Three Cups Deep: Lions at Saints, Playoff Edition

>> 1.09.2012


The Lions are not there yet.

In one of his final radio segments, Tom Kowalski projected the Lions would go 8-8. He said that they’d taken big steps, but in terms of matching up with the NFL’s elite, like the Packers, they’re “not there yet.” We saw that dramatically illustrated Saturday night. We also saw how close they are.

I talk a lot about the “story of the game,” a high-level narrative that explains the forces that forged the final score—or, in some cases, why the final score is a lie. This morning, the only story anyone wants to tell is that the Lions’ cornerbacks are terrible. The problem is, that story isn’t true.

Yes, the Lions safeties surrendered two touchdowns by leaving receivers completely uncovered; there’s nothing the cornerbacks can do about that. Lions defensive backs got their hands on potential interceptions that they didn’t bring in—but the Lions picked off 21 passes this season, fifth-most in the NFL.  The Lions struggled to bring pressure with their front four, exacerbating the problem—but the Saints have All-Pro interior linemen and the tackles were holding the DEs like crazy. Ultimately, none of those details matter.

The Lions were a very good young team playing very well. The Saints were a great team playing great. The Lions did everything they could to hold back New Orleans, but in an uncomfortably apropos metaphor, the levee was going to break.

Drew Brees is playing the quarterback position as well as he ever has, which is to say as well as anyone ever has. Nate from Holy Schwartz! compared Brees and the Saints to Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. The physical disparity between Brees and Dolph Lundgren is hilarious (while we’re at it, so is the similarity between Ludmilla Drago and Brittany Brees). But in terms of performance, Nate is right: the Saints are a machine right now, and at this point I’m not sure even the Packers can defeat them.

I wrote in the Watchtower for this game that “’A performance + B player = A+B performance’ never works cleanly in the NFL,” and that’s true over the offseason. There’s no draft-eligible kid working out in Florida right now that would have made the difference in that game. There’s no free agent-to-be waiting for his phone to ring who would have made the difference in that game. There’s no A + B = C formula that makes the Lions better than the Saints.

As I’ve written before, every season’s team is its own alchemy, its own witches’ brew. You can take the exact same roster from one year to another and get wildly different results. Players grow and decline, roles change, synergy appears and disappears, schedules fluctuate, and variance—that devilish factor that bounces the ball all over the field—aids and injures as it will.

For the first time in a long time, it’s truly possible for the Lions to regress. Building blocks of the offense and defense may need to be replaced. Jeff Backus, Cliff Avril, and Stephen Tulloch are all major contributors who may or may not be back, and they only start the list. For the first time since Schwartz was hired, this offseason will not be unidirectional.

Still, what’s important here is that the core, the fundamental truth, the identity of this team will not change. Jim Schwartz is the head coach, Matthew Stafford is the quarterback, Calvin Johnson leads a legion of viable targets, and the defensive line is stacked. That, along with all the other factors, is good enough to get the Lions to the playoffs—and that will be true in 2012 as well.

Can Schwartz, Mayhew, Lewand and company brew a more potent batch of Lions in 2012? Can they add just the right ingredients, and hold back what might spoil the brew? Can they put it over just the right amount of heat so, as the Saints are doing now, it peaks in strength at the perfect time? We’ll see.

It’s an incredible time to be a Lions fan. This year’s Lions were an amazing, exciting, thrilling team. They fulfilled every expectation, and had a lot of fun doing it. With minimal changes, they should at least be good enough to make the playoffs in an exciting fashion next year, too. But win a championship? Well . . . they’re not there yet. Yet.


Dennis Schwartz,  January 9, 2012 at 4:43 PM  

"Can Schwartz, Mayhew, Lewand and company brew a more potent batch of Lions in 2012? Can they add just the right ingredients, and hold back what might spoil the brew?"

These questions bring a great weight fundamentally to this team going forward. Do you cut KVB because LoJack and Willie Young appear to be ready to carry the load? Or does KVB's presence with the team still remain paramount to their success, noting his production and work ethic.

