2011 Great Lakes Classic Preview: Lions at Browns

>> 8.19.2011


Tonight’s Great Lakes Classic—the winner of whom will take home the lovely Edmund Fitzgerald Trophy you see above—will be markedly different from last week’s game. It will be in Cleveland rather than in the welcoming confines of Ford Field. The opponent will be similar—an Ohio-based team with a new quarterback and new offense—but many ways, wholly opposite. How will the results differ from last week’s blowout?

The Bengals are in the last gasp of the Marvin Lewis era. Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and the rest of the crew that made Lewis look smart are gone, replaced with a lot of very young faces learning from first-time coordinators. The Lions’ defense made it clear that the Bengals far behind the eight-ball; this lockout-shortened offseason will have their rookie skill players and greenhorn coordinators playing catch-up all year long. It’s easy to see the Bengals’ yo-yo string breaking this year, and Cincy picking at the top of the draft in 2012—almost regardless of on-paper talent.

Yet, if the Bengals are like the 2008 Lions, primed for a breathtaking fall to Earth, the Browns more like the 2010 edition. They’re clearly moving in the right direction under a first-time head coach, Pat Shurmur. Under center will be a talented second-year quarterback in his first full season as the starter, Colt McCoy. Unlike the Bengals, the Browns (and especially McCoy) looked great in their first preseason game, beating the reigning World Champion Packers 27-17.

Curiously, the Browns and Bengals have opposite strengths. The Bengals’ defensive line looked like a scary matchup for what might be the Lions’ weakest unit right now. The Browns’ D-line isn’t nearly so scary, but their offensive line might be one of the best in the business. How the Lions’ front seven looks against Joe Thomas & Co. will be telling; the Browns completely neutralized the Packers’ pass rush. Likewise, if Stephen Peterman, Dom Raiola, and Rob Sims can’t open up any space for Jahvid Best tonight, that will also spell trouble. Leonard Davis just might get called in . . . .

At corner, Aaron Berry figures to get significant work; it’ll be a great chance for him to make his case for the nickel spot. Meanwhile, every Lion quarterback has to be drooling. The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn combined to go 17-of-26 for 200 yards, 2 TDs, and no picks. I’m hoping to see another two-great-drives-and-out performance from Matthew Stafford, then big doses of Drew Stanton and Zac Robinson. If Killer’s rumblings are on-target about Robinson pushing Stanton, the Lions should showcase both and trade one while the trading’s good.

The two biggest questions marks are the Lions’ rushing offense and rushing defense. I want to see Jahvid Best run well inside and out, and then I’d like to see either Aaron Brown or Jerome Harrison make a resounding statement. On defense, the Lions can’t completely sell out contain on the running lanes to get to the passer—especially if Peyton Hillis and/or Montario Hardesty are ready to play (either might or might not be). Meanwhile, a linebacker other than Justin Durant has to get through the trash and get to the hole a lot more quickly.

I’ll be more concerned about the halftime score than the final tally. Word is the Browns will play their starters for most of, if not all of, the first half, and I want to see the Lions’ twos hold their own. That having been said, I’d be just fine with the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bronze effigy sailing back to Detroit, too. Most of all though: I want to see no injuries.


Lions Kool-Aid? Make Mine A Double

>> 8.18.2011

Lions Kool-Aid

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.


Fantasy Football Makes Real Football Fans Stupid

>> 8.16.2011

I love fantasy football. It’s made me a better fan. It took the laser-focused light my mind shone on the Lions, and prismed it out across all 32 teams. I had to learn so much more about what’s happening in the NFL as a whole: the depth charts of every team, the movements of players from one franchise to another, and it helped me place in context the countless tiny triumphs and travails the Lions have gone through in the decade-plus I’ve been playing.

Right when I started playing FF seriously, the Internet fueled its national explosion. Once the exclusive territory of hardcore stat geeks, it’s now a multibillion-dollar industry; even the most casual of NFL fans are in a free league with their friends and family. As a result the “average” NFL fan is an order of magnitude more knowledgeable than in the 80s. However, all that football information sometimes makes us football stupid.

One of my favorite examples is Daunte Culpepper. His ridiculous passing yardage, rushing yardage, and touchdown output in the mid-2000s led legions of thrilled fantasy owners to remember him as an amazing quarterback. What they don’t remember is the Vikings losing more games than they won with Culpepper as the starter (36-37), or him fumbling 80 times in those 73 games.

Another example is the way we mentally “rank” players in an linear, ordinal list. The National Football Post’s Jay Clemons just issued his initial rankings for 2011 NFL starting quarterbacks:

  • 11. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
  • 12. Eli Manning, Giants
  • 13. Joe Flacco, Ravens
  • 14. Matthew Stafford, Lions
  • 15. Jay Cutler, Bears
  • 16. Sam Bradford, Rams
  • 17. Mark Sanchez, Jets
  • Let me get this out of the way: Jay Clemons does awesome work, and the piece that contains this list is chock-full of excellent stuff. Let me also say, this isn’t intentionally geared toward fantasy football—it’s not his projection of how many points each quarterback will score. However, the fingerprints of fantasy football are all over this: what other value could an ordinal list of all starting quarterbacks have? Why else would anyone care what any given expert’s opinion is on who the 11th- through 17th-best starters are? Moreover, now that we have this list, what value does it have?

