The Lions in Winter Blue Flame Awards, 2011 season

>> 1.13.2012

As we head into the first weekend of the Lions’ offseason, it’s time for the second annual Blue Flame Awards. The inaugural Blue Flame Awards were a success, but I think they can be a lot bigger. I’m going to announce these one at a time, an hour or two apart, updating the post and Tweeting as I go. If you’re not @lionsinwinter on Twitter, now would be a great time to start.

The envelope, please . . .

detroit_lions_blue_flame_heart_of_a_lion_raiola Chris Spielman Heart of a Lion Award: Dominic Raiola, C

Given to the Lion who most profoundly exudes fire, toughness, and determination to win, Raiola could easily win this every single year. The moment that clinched it was Raiola’s statement in the wake of the Thanksgiving disaster: “Grow the f*** up.” And you know what? They did.

detroit_lions_blue_flame_realized_potential_young Bryant Westbrook Realized Potential Award: Titus Young, WR

When the Lions drafted Titus Young with the 12th pick in the second round, fans everywhere were in shock. Who? A wide receiver? From Boise State? It seemed senseless. With several pressing defensive needs, and the first round pick already spent on a "luxury," a receiver to groom behind Nate Burleson was a total head-scratcher. When he missed most of training camp and preseason with a nagging injury, fans assumed his chance to be productive this season was lost.

But the Lions knew exactly how they wanted to use Young, and Young threw himself into being a Lion. He immediately earned Matthew Stafford's trust, and hauled in 48 catches for 607 yards and 6 touchdowns. Best of all, it's clear he's just getting started.


Tom Moore Coach of the Year Award: Shawn Jefferson, WR Coach

It's a little too easy to give this award to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for the second year in a row—though he deserves it just as much, if not more, than last season. But the job Jefferson did with the wideouts this season was phenomenal. Besides helping Calvin Johnson reach record-breaking new heights, he helped Titus Young achieve his Blue Flame-winning potential and Nate Burleson drop that #ToeDragSwag.

For a wonderful in-depth look at the job Jefferson is doing—and why the Lions will be lucky to keep him around—see Anwar Richardson’s feature on Jefferson on MLive.


Game of the Year: Week 5, Lions vs. Bears (Monday Night Football)

The Christmas Eve demolition of the Chargers that clinched the playoffs was special, but Monday Night Football was the Game of the Year and it isn’t even close. Besides being an anticipated-for-months revenge match for 2010’s season opener, besides it being a showcase game for the Lions, Lions fans, and the city of Detroit as a whole, and besides every second of the pre-game, in-game, and post-game festivities simultaneously oozing Motown and awesome, this is the game where the blue fire of Lions fandom roared so loud the Bears couldn’t play football in its presence. It was the greatest sporting atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of.

Nine false starts later, the Lions won the biggest Lions regular season game in decades—and Lions fans—you, me—were awarded a game ball by Coach Schwartz.

detroit_lions_blue_flame_mel_gray_jason_hansonMel Gray Three Phases of the Game Award: Jason Hanson, PK

At age 41, Jason Hanson entered training camp with question marks surrounding his injury—and, for the first time in nearly two decades, his job. In a legitimate kicking competition for perhaps the first time in his career, he shut out those suggesting it might be time to hang ‘em up and made 24 of 29 field goals (including blocks) and all 54 extra point tries. He proved he still has the leg, too, drilling 5 of 7 attempts from 50+ yards.

Honorable Mention: John Wendling


Mike Cofer Tecmo Super Bowl Beast Mode Award: Stephen Tulloch, MLB

After signing a one-year deal in the offseason, Stephen Tulloch stepped into the heart of the Lions defense and dominated. Besides leading the team in tackles, he led all Lions linebackers with sacks (3) and interceptions (2). He was Pro Football Focus’s seventh-highest-graded inside linebacker, at a whopping +20.8. He earned their second-best coverage grade, too: +11.2. His run-stuffing grade was the ninth-best in the NFL at +12.6.

Let’s please hope he stays.

