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After smoke clears, Lions did as expected

by | Jan 8, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 2 comments

As the best teams in the NFL prepare for the postseason, some final thoughts on the Lions, who, once again, do not.

I don’t get all the moaning and groaning, as if the Lions woefully underperformed. What did we think they were going to be? If you looked at their schedule this year, and you looked at the holes in their roster, you would have projected them in September as a 7-9, 8-8 or 9-7 team.

They ended up at 7-9. Granted, that’s the low end. But you take the Seattle and Green Bay losses (should have been wins) and you’re at the high end. (And by the way, most NFL teams can point to a few games every season that they blew in the final seconds — or on a single play — and say, “If we’d only done this or that.” It’s what separates lucky from unlucky and good from great.)

But even if they’d finished 9-7, the Lions still might have missed the playoffs. They were a long shot to make the postseason in the first place.

Quick history: Detroit was a 7-9 team under Jim Schwartz in his final year, 2013. The Lions improved last season under Jim Caldwell by winning seven of their eight home games and beating weaker teams in the process. It gave them an 11-5 record. Fans were impressed. But they still lost almost every time they played a winning team (New England, Arizona, etc.) and finished the regular season with a loss to Green Bay that cost them a first-round bye before a heartbreaking playoff loss to Dallas.

Meanwhile, thanks to their 11-5 finish, they drew a terribly difficult schedule this year, front-loaded for failure.

And they succeeded in failing.

The Lions’ 1-7 start proved only that they weren’t as good as the great teams, even though they hung with many right to the finish. No one should be surprised that they ended on a 6-2 run. The teams they defeated were mostly weaker. But whether they began with those or ended with them, 7-9 isn’t far from where this roster figured to be.

Let’s look at the assets.

Quarterback: Detroit fans should stop complaining about Matthew Stafford. No, he’s not Tom Brady or Russell Wilson. But he’s a top-tier talent who at 27 still has upside, and when people point to his record against winning teams, that’s foolish, because it’s the Lions’ record, not his. Is Stafford perfect? Of course not. But he has a whip of an arm, can occasionally dazzle, and most of his difficulties can be traced directly to the offensive line. It’s ridiculous how often he goes down in a game, and amazing how often he gets up. Other quarterbacks would be out for weeks if not entire seasons. Yet Stafford has made 82 consecutive starts, among the top 20 quarterbacks of all time.

Receivers/rushers: Calvin Johnson is a great player who doesn’t always have great games. Golden Tate was misused the first half of the year. The tight ends are one-dimensional, and Eric Ebron was not worth a No. 1 pick. Meanwhile, this running-back-by-committee still results in too many 2-yard gains.

Much of this leads back to:

Offensive line: A massive organizational failure. From Stockar McDougle to Gosder Cherilus to Riley Reiff to Laken Tomlinson, the Lions have consistently whiffed on finding great linemen with their first-round draft picks. How often this season did Stafford go down with Reiff or Tomlinson looking on helplessly? It’s maddening.

And it’s institutional. You know the last time the Lions had a Pro Bowl offensive lineman?

Kevin Glover in 1997. Ugh.

Defense: Yes, Ziggy Ansah came on strong and the Lions (despite Ndamukong Suh leaving) had nearly as many sacks as last year, but defense isn’t a single stat. The defensive backs still surrender too much, the Lions allow too many third-down conversions, and they went from tied for second to 23rd in the league in points allowed per game, still the most important part of a defense.

Given that number, a 7-9 record should surprise no one.

Coaching: You can argue Jim Caldwell didn’t beat the tough teams, but you’d have to admit he beat the weaker ones. Does he get credit for holding the ship together? Sure. But that’s like saying your pipes are great because you have a good plumber. The goal is NOT TO HAVE TO hold it together.

I blame Caldwell for misplaced loyalty to Joe Lombardi, and I think he takes the media too personally. But all in all, another year with players a new GM could select would be the smart move, if only because a new coach and a whole new system would be an excuse for another losing season due to “turnaround.”

The Lions, an average team, are closer to great than they would be with a total revamp. So it’s likely they will keep their coach and stars (yes, even Calvin Johnson) and see what a better schedule and a new front office bring next year. Meanwhile, as the playoffs begin minus a team from Detroit, the only surprise is the surprise.

2 Comments

  1. Theresa Ramus

    At least the Lions ended on a good note. I know that they have a pattern of losing the game that they should of won in the final minutes and seconds. I just hope that they spend the off season improving themselves. I think they can. They just need to work on their plays and focus more. I like your sentence about lucky and unlucky and so true. Maybe the Lions regret that they should of done this or that. Maybe one day they will become a great team. Let’s hope.

    Reply
  2. Wayne Wrona Wrona

    Dear Mitch:
    I’ve been reading your columns for years and truly believe there is no one your equal in the field of journalism.Everyone of your columns is so insightful, thought provoking and so accurate due to your thorough research- no off the top journalism!!
    Also my wife and I were invited guests of Mr. and Mrs.Paul. Huber to your most recent book kickoff which we enjoyed very much- what a fantastic show for a great cause.
    Thank you for all you do for Detroit.
    Wayne Wrona

    Reply

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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