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.