Lately, I’ve been catching some flak in the comments (and on Twitter) for drinking the Lions Kool-Aid. Baking the Lions cornbread. Being trapped in a bizarre delusion that the Lions are going to make the playoffs. Insisting all the injuries the Lions have suffered won’t affect the bottom line. Calling Matthew Stafford a top five quarterback. At some point, I have to face reality, right? If I’m not pulling my punches, I must be punch drunk—right?
At this point, Jim Schwartz’s tenure is cosmetically identical to Rod Marinelli’s. Both took over a listless team with no real identity, both made strong moves to radically change the scheme and roster; both guided their Lions to impressive winning tears in their second year. In Marinelli’s third year, though, the Lions went 0-16. How can I be certain—as I am—the Lions will be better this year than last?
Marinelli’s third offseason was full of turmoil and turnover. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz left, and the Lions did not replace him. Instead they let the OL coach and WR coach—neither with NFL coordinator experience—call the plays in “I’ll steer, you work the pedals” manner. The Lions traded disgruntled DT Shaun Rogers for soon-to-be-disgruntled CB Leigh Bodden, and found out Rogers was their entire run defense. The Lions were counting on “projects” like Kalimba Edwards to make great leaps forward. Altogether, there were more signs pointing toward the Lions taking a step back than improving.
Under Schwartz, the Lions have retained both coordinators for two second consecutive seasons. No Lion coach/coordinator triumvirate had all retained their jobs even once in the prior thirteen years! The entire starting offensive line has—presuming health—returned intact. The last time that happened was in 1990, when Lomas Brown, Eric Andolsek, Kevin Glover, Ken Dallafior, and Harvey Salem returned from the 1989 squad. If we count Amari Spievey as a holdover, this will be the first time the Lions haven’t brought in at least two new starters in the secondary since 2000, when Bryant Westbrook and Kurt Schultz got hurt.
The Lions have built a real team; the permanent foundation to a perennial winner. They’re building and building and building and nothing is falling down. In the ruthlessly entropic NFL, very few teams have any kind of staying power. Life in the NFL is dog eat dog, and many of the 32 dogs never get their day. That the Lions have built something this solid, this lasting, already puts them ahead of most teams in the NFL, especially with this crazy lockout-shortened offseason. Teams with significant turnover—like the Bengals—are going to be miles behind the Lions, purely on continuity. Consider the massive stock of talent the Lions boast (8/11 offensive starters are first- or second-round picks), and it’s easy to see why I’m certain the Lions will win more games than they lose.
Look, I'm the Flamekeeper. I'm the guy who chops the wood and brews the cider. If I weren’t inclined to look ahead to better days, this blog would be grim work. But I don’t just blow hot air—I work hard to keep the fire burning with real fuel. Last season, when the Lions were 2-9, I didn’t ladle out weaksauce excuses. I examined statistical models of winning, losing, and variance in the NFL—and found out that the Lions were, objectively, a lot better than their record implied. Moreover, the numbers pointed toward a strong regression to the mean by the end of the season; sure enough the Lions closed out the year on a 4-game win streak.
Even at 6-10, the Lions won two fewer games than their scoring margin and strength of schedule would predict—and that’s without Matthew Stafford. For that matter, it’s without Nick Fairley, or Titus Young, or Eric Wright or Stephen Tulloch or
Kevin Justin Durant, the lot of whom will be in position to make major impacts in roles of need.
If you call that Kool-Aid, fine. Make mine a double.