Are Detroit sports teams in danger of being ‘just OK’?

Tonight, Detroit Lions fans will gather for the NFL draft, in hopes that an unproven college kid may lead them to a higher plane. There’s no real harm in that, I guess, even though the draft has grown more bloated than a whale that swallowed a schooner. Three days? To pick names? Am I the only one who thinks that’s a bit much?

But moving to a higher plane is one thing; the plane itself is another. I started thinking about this after the Pistons and Red Wings both exited the playoffs in the first round, one in five games, the other in a sweep. Detroiters shrugged and accepted it. Even before that, some had been complimenting our basketball team on finally making the playoffs, and our hockey team or at least continuing that tradition.

That scares me.

Here’s why. Detroit may have slipped into that dreaded sports zone known as the “Early Round Coffin.” It’s when your sports teams are good enough to contend, not good enough to win, and not bad enough to get high draft picks or dump the entire roster.

Think about it. The Lions, drafting tonight, are picking 16th. That means they finished middle of the pack in the NFL. Whoever they get will not likely be a big impact player, but rather a piece of the puzzle.

But does anyone think the Lions are a “piece of the puzzle” away from a Super Bowl? Most experts will predict them for 7-9 (last year’s record) or 9-7 or the dreaded 8-8.

Would it shock you if they made the playoffs? No. Would it shock you if they lost their opening game? No.

That’s the First Round Coffin.

Long playoff runs missing

Look at the Red Wings. Yes, they kept alive their tradition of 25 years of a postseason. But despite some competitive games, they lost to Tampa Bay for the second year in a row, in one game over the minimum. They will soon lose Pavel Datsyuk. And GM Ken Holland is lamenting that things take time in the salary cap era. Translation: Next year may not be a losing season, but a deep advance into the playoffs isn’t likely.

How about the Tigers? After three years of at least making the AL Championship Series, they fell in the first round in 2014 and missed the postseason last year. They came out of the gate strong this month, but have throttled back, and fans are starting to realize that star pitching staffs are not easily constructed, and that having a strong Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and David Price on the same roster was a dream scenario that probably should have led to more.

Today’s Tigers have talent for sure, but it’s either aging (Verlander, Victor Martinez, etc.) or not yet ready. Once again, would you be surprised if the Tigers made the playoffs, perhaps as a wild card? No. Would it shock you if they missed the postseason altogether? No.

First Round Coffin.

Not terrible, but not elite

Of all the teams in town, the one most likely to keep advancing may be — I hope you’re sitting down — the Pistons. Some of this is because they are very young and can grow into a better team. Some is because the East, right now, is clearly the weaker of the two conferences, and besides Cleveland, there are no teams way beyond the Pistons’ reach in the next season or two.

But basketball is full of habitual mediocrity. The Atlanta Hawks are in their ninth straight first-round playoff series. Only four times have they gone beyond that round, and only once beyond the second. The Denver Nuggets went nine out of 10 years with a first-round exit. Even the Dallas Mavericks, who won the title in 2011 have exited in the first round four of the last five years.

None of these are terrible teams. None of them are elite. And in sports, that can be the worst place to be.

The Lions tonight will likely pick an offensive or defensive lineman with their highest pick. Loyal fans know they have done this five of the last six years. You would think they’d have filled this gap already.

But that’s the thing about being “not terrible” or “pretty good” or “having a chance.” You either draft too late or don’t have much cap space, or get a tougher schedule, and next thing you know, year after year, you’re getting close enough to see it, but never to smell it, and certainly not to touch it. We all hope for a surprise tonight. But the Early Round Coffin is out there, and, for the moment, it seems to have its lid on a hinge in our city.

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