Do you release Corey Williams knowing that Suh, Fairley and Sammie Hill should garner more time?

How they navigate these waters will be something that will be a significant step to whether they regress or move forward defensively.

What is certain is, you cannot keep Avril and still maintain Corey and KVB. The depth will remain through the draft.

What makes me certain about releasing KVB and Corey is the maturity the Lions have shown since the incidents against GB and NO.

The Lions focused on football after the issues in New Orleans and that maturity came from some of our young guns; Pettigrew, Young and Suh.

They showed ownership and accountability and I IMO this came from them not from pressure from their teammates.

I thank KVB and Corey for the foundation they built and the work ethic they instilled, but the torch needs to be passed.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  January 9, 2012 at 10:12 PM  

Yeah, I think Corey's time to move on is now. He wasn't nearly as dominant this season; Suh, Hill, and Fairley are ready to carry the load in the middle. KVB, I think, is playing his best football in years; I would be glad to see him back.

Avril is the big question mark. He might want superstar money, and he might deserve it, too. Are you better off with KVB & LoJack/GWY as your top two, or KVB & Avril while missing out elsewhere?

Dennis Schwartz,  January 10, 2012 at 9:13 AM  

KVB over Avril would be a hard pill to swallow, but I think you may be right on how it will end up. KVB's number will be significantly less than what Avril commanded.

Dennis Schwartz,  January 10, 2012 at 9:22 AM  

One person that I think severely regressed this season was Deandre Levy. i don't know if it was the switch to the outside or an anomaly; but his run fits were horrendous this year.

I can recall several times where he would take on a blocker incorrectly and thus leaving a gaping hole on his side. The Oakland game was especially telling. They ran the same lead out of shotgun at him and the when the guard pulled he led with his outside shoulder every time; thus making himself small in the hole and taking himself out of the play.

There were also times, namely this past game, that he could not get off blocks.

Levy seems coach-able and I hope they get this corrected.

McCoskey said on Baligian's show that Levy may be destined for Bobby Carpenter's spot as the the LB; I would tend to agree with that assessment.

lionthetiger,  January 10, 2012 at 9:38 AM  

I'm not going to pretend I know what the right moves will be this offseason. I'd like to see Avril come back, but I'd also like to see him get the payday he's earned and I'm not sure the Lions can afford to give it to him. I'm just going to have to trust that Mayhew et al can keep building this team with the savvy they've shown so far.

I do know that I miss Kowalski.

Barron,  January 10, 2012 at 9:06 PM  

if they can get rid of Williams & KVB who had a nice season, do it Avril,Suh Hill & Fairley are the future of this team not those guys

Jdeezy313,  January 10, 2012 at 9:09 PM  

Levy was our leading tackler all season until Tulloch turned it on the last 3-4 games

Dennis Schwartz,  January 11, 2012 at 10:09 AM  

@Jdeezy313 I would posit that Levy should have more tackles. If I recall he was one of the worst LBs, percentage wise, at broken tackles.

I have not seen data to determine what happened this year, but what I have seen from him leads me to believe that number has not changed and may even be worse.

Nothing that I have said indicates that I have given up on Levy, but his technique needs to improve to assist the defense in preventing those gash runs.

I am anxious to see how Gunny and Schwartz counter the wham blocks as I was disappointed that the adjustment could not be made during the season.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  January 11, 2012 at 3:51 PM  

Trust in Mayhew, miss Kowalski, agreed wholeheartedly on both counts.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  January 11, 2012 at 3:55 PM  

I'm very, very, very, very interested to dig into the Old Mother Hubbard stuff for Levy. My suspicion is that we'll find he was WILDLY inconsistent.

Lankownia,  January 12, 2012 at 5:43 PM  

I'm not sure it's accurate to call the Lions a young team. They were ranked the 4th oldest on average in September.

Other than that - excellent write-up of where the franchise is at.

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