NFC North Predictions: Detroit Lions Building a Foundation?
This year’s Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are much more interesting than either the Packers or Vikings. These two teams will put two contentious lines of thought to the test this season. The fact that they play in the same division and are somewhat closely aligned in talent will only make it that much more interesting.
You win in the NFL by running the football. You need to keep a quarterback on the bench for a few years before he is given a chance to start or else his confidence will be irrevocably ruined by the experience. These are all NFL axioms which get tossed around and rarely challenged. Dan Dierdorf can be found reciting each of them every Sunday, and no one bothers to fight with him. In recent years some of these ideas have begun to be challenged and disproven.
There is another idea that will be at play this season that isn’t necessarily unique to the NFL. In any sport when a team starts down the road to improvement (especially a young team)and begins to realize some newfound success there is a tendency by the public at large to continue to project future improvements on that team. The fact that they showed improvement in one season is used as evidence to demonstrate they will continue to improve into the future.
This is a nice thought because it allows us to follow one of the predetermined patterns we have set for them and follow the popular commentary. Either they are too young, or they have improved and are a year away. Or perhaps they are now one year past that ‘one year away’ label and now they are most likely labelled as ‘chokers’. Such is how it goes. The problem is in some cases it is true, which validates the story line that all teams should fall into these categories and that is simply not the case.
The Detroit Lions are that team this year. Because they went from 0 wins to 2 wins to 6 wins to 10 wins now they must follow the next logical step and win a playoff game and show they are ready to be a Super Bowl contender. It could happen. But it is much more likely they take a step back or remain the same team. Bill Barnwell on grantland.com has done excellent work this offseason chronicling season-to-season win total trends and the various factors that impact those totals. One of the factors is simply the number of games you improved. If you improved by four or more wins you are likely to win an average of 2 fewer games the following season - it’s really as simple as that. The reasons are varied but logical; for a team to improve in one season they are most likely the beneficient of some very good luck and a healthy team.
It is a nice thought because it allows us to believe in the theory of a young team’s growing together, but more often than not it is unfounded. In the case of the Detroit Lions I am saying that it has already happened. Of course they will try to make small improvements over last season, but so is every team in the NFL.
In the case of the Lions they have already become what they are. Their may be room for minor improvements within the current roster but nothing will yield drastically different results.
The big questions are – have they done anything to fundamentally improve their roster and should we be expecting a big improvement out of any of their young players? In the case of the Lions I believe the answer to both questions is “no”. Let’s look at the second one first. Is there anyone on the Lions we can expect to take a big leap forward? The key players on the Lions already played stellar seasons last year leaving little room for improvement. Calvin Johnson had a career year and was able to play all 16 games for only the second time in his career. Matt Stafford was able to play a full season for the first time in his career and put up over 5,000 passing yards (only the 4th person in history to do so). These were the two key players who spurred the Detroit turnaround, but elsewhere on the roster the Lions enjoyed extremely good health.
Concerning roster additions, I don’t think Detroit made any notable gains. No marquee free agents were brought in, but the Lions did suffer a big loss when cornerback Eric Wright left for a big contract in Tampa Bay. The Lions did address the offensive line in the first round of the draft, but it will not be known until the season starts if they have done enough to improve in that area.
One other concern is at running back where Kevin Smith returns and is the default starter. I say “default” because the Lions would prefer that former second round draft picks Jahvid Best or Mikel Leshoure would return from injury and claim the job. But expecting either of them to return and have a large impact would be foolish as their injuries have been severe and debilitating.
This doesn’t mean the Lions are certainly going to get worse this season, it just means that I don’t see any reason why they would take the leap to the next echelon of perennial playoff teams just yet. The good news for the Lions this year is that their schedule will be one of the easiest in the league, benefiting from the fact they will play each team in the NFC West, which could serve to decrease those teams win totals by a win or two. This could be enough to allow two NFC North teams to grab both wild cards spots this season, which is rare, but not unheard of (it happened just last season for the AFC North).
Unless you improve some aspect of your team you are unlikely to see continued improvement. Of course if you have several young players all growing together that can lead to improvement. I don’t think that is the case with the Lions. Calvin Johnson likely reached his peak last season. Matt Stafford didn’t leave much room to improve. While they have these young skill position players, their o-line is old. The defense is not all young either, and truthfully sucked.
Of course the Lions do one thing very well and they do it more than anybody else. They pass the ball, and the fact that passing the ball yield more gains than running gives the Lions and edge over other teams right off the bat. Stafford played 16 games for first time in his career, Johnson for only second time. So much of their success will be contingent on them both staying healthy. I’m not ready to bet they will, so I’ll pick the Lions to finish in second place behind the first-place Packers in 2012.
To see my other predictions, you can find them in my column, “3rd String NFL”.