The Lions Are Going To Make the Playoffs

>> 5.27.2011

1999-lions-robert-porcher_playoffsYesterday, 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.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Running Backs

>> 5.24.2011

Since Pro Football Focus doesn’t normalize their quarterback data—and, of course, we knew the Lions’ quarterback picture for 2011—this will be the last position group I apply the Old Mother Hubbard treatment to. Without further ado, the chart:


The bright red line is Jamaal Charles, who tied with Adrian Peterson for the best “Run” grade (+23.0)—but Charles’s +3.4 blocking grade is 8th-best in the NFL, while All Day’s –6.8 blocking grade is tied for last place with Chris Johnson, so Charles is “in charge” of the running backs. The dark brick red line is Tim Hightower, whose –7.3 receiving grade was, by far, the worst handed out to any NFL back last year; it went unredeemed by his +0.6 run grade (in a year where the NFL average run grade was +2.5). The AVERAGE, the thick black line, was soundly positive (+3.14), meaning running back play as a whole seems to be better than it was in 2008 (PFF’s baseline season). Interesting.

Per my emerging standard, I’ve given the highest-graded Lions tailback, Maurice Morris, a nice Lions-y blue. His –0.9 overall grade is well below NFL starter average; he ranked 37th of 58 qualifying tailbacks. His ability to catch the ball is probably underrated; MoMo’s receiving grade was a healthy +1.8, 17th-best. His running was graded out at +0.7, below the league average of +2.5, and ranked just below the median (34th of 58).

Statistically, PFF credited Morris with 336 yards on 90 attempts, an average of 3.7 YpC. That’s almost half a yard less than the NFL average of 4.2; he ranked 45th-best out of 58. I was hoping we’d find out Morris was better-than average when it came to yards after contact, but that’s not the case either. He averaged 2.3 yards after contact per carry; by itself that’s a well-below-average number. But, when you look at what percentage of his yards came after contact (62.2%) versus the NFL average (63.2%), he’s getting a typical portion of his gained yards after contact—he’s just not gaining that many yards.

I’ve spoken very highly of Maurice Morris before—indeed, he’s the best, most consistent back the Lions have had throughout the Mayhew Era. Keep in mind, all this doom-and-gloom in the above paragraphs is relative to players with at least 25% of their teams’ snaps. MoMo is a creditable, slightly-below-average starter or above-average rotational/backup NFL tailback. However, he’s not a difference-maker, and it’s not good news that he ended the season as the Lions’ best-graded RB.

BOTTOM LINE: Maurice Morris is a creditable all-around NFL tailback, but he has neither the down-to-down productivity, nor the home-run ability, that the Lions need from their long-term starter. If he sticks around he’ll be a great insurance policy for the Lions’ two young runners. If not, the Lions may look for a similar veteran retread.

My policy in these Old Mother Hubbards is to only review players who I believe can be considered an asset going forward—that is, if they clearly don’t have a place on next year’s roster, there’s no point in assessing them as an . . . asset. Aaron Brown straddles this line. With an overall grade of –3.0 on just 80 snaps, he was technically the second-best-graded 2010 Lions running back not already released. However, his tantalizing speed still can’t be harnessed effectively, because he still makes so many mental mistakes.

BOTTOM LINE: I think the former sixth-rounder is on his last legs here in Detroit. I will be surprised if he makes the roster.

It kills me that Jahvid Best, the Lions’ second 2010 first-round draft pick, was the Lions’ lowest-graded tailback. It kills me even harder that his –6.0 overall grade was third-worst in the NFL, ahead of only Donald Brown and Tim Hightower. His –4.0 running grade was tied for second-worst with Correll Buckhalter; only Thomas Jones’ appalling –9.7 bails Best out from being tied for worst.

I think we’re all well aware of Jahvid’s painful double turf toe injuries; I think we’re also well aware of the Lions’ problems with run blocking. Jahvid did a lot of running into a behind-the-line-of-scrimmage pile; he didn’t get much chance to hit holes hard, like we saw him do in preseason, or rip off long chunks of yardage, like we saw him do in the first few games of the season. He finished with 3.3 yards per carry, 54.5% of which came after contact (1.8).

Towards the end of the season, Jahvid's productivity and grades perked back up. I got a chance to speak with Jahvid about it in between Week 14 and 15, and he told me it was as much, if not more, about overcoming the rookie wall, and being mentally ready to handle the grind of the NFL, as it was physical limitations. Even unable to rest his turf toes, he still turned in positive overall grades in three of the last five games, including a nice 1.2 against Miami (in just 22 snaps). He also failed to be penalized at all—and only fumbled once—with the NFL’s 24th-heaviest workload (573 snaps, NFL avg. 498).

BOTTOM LINE: Jahvid Best showed us plenty of his Jim-Schwartz-up-late-at-night-alone-watching-YouTube-highlight-reels ability in the preseason, in the opening two games, and a little in the last five games. He was clearly hampered by his turf toes, however, and had almost no daylight to work with throughout the middle of the season. Between him getting healthy and Stephen Peterman getting healthy, I expect Jahvid to return to his explosive form. Still, the two questions surrounding Jahvid Best's rookie campaign were, 1) can he stay healthy? and 2) can he handle being an NFL feature back? Unfortunately, Best’s first year points more toward the answers being “No,” and “No,” than “Yes,” and “Yes.”

