Three Cups Deep: Week 4, Lions vs. Vikings

>> 10.01.2012

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Being a Lions fan is maddening. Your mind must exist in dichotomous states: perpetual amnesia, so you can forget the torrents of sorrow that have drowned you your entire life, and eternal remembrance, so you can always appreciate the now for at least not being then. You must constantly believe the future will be better than the past—or else, you could never keep being a Lions fan—but always be wary, because that future may not be this present.

If you throw yourself into believing that every coach, quarterback, first-round draft pick, and season are Salvation and Glorious Future Incarnate, you will have your heart torn out again and again and again. Every loss and failure will sting bitterly, and the days those coaches, quarterbacks, first-round draft picks, and seasons are finally declared failures you’ll feel like you wasted years of your life believing in them.

If you abandon hope, harden your heart, become one of the jeerers and booers and talk-show callers every failure becomes redemption, proof the bums and morons running things are being paid millions to muck it all up while any drunken idiot in the stands can see exactly what needs to be done.

But when those good days finally come—and bringing back a playoff team intact is as good as we’ve seen around here—you must have believed to be joyful. You must have invested yourself to reap the rewards.

Lions fans who bristled angrily at the team’s three straight season-ending losses spent six months waiting for the Lions to bring in a new Savior, a new franchise cornerstone around which to build. But none was coming, because the foundation had already been laid; indeed the walls were done and the roof just needed shingles and pretty much the team was what it was, which is a damned fine young strong playoff team.

Those same fans, and many others, are today lying dazed by the side of the road, scraped and battered from having fallen—or jumped—off the Lions’ bandwagon.

What Lions fans have is called cognitive dissonance. From Wikipedia:

Cognitive dissonance is the term used in modern psychology to describe the state of holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.

Last season, Lions fans wailed and groaned and gnashed their teeth about the team’s inability to run and stop the run. All season long, the frustration boiled and rolled about the team’s constant struggle on second- and third-and-long, the team’s slow, predictable starts, and the apparent necessity of the high-powered offense to rely on the defense for momentum.

This hue and cry reached its peak during that fateful three-game stretch: obviously, the Lions could pass and score nearly at will—but just as obviously, opponents could pass and score completely at will. This was the state of the team as we remember it, and for eight long months we saw no evidence to the contrary.

Now, it seems, the Lions are able to ball with a modicum of effectiveness, especially on first and second down. Now, the Lions are much, much better at stopping the run. Now, every Lions fan is screaming for them to drop into shotgun and throw it fifty times a game because “it worked last year.” The problem is, it didn’t.

The Lions are better this year.

The “throw it fifty times” offense has been solved, league-wide; check the Packers’, Giants’, and Saints’ results so far if you don’t believe me. Defenses are dropping very deep in coverage and demanding offenses either find balance or be perfect. The Lions are not quite balanced, and not quite perfect, and the results are what they are.

But as I walked up the steps to the Ford Field concourse Sunday afternoon, I heard two fans loudly proclaiming the team “just wasn’t good” and “didn’t do anything well.”

"They played sweet defense," I said—which stopped them in their tracks, mouths agape.

It’s true: The Lions held a Minnesota Vikings team that had just beat the Invincible 49ers to just 238 total yards and just six offensive points. In fact, if you subtract the five non-defensive touchdowns, the defense has allowed just 79 points in four games; that’d slot them 11th between Atlanta (76) and Green Bay (81). But of course, it’s a lot easier to rage about how no Lion could bring Adrian Peterson down on first contact than it is to admit that nobody brings down Adrian Peterson on first contact.

It’s cognitive dissonance: contrary to all expectations, the Lions offense is not an unstoppable passing juggernaut, the defense is not wet tissue paper, and the Rams, Titans, and Vikings are not terrible. All Lions fans are feeling some combination of surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. That doesn’t mean the season is lost, or the pieces aren’t in place, or that heads need to roll.

Well, no, some heads need to roll: the heads of everyone responsible for the Lions' kick coverage.

The Lions would be 3-1 if it weren't for galactically, horribly, awfully terrible special teams play. Literally no team in NFL history has ever given up kick and punt returns for touchdowns in back-to-back weeks before. The Lions have allowed those four returns for touchdowns, the rest of the NFL has allowed just five.

Jim Schwartz says special teams coordinator Danny Crossman’s job is not in jeopardy, but it has to be. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said they saw on film that “If everybody held their blocks, Percy's going to score . . . I mean, it was obvious.” So Crossman isn’t putting the players in a position to be successful—and the execution, getting off the blocks, isn’t there either.

Finally, of course, there is the offense: It’s not firing on all cylinders. Stafford isn’t as clinical as he needs to be. His placement on downfield passes is sometimes amazing, sometimes iffy. It’s often iffy when it most needs to be amazing, and sometimes when it’s amazing his receivers betray him, and often when it’s iffy his receivers don’t bail him out (except Nate Burleson, who earns his keep at least once a game).

The Lions have an average, streaky offense with the potential to explode, and an above-average, consistent defense. The offense is grinding out mediocre performances in the space that defenses give them, and the defense is collapsing the space opposing offenses have to work with. The Lions’ offense and defense are both playing well enough to win more games than they lose—and we know the offense is playing about as poorly as it’s capable of. Give the season time to work its levelling magic on the flukes and drops bounces; remember 2010’s regression to the mean after a 2-10 start?

