isn’t the same as a 16-game sample; there may yet be some regression to the mean—that is, if the Lions really aren’t what their record says they are, their luck will turn before we get to the end of the season.  Well, either that, or next season will be a 16-game dip in the strawberry river:

Let’s assume for a second that there’s no sudden switch in the Lions’ fortunes, and they don’t sweep the NFC North at home during these next five games.  Let’s also assume they maintain their current pace: a winning percentage of .182.  Applied to 16 games, that’s 2.912 wins.  What’s the “best guess at their true strength,” if we regress them one-quarter of the way back to the mean?  If I understand this correctly, the difference between .500 and .182 is .318—and a quarter of that is .0795.  So, the Lions’ “true strength” should be a winning percentage of .262: just over four wins.

Again: this assumes the Lions only win one more game.  If the Lions finish 3-13, we’ll have no business saying “well this was really a 7-win team that got screwed.”  Sure, if everything had broken the Lions’ way, and they’d been the beneficiary of some truly rare luck, then maybe they’d have won six or seven games—but as they are, busted-up Stafford and all, if the Lions only win one more game, they really are only a 3-to-4 win team.

So, again, perspective: this is applying Brian Burke’s analysis of win/loss randomness in the NFL to the Detroit Lions’ current record.  All it can do is tell us, at the end of the season, what role “the Football Gods” have played in making the Lions’ record what it is—it is a redictive system, giving us a way of understanding what's already happened.  It can’t tell us which games were the result of randomness, if “the randomness” has already happened, or if the Lions are “due” for a hot streak.  It can’t tell us what we really want to know: how many games the Lions will win going forward. 

Let’s attack this from the other direction: with a predictive model, one that can actually assess teams' relative strengths and project a winner.  I’m choosing the Simple Ranking System, as published by Doug at Pro Football Reference.

Yes, this is required reading too.  Yes, I’ll wait.

Fortunately, it is as simple as the name implies, so it only requires one bullet:

  • Every team's rating is their average point margin, adjusted up or down depending on the strength of their opponents.

Okay, so average point differential, adjusted by strength of schedule, which adjusts the rankings, which adjusts the strengh of schedule, which adjusts the rankings, which adjusts the strength of schedule, over and over and over until the numbers stop changing.  Very simple indeed, yes—but as Doug says, “As it turns out, this is a pretty good predictive system.”



Team W L T W-L% PtDif SoS SRS
Green Bay Packers 7 4 0 0.636 103 1.2 10.6
New England Patriots 9 2 0 0.818 68 2.2 8.4
Pittsburgh Steelers 8 3 0 0.727 73 1.5 8.1
New York Jets 9 2 0 0.818 77 1 8
Atlanta Falcons 9 2 0 0.818 67 -0.1 6
Philadelphia Eagles 7 4 0 0.636 53 1.1 5.9
Baltimore Ravens 8 3 0 0.727 62 0.3 5.9
San Diego Chargers 6 5 0 0.545 85 -2.1 5.7
Tennessee Titans 5 6 0 0.455 39 0.5 4
Chicago Bears 8 3 0 0.727 50 -1.1 3.5
Indianapolis Colts 6 5 0 0.545 30 0.5 3.3
New York Giants 7 4 0 0.636 37 -1.4 1.9
Miami Dolphins 6 5 0 0.545 -20 3.5 1.7
Kansas City Chiefs 7 4 0 0.636 54 -3.3 1.6
New Orleans Saints 8 3 0 0.727 68 -4.5 1.6
Cleveland Browns 4 7 0 0.364 -13 1.4 0.2
Detroit Lions 2 9 0 0.182 -24 2.1 -0.1
Houston Texans 5 6 0 0.455 -23 1.5 -0.6
Oakland Raiders 5 6 0 0.455 -1 -1.9 -2
Minnesota Vikings 4 7 0 0.364 -50 2.5 -2.1
Buffalo Bills 2 9 0 0.182 -66 3.7 -2.3
Washington Redskins 5 6 0 0.455 -47 2 -2.3
Dallas Cowboys 3 8 0 0.273 -45 1.3 -2.8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7 4 0 0.636 -4 -3.1 -3.5
Cincinnati Bengals 2 9 0 0.182 -63 2 -3.7
Jacksonville Jaguars 6 5 0 0.545 -54 0.9 -4
St. Louis Rams 5 6 0 0.455 -18 -4.1 -5.8
Denver Broncos 3 8 0 0.273 -73 -0.1 -6.7
San Francisco 49ers 3 7 0 0.3 -59 -2.5 -8.4
Seattle Seahawks 5 6 0 0.455 -66 -3 -9
Arizona Cardinals 3 7 0 0.3 -104 -1.6 -12
Carolina Panthers 1 10 0 0.091 -136 -0.9 -13.3