    Look at these seven quarterbacks: one veteran whose numbers are steadily mediocre, and six young players with high ceilings and low floors. Is the difference between Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez as great as the difference between #1 (Drew Brees) and #7 (Matt Schaub)? No, not anywhere close. The way players actually grade out is in tiers; up at the top there are little knots of 2-to-3 guys who have roughly similar odds of performing roughly as well. Below, there are great swaths of players whose differences are such fine shades of probability that say who’s “better” than who at any moment.

    So what’s the harm? This is just one guy’s opinion, right? Anyone who disagrees is free to make their own! Well, that’s the problem. Ranking all the quarterbacks like this is a great way to get people arguing over stuff that doesn’t matter (and people to click through to your site) and it’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to think about players in the NFL.

    Matthew Stafford has Top 5 tools, Top 5 talent around him, and when he’s been healthy his progression has been the progression of a Top 5’er. This season, he will either be a Top 5 quarterback or get hurt. There is very little middle ground; he will either throw for 4,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns or not anywhere close. The one outcome I can personally guarantee will not happen is Matthew Stafford staying healthy all season and being the 14th-best quarterback—so why does this list place him 14th? Because that’s where Jay Clemons thought the balance between Stafford’s upside and the chance of him hitting that upside slotted him on the cheatsheet. That’s what this is, regardless of the author’s intent: one guy’s fantasy football cheatsheet.

    Look, I’m not a Luddite when it comes to stats and analysis: I’m the guy who plots PFF grades on radar charts. But it’s counterproductive to think about the relative performance of NFL players in this way. I used to buy every magazine and subscribe to pay websites, and  amalgamate all of their rankings. I used to go on forums and have heated arguments with total strangers over who should be the 12th-ranked quarterback. I used to be terrible at fantasy football.

    Eventually, I learned to watch the games. I learned to trust my eyes. I learned I needed to feed my brain quality football information, not quantities of numbered lists and macro-laden spreadsheets. I learned to identify on-field talent, not statistical trends. I started picking players based on my educated “likes” and “dislikes” rather than standard deviations of average draft position, and I started winning fantasy football championships.

    I think the Greater Internet NFL Fan/Media Hivemind needs to follow this track: we need to find new ways to think about football performance; find new ways to quantify and assess what we see on the field. I think what Pro Football Focus is doing is a great first step: comparing relative quality, not slicing and dicing increasingly artificial statistics.

    For me, fantasy football has become what it’s supposed to be: building a team entirely out of players I like, and “guiding” them to victory. I have a lot more fun, I get a lot less stressed, and—get this—I do a lot better. In turn, I’ve focused my scattered light back down on the Lions. I look deeper and more meaningfully at what I really love about football, and I take much more joy in watching games on Sunday.


    Fireside Chat: Preseason Week 1, Lions vs. Bengals

    >> 8.15.2011

    The first Fireside Chat with an actual game to discuss did exactly that: discuss the Bengals game. I hope listening to my headcold-affected voice captures 1/1000th of the joy it was to behold that game.

    As always, if you dig it, you can subscribe via iTunes for free, or click the “Podcast” tab up there between the content and the logo.


    Three Cups Deep: Preseason, Lions vs. Bengals

    Coffee, by Martin Gommel

    Coffee, by Martin Gommel

    It smells so good. It tastes so good. It feels so good. After what feels like an eight-month-long slumber, I wake with my morning coffee; we have our first Three Cups Deep of the season. There is Lions football to talk about.

    I went with my son, and it was an awesome experience. Everything went exactly according to script: Matthew Stafford was powerful and precise, Ndamukong Suh was disruptive and devastating, and the Lions laid lumber to a reeling Bengals franchise. Things went about as right as they could possibly go for the Lions—including some favorable calls and bounces—but crucially, they capitalized on those opportunities. They put the game out of reach and kept it out of reach; the Lions’ twos and threes and fours dominated just as the ones did.

    It’s tempting to either write this performance off completely, or assign it way too much value. As the first game in the preseason, neither team was scheming or gameplanning. The Lions were engaged in a pure talent vs. talent struggle, and the Bengals have just lost many of their most talented players. Still, though, this is important in itself: the Lions are significantly more talented, top to bottom, than some other NFL teams. The crucial question: how many of the teams they play this year will they outclass like that?

    As I said in this week's Fireside Chat, I’m really struggling to control my expectations. I’ve already said the Lions are going to make the playoffs, and I’ve already gone on record saying the Lions will go 10-6 if Matthew Stafford stays healthy. Honestly, the ceiling’s even higher—if last year’s Bears can win eleven games, so can this year’s Lions.

    That having been said, we’ve seen the Lions look good in the preseason before—and recently, we’ve seen them dismantle teams with rookie quarterbacks in the regular season. So, I’m not going to analyze it to death, and I’m not going to proclaim anything dramatic has been revealed about this team.  Let’s just enjoy this game for what it is: a great performance, an awesome moment, and a fantastic preview of what will be the best Lions season in twenty years.


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