2011 The Lions in Winter Blue Flame Awards | Barry Sanders You Can Only Hope to Contain Him: Matthew Stafford

Barry Sanders You Can Only Hope to Contain Him Award: Matthew Stafford, Quarterback

Matthew Stafford had the greatest statistical season of any Lions quarterback ever. 63.5% competions, 5,308 yards, 41 touchdowns—and only 16 INTs, almost all of which were thrown while Stafford was throwing with a glove over a broken finger. Megatron gets honorable mention here, but Stafford was asked to carry this team to the playoffs at age 23 and he did. Absolutely incredible, history-making performance.


The Watchtower Review

>> 1.10.2012

the Lowenbrau Lion, by Adrian Valenzuela

The point of the Watchtower posts was to forecast the performance of the Detroit Lions against their weekly opponents. From the start, I’ve used historical performance data of the Lions coordinators against their opposition’s. By controlling for the relative talent of the players, I tried to isolate systemic advantages at the X-and-O level. I then tried to apply those advantages to the teams’ current skill levels, and project a result.

The Watchtower is one of my most popular features; people really dig it. It’s fun to write, especially researching every coordinator’s coaching tree, and picking the picture. However, after three years, I’m no longer satisfied with The Watchtower an alternative “game preview,” or as a predictive tool.

Watchtower Problem #1: heavy reliance on per-game team averages.

When I use average yards per attempt and average yards per carry, it gives a pretty accurate picture of those players’ performance levels. Whether a quarterback has 25 or 50 attempts, or 200 or 400 yards, dividing one by the other tells you at what rate the quarterback is generating offense, every time. But dividing “points scored in a season” by “games in a season” doesn’t work. A “game” is not a fixed unit of measure; there’s a wide variance in the number of possessions and plays in a “game.”

In every pass attempt, there is exactly one pass attempt, one bite at the apple. In every game, there’s a wide variance in possessions, time of possession, and plays. Example: when the Lions hosted the Vikings, they scored 34 points. When they hosted the Chargers, they scored 38. On the face of it (and in terms of the “points per game” numbers I’ve been using), the offense was very effective in both games.

However, in that Minnesota game the offense netted just 280 yards and 20 points from ten possessions. Against San Diego, the offense netted 440 yards and 31 points from eight possessions. This is a massive difference in effectiveness and it’s almost completely uncaptured by the current Watchtower methodology.

Dropping the "per game" team averages would allow me "tell the story" more effectively; I thought there was a very high chance that the first Packers game would be shockingly conservative—and the rematch a track meet. But using season average against season average, there’s no way to project either of those outcomes.

Finally, that "track meet" effect means something: there is a tendency for points to follow points, and that speaks to a very real offense/defense interaction effect that isn’t accounted for, either in traditional analysis or in The Watchtower. When one offense puts the pedal to the metal, the other one follows—and both defenses, apparently, just let it happen. Why? What’s going on here?

Watchtower Problem #2: No real accounting for turnovers or special teams.

This is one that’s bothered several readers from the get-go. The Watchtower is a study of offense-defense interaction: what happens when offensive scheme A meets defensive scheme B. But special teams and turnovers play a huge role in the final score.

In the Thanksgiving Day game, when the Lions and Packers played to a stalemate for most of the first half, a tipped pass fell into enemy hands and the Packers’ offense got to start deep in the heart of Lions territory. That was the game-changing play both teams desperately needed. Despite incredible down-to-down play by the defense, the offense was really the unit that put the Packers in position to score.

On special teams, the Lions’ coverage units struggled mightily throughout the first two thirds of the season, and it regularly hung the defense out to dry. Moreover, the iffy upfield blocking for Stefan Logan (and his own iffy fair catch decisions on kickoffs) failed to make the field shorter for the offense.

Watchtower Problem #3: The Human Element.

I project ranges for points, passing effectiveness, and running effectiveness for each side—then basically use the “Mitigating/Aggravating Factors” and “Conclusions” section to winnow those down to the final score I deem “most likely,” usually via talking-out-loud thought experiment.

There are several layers of my own bias involved here—and even though I work hard to follow where the data leads me, a little bias on top of a little bias on top of a little bias makes a big difference. I can definitely lead the statistical horse to water if I want to—and sometimes I do even when I’m trying not to.

What I’d love to be able to do is project a range of possible outcomes and their probabilities, so when I say “The most likely outcome is . . .” my a hand won’t be moving the data’s mouth.



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.

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