The Lions’ challenge as a team is to fix the special teams. Our challenge as a fan base is to reduce the dissonance between the level of the Lions’ performance in their first four games and the final scores of those games by altering our existing cognitions—or go mad.


thewash_pete,  October 1, 2012 at 9:34 PM  

ty, good stuff as always but the Lions have allowed 6 non-defensive TD's with Finnegan's pick 6, 3 by the Titans and 2 yesterday. Makes your stat even more convincing.

kevin,  October 1, 2012 at 10:07 PM  

It really is absolutely brutally stressful to be a lions fan. We have more talent than most teams in the NFL. But hard work beats talent when talent doesnt work hard. I got that from tebow lol but its so true. We have missing pieces like most teams. The problem is we have no cap because of always sucking and the team is not being fully built correctly. Our OLine is pathetic every year. Yeah I know they pass block well but they are just old, slow and not big or strong enough for todays NFL. Our money is being spent in the wrong places and our drafting as well as scouting is not getting a passing grade from me. You build from the inside out. It doesnt help when we always lose delmas either. I know this season is over for us. Book it! I like coach Schwartz and I am not giving up on him yet. Its mayhews job to draft properly. We got lucky last season. This team is not built to win championships yet and how it gets done with our cap hell and coming free agents? I just dont see how they do it. Also perhaps quit hiring coaches that either are inexperienced or just coaches that have always been losers from other teams. Gunny and linny are nfl failures. How many superbowls they won again with 1000 years experience? They always get out coached no matter where they go in the end. Yhe wide nine sucks and the offense is more predictable than a love story. Obviously crossmans resume is beyond bad as well but Schwartz would rather blame the players. Which is part true but take accountability for yi yourself coach! Your being out schemed and out coached at every phase so far. Just admit it! We watch the games and its obvious to us fans who pay our hard earned money to watch u guys fail us. Its time for changes whether its finally the ford family selling this franchise to a winner or its time for all personnel changes inside out. Ok im done now and by the way yet another great article by you and thank you for your brutal honesty because that's how I roll too :)

nwashuta,  October 1, 2012 at 11:45 PM  

This post is a perfect description of what's going on with the Lions.

These special teams failures have to be on the coaches somehow. Either the schemes aren't working, the guys they have are more "future offensive/defensive contributors" than "immediate special teams contributors", or the guys they have are fine and just aren't coached well enough. Can't tell which of those it is, nor do I really care as long as it gets fixed.

I've kind of switched to my semi-apathetic baseball mode, where I realize bad stretches of the season come and go and if you're good, you'll end up right there in the end.

lionthetiger,  October 2, 2012 at 9:08 AM  

1-3, now. IF the Lions more balanced offense starts clicking (and it should) and special teams improves (it hardly can't), and the defense keeps up, then 9-3 the rest of the way is not impossible. I still have hope, they just need to execute up to their talent level.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  October 2, 2012 at 9:35 AM  

Lots of good stuff in here, Kevin.

" Our money is being spent in the wrong places and our drafting as well as scouting is not getting a passing grade from me. You build from the inside out."

I'd take exception to this; Stafford had better protection than you think against one of the better defensive lines in the league (especially considering he threw it fifty times). Leshoure didn't have a lot of daylight, but he had enough to pick up a few yards when he wanted to (which is more than any Lions back had to work with in 2011).

Nobody's going to argue that the Lions couldn't stand to upgrade Raiola or Peterman, but they invested in Reiff, and I'd be shocked if they didn't go interior line high in 2013, too.

I'd agree with your assessments about being outschemed and outcoached, but there are a lot of obviously well-coached pass-first teams (like the Packers and Giants and Saints) getting their butts handed to them right now. Obviously, the switch from a locked-out offseason to a light-practice offseason helped defenses tremendously.


PS--You're welcome! I really, really appreciate the kind words.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  October 2, 2012 at 9:37 AM  

Oh man, you're right! The Lions would be tied with the Vikings for 7th.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  October 2, 2012 at 9:43 AM  

Yeah. Remember, the Lions went 2-5 during a two-month stretch last season.

thewillhelm,  October 2, 2012 at 1:12 PM  

Glad to see you posting regularly again. I was disappointed that the “Meet the Cubs” series was not finished this summer.

Dave M,  October 2, 2012 at 4:39 PM  

I agree with almost all of this with the exception of the running game. I don't want to drop back 50 times a game by any means, but this team clearly doesn't have the offensive line talent to run the ball against better run defenses. We saw it against the 49'ers and I don't see why there would be any reason to think otherwise leading up to this game.

I understand the positives that come with even some semblance of a running game, and I don't want to abandon it completely because LeShoure is extremely talented and needs touches, but this team has proven that it consistently can't run against 7 man fronts.

It just seems to me that they want this team to fit the mold of a "balanced offense," and are forcing the running game with very little results when they could use a more aggressive approach and throw the intermediate balls we've been talking about the last 2 weeks to set up the run as opposed to the other way around. When the offense plays so poorly for a quarter of the season it means something has to change - either the play calling or the personnel.

JO15on,  October 2, 2012 at 7:02 PM  

The Lions need Delmas back to shore up the S spot. Silva has been solid, but Coleman has been really iffy. Wendling has been worse which is saying a lot. He's their leader and heart/soul of the defense. Once he's gone, the defense kind of died with him.

Jahvid Best is key to the offense. Stafford is a franchise QB and Megatron is an elite WR/player. Best gives the Lions what they really lacked is space player. His speed is what terrifies the LBs and he was really starting to come on as a utility back until his concussion injury. With him, he would really open up the intermediate passing game which forces the S to line up closer which would give Stafford a better deep ball shot.

We'll see the real Lions team once both are back. I am sure that they will make the fans forget that their 1-3 record unless ST finds way to blow it.

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