by Wade Fink, Published on Detroit Free Press Website
Dwight Eisenhower is President of the United States. The Chevy Bel Air is roaring down the streets of Woodward Avenue. Jackie Robinson retires from baseball. The civil rights movement is in full swing. Jimmy Hoffa is arrested and charged by the FBI. John Lennon and Paul McCartney first meet. “In God We Trust” is printed on U.S. currency. It is 1957. The Detroit Lions are NFL Champions….
Barack Obama is President of the United States. There’s a good chance you don’t see a Chevy on Woodward Avenue (or a Ford or Chrysler for that matter.) John Lennon is dead. No one knows where Jimmy Hoffa is located. It is 2010. The Detroit Lions are the laughing stock of the NFL.
The Detroit Lions have won one playoff games in 52 years. They are the only team in NFL history to go winless since the NFL introduced a 16-game season. They have no Super Bowls and have won roughly 6 games per season. 52 years! That was enough time for 11 presidents, 44 Super Bowls, and the world population to more than double! I mean, it’s beyond ineffable.
Let’s try taking one decade to put this in perspective. Matt Millen took over as General Manager of the Detroit Lions in 2001. Since, the Lions have gone 33-111. They posted one winless season, four seasons with 3 wins or less, and no winning seasons. Since 2001, 4 head coaches have grazed the sidelines, 12 different quarterbacks have thrown passes, and only 8 games have been won on the road (in 72 chances.) In 2008, the Lions allowed the 2nd most points in a season in history. In 2009, they allowed the 4th most points in a season in history.
The point of this article, however, is not to go on ad nauseam about the futility of the Detroit Lions. Local and National media have done a very good job of articulating hopelessness for Detroit football. No, the point is that for the first time since the Wayne Fontes era, Detroit has a very real chance at competitive football. No journalist will go out on a limb and say it. It’s much easier to belabor the inadequacy and apathy of an 84-year old owner. Enough. The Lions have been terrible, yes. And Matt Millen was a disaster. Perhaps even a bigger disaster was how long he was allowed to stay. The night is darkest before the dawn. There is finally hope. Here’s why the Detroit Lions have a winning record in 2010:
A quick turnaround in the NFL is easiest accomplished starting with defense. In 2001, the Carolina Panthers were 1-15. Two years later, they were playing in the Super Bowl. They accomplished this mainly by revamping a defense that in 2001 was ranked 28th in the NFL, but improving to 10th in 2003. Julius Peppers and Will Witherspoon, both drafted in 2002, contributed greatly to the 2003 turnaround. Peppers was a phenomenal pass rusher, while Witherspoon recorded 74 tackles and became a disruptive linebacker. With role players such as Ricky Manning on defense, and a controlled, run-heavy offense, the Panthers should serve as a model of a turnaround. The Miami Dolphins historic turnaround also serves to show how quickly NFL teams can go worst to first.
The Lions have begun to set their building blocks. With strong seasons from defensive rookie safety Louis Delmas, and rookie linebacker DeAndre Levy, two key positions have been filled with youthful talent. Delmas, out of Western Michigan, who set the record for longest interception return for a touchdown by a rookie in NFL history, is a big time hitter, with good speed and incredible awareness. Levy was a surprise to everyone except head coach Jim Schwartz. Levy is incredibly smart and instinctive, making up for a lack of speed.
The common cry of Lions critics is that they have a large amount of holes to fill, and a severe lack of talent. I tend to disagree. What they do have is holes at the most key positions, making the quantity of holes less important than the quality of the position in which they are lacking. The two biggest needs on defense are obvious: interior lineman and cornerbacks.