SHOPPING LIST: Pre-draft, I would have suggested that the Lions would be okay with Best as the returning #1—with the caveat that the Lions would either have to be very comfortable with Maurice Morris seeing significant carries, or acquire a power back to help carry some of the between-the-tackles load. Now that the Lions have drafted Mikel Leshoure, I see Best as the 1a to Leshoure’s 1b—with health, workload, and opponent determining the week-to-week load. Morris would be a fine insurance policy, and has one year left on his contract. If he’s willing to be the third wheel, the Lions will be in very good shape at this position for 2011—and beyond.


Broadcast Gig: The Sports-Casters, w/Adam Schefter

The Sports Casters, I’m thrilled to be joining ESPN’s Adam Schefter and MLB Trade Rumors’s Tim Dierkes tonight, as guests on The Sports–Casters, a weekly podcast. It should go up around 8 pm tonight on their site—and in the meantime, I invite you to peruse their previous shows, especially last week’s episode with SI’s Peter King. We’ll be talking the Lions, the NFL in general, and probably other sports/life/meta topics, as well.

UPDATE: The show is live! Check it out at


Three Cups Deep: The Parable of the One-Eyed Beggar

>> 5.23.2011

Long ago, there was a one-eyed man, living as a beggar on the street. He survived on the scraps and crumbs left behind by those around him. Mostly, he was ignored—though occasionally some would cruelly mock his misfortune. One day he awoke to find, miraculously, he had two fully-functioning eyes. He leapt to his feet, and sang praises to the heavens.

He ran to the nearest store, and with his last copper bought thick paper stock, ink, and quill. He fashioned a sign that said “EYE FOR SALE.” He returned to his begging spot, proudly holding the sign high. A passerby asked, “You suffered so long for want of a second eye; why now would you willingly sell the first?” The beggar replied, “I figure I can probably get like a fourth round pick for it.”

. . . perhaps that’s a little dramatic. But I’m astonished by Lions fans’ talk about trading Sammie Hill. Yes, the addition of Nick Fairley means that the Lions now have both quality and depth on the defensive line—but that’s not a situation that needs fixing. Suh and Fairley will rotate with Hill and Williams to keep all of them fresh for four quarters—and sixteen games. With those four tackles—plus the corps of ends they have in KVB, Avril, and Jackson—the Lions’ defensive line will be able to rotate in many different looks and packages without compromising the effectiveness of the line.

Not only is that a good thing, it’s the design goal of the defense! As long as that defensive line is dominant—disrupting the pass and containing the run—the Lions’ scoring defense is going to be at least decent, no matter what’s going on in the back seven. However, if injuries or fatigue begin to take their toll, and the DL performance slips, suddenly the whole thing turns to cheesecloth.

Still, let’s say Hill weren’t a member of the defense’s signature position group, where they’re trying to stack talent upon talent at almost any cost. He was a fourth-round draft pick, and is still on his rookie contract. His upside is phenomenal; he has the raw physical tools to become an elite run-stopping DT in the mold of Pat Williams or Grady Jackson. We knew Hill would take a few years to reach that potential—and this year’s Old Mother Hubbard shows that Hill’s already better than most run-stopping 4-3 DTs. So, he's already a valuable contributor, he may be developing into an elite player as we speak, and the cost of keeping him around is minimal. That is the last guy you’d ever want to trade.

Just look at the market, here: Lawrence Jackson was two years removed from being a first-round pick, and had flashed potential despite being a bad schematic fit. The Lions got him for a sixth-rounder, and he played at an extremely high level when called upon. Do really want the Lions to flip Sammie Hill for a sixth, fifth, fourth, or even third-round pick and watch him go to the Pro Bowl elsewhere, while the Lions start from scratch with another rookie?

I’m fascinated by the modern NFL fan’s drive for mediocrity. Whether it’s from playing too much Madden franchise mode, or a lack of understanding what separates the wheat from the chaff in the NFL, we fans (I include myself) want to take our team’s resources and trowel them evenly across the roster: we cheer for our team to get 22 “pretty good” starters.

Wherever we see a “hole” in the starting lineup, we want it “filled”—preferably with a second- or third-round pick if the “hole” isn’t on the OL or DL. In a startling flip from fan attitudes of the 80s, we detest it when a high draft pick, or rich free agent contract, is lavished on a non-lineman (I blame this on the dominance of the 1990s Cowboys). Further, once that “hole” is “filled,” and we have an “extra” player, we want to flip him for whatever we can get because he’s “being wasted.” We believe that all rookies are guaranteed to hit their “upside.” We pretend that injuries either do not happen or are the ineffable will of the Football Gods, so preparing for them is folly.

All told, the modern NFL fan seems to want their team comprised entirely of second- and third-round picks—drafted to fill immediate holes at the time of their drafting—plus mid-tier recycled veteran free agents. Oh, and an offensive line comprised entirely of former first-rounders. No holes, no superstars, no difference-makers either way, just 22 B-minus starters with nothing behind them. The problem with all this is that that team would suck.

What's the lesson here? That the Lions, for the first time in forever, have skill AND talent AND depth. All three are required to win in the NFL; we got dramatic proof of that at the tail end of last season! Sammie Hill and Lawrence Jackson and Bobby Carpenter and Nate Vasher and Shaun Hill and Ashlee Palmer and Drew Stanton won those four straight games as much as Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson did; maybe more so.

We've waited so long for the Lions to rise up in strength and become a legitimate contender; don’t be so quick to cripple them.


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