And it’s September. And it’s Sunday. And here comes Lucy from the “Peanuts” cartoon, once again putting down the football and telling us, “Come on, kick it.”
Detroit Lions season is upon us.
Some of you have seen more of these than me. Some of you have seen less. But all of us have seen enough to avoid the lurking danger on the first morning of an annual Lions campaign.
Did you notice the word “DELUSION” has every letter of “L-I-O-N-S” in it, plus a “D”? Go ahead. Tell me that’s coincidence. And I’ll tell you that Matt Patricia is the genius the Lions need, Eric Ebron is a great draft pick, Steve Mariucci’s Super Bowl experience is the difference, we can build around Gosder Cherilus, Andre Ware is the future of the franchise, and wait’ll you see Matt Millen go to work.
I could go on …
But let’s stay in the present.
You wanna build off last year?
What current delusions should we fear in 2022? Well, for starters, there’s this notion that the Lions are headed for big things because — stop me if you’ve heard this before — “they finished last season strong.”
This sentence has been repeated so many times, it feels indisputable even though it isn’t, kind of like “’Euphoria’ is a brilliant TV show.” I went back and examined exactly how “strong” that 2021 finish was, and here it is:
After losing their first eight games, the Lions eked out a tie with Pittsburgh, then followed that “success” with two more losses, to the Browns and the Bears, neither of which would finish the year with a winning record.
Then came the first win of the season, on the last play of the game, when the Vikings for some reason brought no pressure and Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown in the end zone to steal a 29-27 win. Great fun. Wonderful moment. A win over another losing team.
Followed by a blowout the next week in Denver, 38-10.
Detroit’s second victory came the following week, against an Arizona squad that was on a skid. The Cardinals lost a huge game to the Rams on Monday night, traveled on a short week to Detroit, and laid an egg. Lions won, 30-12. Give credit to a timely, ball control performance by Detroit. Which was followed by …
Two more losses, including arguably their worst blowout of the season, 51-29, in Seattle.
Detroit ended the year with a meaningless win over the Packers, who had nothing to play for and rested quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the second half. The Lions won by a touchdown and celebrated as if they’d conquered Goliath.
That’s the “strong” finish. Three wins, five losses, several blowouts and an average of 26 points surrendered. Do with that what you will. But let’s not kid ourselves that it assures a high level in 2022. Any more than, say, a TV show about the Lions would.
Wait. Did someone say “TV show”?…
Lights! Camera! Action!
Oh, yeah. “Hard Knocks.” HBO. The show that made Dan Campbell’s scratchy-throated emotional declarations a weekly fascination. “Hard Knocks” humanized many Lions players to the fans, elevated assistant coaches to star status and made some viewers want to root for a team they otherwise never looked at twice.
It kicked up dust. Brought a national spotlight. Got people talking. But I’ll say this as simply as possible:
It’s. A. TV. Show.
It doesn’t win the Lions a thing. It actually may have made some of them feel bolder than they should, since NFL success is measured in wins and losses, not social media clicks. And what “Hard Knocks” hardly focused on at all, which is the biggest and most important thing on the team, is a man who only took a few snaps in the first preseason game.
Let’s face it. He’s the ignition. Nothing runs without him. And caution for delusion: What do we know of Goff that’s different than last year?
You can say he’s more confident. Based on what? You can say he’s more at ease. Based on what? All we actually know is that he left the Rams for the Lions, who won three games with him, and Matthew Stafford left the Lions for the Rams, who won a Super Bowl with him.
That’s a real hard knock. The rest is speculation. Goff returns with pretty much the same cast as last year to start, except that Taylor Decker is healthy this year and Halapoulivaati Vaitai is not. He’s got a new offensive coordinator named Ben Johnson, and, as with all new coordinators, you hear folks cooing, “Finally, this is the right guy.”
Sure, why not? But, honestly, if more than a few people know that Ben Johnson has been here for three years already instead of thinking he’s the sprinter who won the Olympics and got busted for steroids, I’d be surprised.
Nonetheless, there is talk out there — potential delusion alert! — that the Lions offense is an engine-growling machine now, capable of winning games by itself.
We sure hope so. Because has anyone forgotten about … the defense?
The defense rests
Last year, the Lions ranked next to last in the NFL points allowed, third from last in sacks, and fourth from last in yards allowed and third downs converted. I don’t want to say that’s a lot to overcome, but remember when Elvis sang, “This time, Lord, you gave me a mountain”?
If the song fits …
Yes, they added Aidan Hutchinson. And everyone expects good things from him. And there’s much talk about coordinator Aaron Glenn (another “Hard Knocks” standout) and how much he can squeeze from the Lions talent.
But Glenn was here last year, too. And while every team starts with a pretty full deck, injuries are a huge part of the NFL, and you have to wonder if the Lions defense has the depth beyond a few big names to continually win games.
That’s another part of the delusion that isn’t limited to Detroit. Most NFL fans feel their team is poised for a better year on opening weekend. And then a key player tears an ACL, another rips a quad, another suffers a shoulder dislocation, it’s three weeks, it’s a month, it’s an IR listing. The deepest and most solidly coached teams are the ones who survive the attrition.
Are the Lions that? Realistically, no. And while we’re being realistic, remember teams almost never go from three wins to the playoffs in a single year (the Cincinnati Bengals notwithstanding.)
So a six-win season would, by many standards, be an expected improvement for Detroit.
But if that’s the case, it means the Lions will lose 11 times between now and early January. Are you geeked for that? Does that get you excited?
Of course not. So we tell ourselves a story. We swear this year will be different. We forget how we once said Bob Quinn will bring us the Patriots’ magic, Jim Schwartz has what it takes, Charles Rogers is a future star, and wait’ll you see Joey Harrington in action.
We put our head down and start to run to Lucy’s football, hoping to take the D-L-I-O-N-S out of DELUSION.
Good luck. Godspeed. Let’s see what we’re saying at Christmas.