August 29, 2011
Put simply, the Detroit Lions haven’t been a team of much importance in the NFL since the days of the NFC Central Division, and even then it was only isolated patches of some success. For those teenagers who are now sitting there wondering what I am talking about with the NFC Central, it just goes to show how long the Lions have been floundering amongst the depths of the league. The last playoff season for the Lions was after the 1999 season when they scraped through as the third and final NFC wildcard with a less than spectacular 8-8 record before they were easily dispatched by the NFC East champion Washington Redskins in the wildcard round. From then they have managed no more visits to the post season and only one winning record (9-7 in 2000).
The past decade in Detroit has passed with the team receiving hardly any attention as the media had little to say about them whilst also being seen as a laughing stock by some rival fans, and by some of their own fans for keeping Matt Millen on as CEO for as long as they did during their worst period statistically in their NFL history. Millen has quite rightly taken a lot of the criticism for the Lions during his tenure with the team between 2001 and 2008 which saw them compile a miserable 31-84 record. Only once during Millen’s tenure did the Lions manage to record single figure losses in a season, their 7-9 finish in 2007. Millen was eventually fired by the Lions at the start of their infamous record breaking 2008 season when they went 0-16.
It could be argued that the benefit of going through the past few dismal seasons has allowed the Lions the chance to gather the pieces they needed in order to get back to being competitive, but that is of course the whole point of the draft system and on far to many occasions the Matt Millen led Lions failed to use the system properly to get the players they needed. However, with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Brandon Pettigrew and Matthew Stafford arriving in the past few seasons, they have seriously improved their line up with players who will be stars in the league for years to come.
Three years on from the lowest point in the Lions franchise history, they are now a team with plenty of buzz about them from fans around the league who might have forgotten about their existence until they turned up on their schedule. In the run up to every season, there are always one or two teams that pundits and fans like to suggest as potential surprise packages for a playoff spot. Traditionally for the past few seasons that team has always been the Houston Texans, which of course they are once again, but this year the Detroit Lions have found a large number of individuals promoting their chances at a successful season in 2011.
Detroit’s 6-10 finish last season was a step in the right direction and put them on the radar as a team on the way up. Although you may not think 6-10 sounds particularly impressive, for a team that was coming off 0-16 and 2-14 seasons whilst playing almost the entire year without their number 1 quarterback who was missing through injury, it marked a relatively successful campaign. Although the Lions had to suffer the loss of Stafford for 13 of their 16 matches last year, they did enjoy the dominance shown by rookie Suh who took the league by storm, overpowering the opposition and destroying quarterbacks, sometimes to aggressively for the NFL who wince every time a star quarterback is left on the ground.
So why is there such an interest in the Lions this year? Well, ever since they selected another dominating defensive tackle in Nick Fairley with their first round draft pick, their defense has been tipped to cause teams all sorts of problems. Injury issues currently surround Fairley but if they can get him healthy and paired up with Suh, quarterbacks will be hard pressed not to be worried about what is coming when he receives the snap. In the NFC North, defense is of vital importance with the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings all strong on that side of the ball. Coming up against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson twice a year also emphasises the need to be able to stuff the run and Fairley and Suh together in the middle should all but rule out a direct rushing route through the center of the Lions defense.
Things aren’t looking to bad on the other side of the ball for the Lions either with Stafford back from injury and looking very impressive so far in preseason. Without question, Detroit will need Stafford to go through the season without another major injury if they are to have the sort of breakthrough season many expect. You can have a solid defense and a huge offensive weapon in Calvin Johnson but if you lose your starting quarterback, you simply aren’t going to be able to win nearly as often as you would with him leading the team. Putting his injury problems aside though, Stafford is heading into his third year and is now expected to be the star quarterback that his number 1 overall selection suggests he should be. Before his injury last season he was certainly starting to show that level of performance and he has continued to impress during the Lions unbeaten run in preseason.
Although we shouldn’t read too much into preseason form, Detroit’s week 3 win over the New England Patriots was particularly impressive and will have certainly built up the confidence amongst all Lions fans. Before the game against the Patriots, the Lions had thrashed the Cincinnati Bengals 34-3 with Stafford completing 6 of 7 for 2 touchdowns and Suh earning his first fine of the season for a hit on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. This was followed with a 30-28 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns. Whilst neither of these wins were what you would call surprising, dominating the Patriots and a 34-10 win on national television was quite unexpected. Stafford out played Tom Brady, completing 12 of 14 passes for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Lions scored 27 points in the first half. Backups Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill also chipped in with a touchdown pace apiece whilst the Lions defense managed to limit Brady and the Patriots to 1 touchdown all game as the 2010 MVP managed to complete only 12 of his 22 passes.
Through week 3 of the preseason, the Lions are leading the way in total offense, points per game and passing yards whilst having the third best rush defense and sixth best in total defense. Yes preseason is preseason, but those are some promising statistics. Detroit’s final preseason game is another they will be expected to win, albeit on the road, against the Buffalo Bills before they begin their regular season with a tough road trip to another team hyped up by many to make it to the playoffs this year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Obviously the key to the Lions season will be as mentioned earlier, to keep all of their key players fit if they want to challenge in a division with the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Lions schedule has them up against the 4 teams from the AFC West and the NFC South meaning they will have tough games with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers amongst the 6 within their division. However, looking at their schedule, it is not inconceivable to see them finishing with possibly 9 or 10 wins if they play with the same level that they showed against the Patriots. The playoffs may be a bit of a stretch this season with the Packers universally expected to win the division and with the strength of the teams in both the NFC South and NFC East, they may find it hard to snap up a wildcard spot. It is important that the Lions focus on improving on last seasons 6 wins however this year and they should be aiming for at least a .500 record and who knows, if they can pull out a couple of surprise wins, they may be in with that outside chance of a first postseason appearance in 12 years.