One of these issues will be solved by some of the extraordinary talent available in this year’s draft. The Lions will likely draft one of three players with their number 2 overall selection: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska; Eric Berry, DB, Tennessee; or Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma. Suh, the consensus number one pick, will likely be off the board. Landing a guy like Gerald McCoy is not a bad consolation prize for the Lions. He is consistently disruptive in the pass rush, and a headache for opposing running backs. Guys like McCoy or Suh immediately change a defense. Pass rushers and linebackers immediately become more effective. With Jared Devries coming back from injury at defensive end, and Cliff Avril finally beginning to learn how to pass rush, the Lions defense will be brand new. If the Lions go the route of Eric Berry, who can debatably play any defensive back position, they will solidify a secondary with two playmakers, one of which, Berry, may be the best thing out of college since Sean Taylor. Combine that with what General Manager Martin Mayhew calls a selective free agent year for the Lions and the defense will vastly improve.
With an improved defense, things get a lot easier for an offense.
Let’s start with the injuries. Over the course of the season, the Lions played without their No. 1 receiver, their starting running back, their starting quarterback, their starting right guard, and their starting tight end. Each player was out for different amounts of time. Injuries are part of the game, yes, but with the kind of injuries and lack of depth on the Lions roster, it is very difficult to give a fair grade to this offense.
Mathew Stafford, the Lions first overall pick in the 2009 draft, has the tools. He had some growing pains like many first year quarterbacks, and must improve his decision-making. That said, the kid is tough as nails and is already a proven leader with the support of his locker room. After separating his AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder, Stafford managed to escape training staff on the sidelines to finish off a game-winning drive with a touchdown pass, beating the Cleveland Browns. Local radio announcer Dan Miller said, “This is the kind of stuff that endears you to a city.”
Calvin Johnson has to be a mainstay in the Lions organization. Perhaps the most versatile wide receiver in the NFL, Johnson had a disappointing season playing with three different quarterbacks, and injuries that plagued him all season. The ultimate team player, he did not say one word, and played until he couldn’t walk. Bryant Johnson, the Lions 2009 free agent No. 2 wide receiver, was a huge disappointment. However, the true capabilities of this receiving core are immeasurable when considering 3 different quarterbacks were switching in and out as starters for the Lions.
At running back, Kevin Smith suffered an injury to his right shoulder at the beginning of the year. Playing through the pain, Smith managed to hurt the other shoulder early in the season, and ultimately tore a ligament in his knee ending his season. Smith lacks breakaway speed, but is a tough and fearless runner, who has shown he is more than capable. Backup Maurice Morris, in his first start, ran for 126 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown run against the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. Running backs may be the most replaceable position, along with wide receivers, in football. The ability of these athletes are very similar and the difference between a “good” running back and a “bad” running back is simply offensive line and opportunity. That said, there are “great” running backs, but again, with consistency at key positions and a better defense, the difference between Kevin Smith and Thomas Jones is small.
Finally, Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions controversial 17th overall pick, one of their 2 picks in the first round, struggled early in the season. There was a lot of hype about Pettigrew’s ability to block and his incredible hands, all combined in an attractive 6-5 frame. The pressure showed, as Pettigrew was often confused, and had a difficult time adjusting to game speed. As the season wore on, however, Pettigrew began to show flashes of what General Manager Martin Mayhew saw in him, including the game-winning touchdown in the miracle win against Cleveland. Pettigrew certainly has shown promise.
With an improved defense, and perhaps a change at offensive guard, the Lions offense has the necessary firepower to compete. It is extraordinarily underrated how much a defense helps an offense. When a defense gives up so many points, the offense is forced to begin drives in difficult field positions. The difference in scoring percentage when starting at your own 20-yard line or at your own 40-yard line or better is huge. A defense that is league average or better, which the Lions will be next year, gives an offense a lot more opportunity.
The NFL may be the only of the four major sports that gives teams a realistic chance to go worst to first any given year. Now, one might say the Lions have had about a decade to make this turnaround. True, they have, and many have predicted a quick turnaround in various years. This is different. With the exception of maybe the 2004 Detroit Lions, this team is the most intriguing since the painstaking Millen Era began. There is undeniable talent that, when healthy, can play with anyone. After a solid draft, and a little luck with health, the Lions will be a 10-win team next year.