Yesterday, ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert assessed the merits of “Lions Fever,” outlining what the Lions must do to fulfill the suddenly rampant talk of the Lions becoming a playoff contender. He spoke of the Lions needing to learn how to finish, another NFC North team needing to slip (or stay down), Matthew Stafford staying healthy, Nick Fairley making an immediate impact, filling the holes in the back seven, and the offensive line holding it together for another year without an influx of new talent.
Yes, it’s true—folks seem to be hesitantly, guardedly, tentatively getting bold enough to suggest that the Lions could possibly maybe approach .500 this season, you know, if everything goes just right. Unfortunately, now that our little blue fire is flickering high enough to be seen from a distance, the naysayers have arrived to turn the hoses on it.
The NFL fan/media hivemind seems to think no team can be significantly better or significantly worse from year to year. In our year-to-year projections, personnel additions and subtractions nudge teams a win or two one way or the other. In reality, teams can “catch fire” quite quickly, and flame out just as fast. Just look at the records of the 90s Lions for proof: 6-10, 12-4, 5-11, 10-6, 9-7, 10-6, 5-11, 9-7, 5-11, 8-8. Those Lions were notoriously inconsistent, yes—but a surprisingly large core of players led that team throughout that era. Most of the wild swings can be attributed entirely to quarterback play and natural random variance.
The 2010 Lions were the victim of some of the most unfortunate variance we’ve seen. I wrote a piece at the very worst part of it called “The Detroit Lions, the NFL, and Luck:”
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 [Ed.: list of bounces SNIP’d] 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.
Of course, the Lions’ luck DID turn; they won their last four games to claw their way back to 6-10. Even so, the Simple Ranking System predictive model I used shows the Lions’ final record was two games below what their scoring margin would predict. So, the 2011 Lions should still have some juicy regression to the mean coming their way.
Second, the talk of the Lions’ expectations for the 2010 season was 4-6 wins. If we were to make a Kevin Seifert-style “must” list for 2010, it probably would have included Stafford staying healthy, Nate Burleson and Kyle Vanden Bosch being impact starters, Zack Follett stepping up, Ndamukong Suh being as advertised, Amari Spievey solidifying a corner spot, DeAndre Levy and Louis Delmas building off of their rookie years, the Lions “filling the hole” at safety, Rob Sims being the answer at left guard, and Stephen Peterman continuing his great form of 2009 . . .
Not all of those things happened--and in fact, most of them anti-happened. Stafford only played in three games. Spievey didn’t even play corner, and only contributed to “filling the hole” at safety—which didn’t really happen. Follett was shaky-but-not-awful at OLB, then got hurt and replaced by a parade of special-teamers. That was exacerbated by Julian Peterson taking a major step back from 2009. Levy and Delmas were both limited by preseason injuries, and both fell short of expectations—and well short of hopes. Kyle Vanden Bosch’s impact was great in terms of leadership, but he was outshined on-field by Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson. Burleson was a solid contributor, but a slot ninja miscast as an outside WR. Peterman was limited by a host of injuries, and struggled mightily throughout the season.
Yet, the Lions met the top end of their expectations: six wins (seven, if you count the Chicago Robbery). Can you imagine if Stafford had been healthy for 16 games? Can you imagine if Amari Spievey had stepped in and been a solid #2 corner from the get-go? What if JP hadn’t fallen off, and The Pain Train had played like a solid NFL starter all season? What if Levy and Delmas were healthy all offseason, and each took big steps forward from their rookie seasons? What if Peterman had played as well in 2010 as he did in 2009?
The Lions would have made the playoffs, that's what if.
I only see one real prerequisite for the Lions making the postseason this year, and it’s Stafford’s health. I watched the Lions punch the Jets in the mouth up close and personal, and there’s no doubt in my mind that if Stafford had finished that game they’d have won. They split with the Super Bowl winning Packers (and outscored them on the aggregate). They were tied with the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the Thanksgiving game. They had the ball at midfield, needed a field goal to force overtime, against the Eagles in Week 2. All told, the Lions played seven games against playoff teams in 2010, all without (or partially without) their franchise quarterback. Stafford’s health, and the Pats’ fourth-quarter explosion, was the only thing keeping every single one of those games from coming down to the last possession.
I’m a big fan of Kevin Seifert; he did a great job of breaking down the weaknesses on the Lions’ roster, and the obstacles that stand between them and the promised land—but I disagree on the size of those obstacles. Nick Fairley doesn’t need to be a stud. The Lions don’t need to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, or add more backup tackles. The Bears don’t need to implode (though they will), and the Vikings won’t need to keep backsliding (though they will). The Lions don’t need to “learn how to finish,” they just need Matthew Stafford healthy for 16 games. If they get that, the Lions will win ten of those games, at least—and they’ll make the playoffs.