Guess how this chart is sorted?  By SRS rank.  You can see the Packers, Patriots, Steelers, and Jets up there at the top, and Seahawks, Cardinals, and Panthers scraping the bottom of the barrel.  But wait, that team in bold, the one that’s darn near in the center?  That’s the Lions, ranked 18th overall.  When we take into account who they’ve played—per SRS, the Lions have played the 6th-hardest schedule in the NFL to this point—and how their offense and defense has performed, the Lions are the 18th-strongest team in the NFL.

This isn’t “with Stafford,” “with that Megatron touchdown,” “with that Drew Stanton pass,” or with anything imaginary added or subtracted.  Quite literally, it’s the scoreboard of every Lions game so far this year; it’s simply been adjusted by the scoreboards of everyone they’ve played.

Ah, but how accurate is this method?  It’s a predictive model, but how predictive is it?  Clearly, if it says the 2-9 Lions are near the middle of the pack in relative strength, it can’t be good at predicting who’ll win and who’ll lose, right?  Well, I regressed the SRS rankings against win percentage, and this is what I got:


Check out the correlation factor there: .7449205, or if you round up .001, .745.  What was the theoretical maximum for a predictive model again?  Well, if Brian Burke is right, it’s approximately .75.  That means that given the inherent randomness in NFL outcomes, the Simple Ranking System is as good as it gets when it comes to assessing relative strength of NFL teams, and thereby predicting future NFL outcomes.  Again, according to this system, the Lions are the 18th-best team in the land.  Further, if I’m not mistaken, they’re the biggest outlier on the chart: they’re the lowest, rightest dot (-0.1 SRS, .186 W-L).  Nobody’s getting screwed harder, or helped out more, by Lady Luck than the Lions.  Just trace the Y axis up to the line of best fit (the diagonal one), and you’ll know what the Lions’ win percentage ought to be: .500.  That’s right, SRS expects the Lions to have 5 wins by now.

So what does this all mean?  It means that if the Lions keep playing like they’ve been playing, they’re either going to pick up multiple wins in these last five games—or next season, they’ll be tubing down the strawberry river of regression to the mean.


Fireside Chat: Lions vs. Patriots

>> 11.29.2010


Here’s this week’s Fireside Chat, again recorded LIVE ON LOCATION in a local Biggby Coffee parking lot.  We talk a little Patriots, a little “where is the Detroit Lions franchise going,” and a lot more:


Turkey coma

>> 11.28.2010

After the ultimately-in-vain effort we all could have predicted—and, in fact, I did predict—I spent all of Thanksgiving evening burying my sorrows in a landslide of family, food, and fun.  We spent “black Friday” mostly doing nothing in particular at home.  Yesterday, had “second Thanksgiving” with the other side of the family, and then Mrs. Inwinter’s class reunion.  Throughout, I’ve been away from the computer—and, having temporarily lost my BlackBerry, mostly invisible on Twitter.  For the radio silence, I apologize.

Today is the Lions fan’s annual day of weirdness, a Football Day where there isn’t any football.  We’ve finished grieving for the Lions’ loss—or in those splendid years where the Lions win, we’ve come off our winning high—and are ready for more, but there is no more, and won’t be for a week.  Everyone handles this differently: some rake the leaves or shovel the walk, some catch up on in-home projects, some spend quality time with the family, some go out and Christmas shop . . . and some just watch the other games, indifferently.  I, being who I am, will attempt to do all of the above simultaneously and do a not-quite-good job of each.

So.  However you choose to spend today, whatever pursuits you distract yourself with, enjoy.  Whatever you do in the absence of Lions football, do it well.  I hope you and yours had a wonderful Thanksgiving . . . and I hope I’ll see you tonight at 11 pm EST for the Fireside Chat.


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