The ‘Same Ole Lions’ Narrative Needs To Be Put To Bed!
Prior to the season the conventional wisdom was that the Detroit Lions roster was terrible. The thought was that Jim Caldwell was a lame duck marching slowly toward the wall where he would inevitably meet a firing squad when the season ended, if it didn’t happen sooner. Before the season it was said that Matthew Stafford would regress without Calvin Johnson.
Greg Rosenthal of nfl.com even tweeted “the Lions roster looks worse the more you look at it.” In the preseason it was even said that the Lions would be battling for the first pick in the 2017 draft, finishing fourth in the NFC North. That the crimes of Martin Mayhew couldn’t be fixed in a single off-season, and that the first draft of Bob Quinn was for the future, not the present. The analysts said that Calvin Johnson retired because the Lions could not win games this year. A funny thing happened on the way to the “same old Lions” season; the Lions just kept winning.
Living Within their Means
The team stopped trying to be something it was not, from top to bottom. In past years we would hear from coaches that the team just needed to execute better. We were told that they just flat out didn’t believe their players were going to get the job done late in games. Coach after coach prior to Caldwell, has blamed the media, the fans, my grandmother… wait; I’ve fallen off track here, but you get the point I am sure.
This season we got Jim Caldwell, and what he said was perfect. He said nothing. He tolerated the mandatory part of his job that is to deal with the press, for a mandatory period of time. He told them nothing of consequence, no matter how many snarky complaints came out on twitter, or in certain podcasts. Then he got back to the part of his job that mattered: being the head coach of the football team.
He has not yet gone full sleeveless hoodie, but his behavior in press conferences this season has very closely emulated the greatest coach in the history of the sport: Bill Belichick. Jim Caldwell set the example for his players to follow through his actions, which is what leaders are supposed to do. Caldwell shut out the noise, and did his job.
Whereas Martin Mayhew always valued a positive relationship with the press, Bob Quinn has made it pretty clear that he would have difficulty caring much less about them. Jim Caldwell is no longer being asked to be something he is not.
The Powerful Offense
Matthew Stafford is also no longer being asked to be something he is not. Stafford has a cannon of an arm, but his strength has never been throwing the ball downfield with accuracy. There is a legitimate reason that pundits around the league believed that Stafford would struggle without Calvin Johnson.
Watch some Calvin Johnson Highlights real quick, here is a LINK. Now, stop tearing up, we’ve moved past that.
I am not saying that Stafford never throws a good deep ball, but there are a lot more cases of Johnson making a play that only a 6’5″ athletic freak who won battles with defensive backs as though they were children would ever be able to make. Even in the great throws, it is pretty easy to ask whether anyone but Megatron could have just reached up and grabbed the howitzer shell Stafford fired nine feet off the ground to the back of the end zone.
It is easy to ask whether there is another human being on the planet that would get to where the ball was thrown. If you look at that honestly the answer is no, and a lot of national media looked that deeply and then stopped. The Lions offense doesn’t have Calvin Johnson, and Jim Bob Cooter has been smart enough not to act like it does. Stafford is not being asked to make throws down the field in to triple coverage, because there is nobody in the receiver corp that is going to beat three defenders to a jump ball twelve feet in the air.
Stafford is very accurate within fifteen yards of the line of scrimmage, and gets the ball in to tight windows with his insane arm talent. So that is what the Lions are asking him to do.
How bad Is That Defense Really?
The Lions defense had a problem coming out of the Titans game. They had no linebackers who could cover. It took them a few weeks to come to the conclusion that there were some players on the team that just could not do what the scheme wanted a linebacker to do.
The solution has been that they’ve stopped asking them to cover as often. Not on every passing down of course, but to begin the season the Lions were never playing two strong safeties at once. It took them a while to go that direction, but the trio of Miles Killebrew, Rafael Bush, and Tavon Wilson are seeing quite a few snaps where two of them are on the field at the same time. Not coincidentally the Lions defense has drastically improved. The early season narrative that you should start every tight end who played the lions is just not true anymore. The Lions have allowed 50 yards receiving to a tight end once since week two.
Is the defense perfect? No it is not, but there was a time where the Lions defense was allowing the worst third down and red zone conversion percentage, had forced the fewest turnovers in the league, and had given up 20 or more points in four of six games. Since week six the Lions have given up twenty points only once.
They are now the nineteenth overall defense in the league for the year. While the above stats are still largely among the league’s worst, they have climbed from “by far the worst in the NFL” to “bad” with multiple solid performances. The defense is now ranked higher overall than the offense is, even with these few categories being where they are.
Even without DeAndre Levy, and minimal contributions from Ziggy Ansah the defense is currently carrying the team.
Such A Great Roster!
The latest thing that we are seeing crop up among the skeptics is the idea that the Lions coaches are riding a talented roster to success, but is that really the case? And if so where were these people before the season?
In the secondary, there is a two man show in terms of pedigree. Quinn and Slay are exceptional players for their positions, but the other corners are middling at best. Nevin Lawson is a mid round pick, Quandre Diggs, a late round pick, Johnson Bademosi couldn’t land a starting gig in Cleveland, and Johnathan Banks just got traded for a conditional seventh round draft pick in the middle of a season.
At strong safety, Rafael Bush couldn’t start for the worst secondary in the league last season, Tavon Wilson couldn’t find a way to succeed for the Patriots, where figuratively EVERYONE SUCCEEDS, and Miles Killebrew might actually end up being a linebacker.
Speaking of linebackers, the Lions best has been Tahir Whitehead. He has not been great, just the best linebacker on the team with the worst linebackers in football by a margin so large that it should not be questioned. The Lions have had to play Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Copeland, and Thurston Armbrister at times, none of whom should have been playing anything but special teams on a good roster that runs this scheme.
On the defensive line Ziggy Ansah was supposed to be an NFL defensive player of the year candidate and Devin Taylor was supposed to step up and become a double digit sack machine; they have combined for 3.5 sacks in eleven games, all from Taylor. Tyrunn Walker was supposed to be the default starter at defensive tackle and he has been a healthy scratch.
The only player who is even close to their advertised quality is Haloti Ngata. Other than that the team has been seeing success from rookies, waiver claims (from Cleveland), and a bunch of players so talented they almost didn’t even make the team’s week one roster. The team’s sack leader, Kerry Hyder, is so talented that he’s playing on a $450K contract. That’s the talented defense that is so good they make up for the team not having a running game, or being able to consistently move the ball on offense.
So Many Weapons Though
I love Anquan Boldin, but watching him trudge up the sideline on Thanksgiving, after Stafford hit him with a spectacular jump throw reminded me of watching Emmit Smith in the Arizona period. He can still do some things, but his days as a top tier player are a distant memory.
Marvin Jones was a highly sought after free agent, but had never hit 1000 yards before this coaching staff got a hold of him, and the same can be said of Golden Tate. Eric Ebron is producing at a solid level on a per game basis, but prior to this season had every football prognosticator at the point, or on the verge, of declaring him a bust.
The team can’t buy a good running back, and they’ve tried many times. Riddick likely fits better as a wide receiver, Washington is just running straight forward and praying, and Zenner has looked awful on 9/10 snaps he’s taken.
The only hope for the Lions offense in January is for Ameer Abdullah to somehow make it back in time for playoff caliber defenses to not kill Matthew Stafford. The Line has a pretty solid draft pedigree, but they have not been able to consistently run block, no matter what combination of first and third round picks are on the field in the middle. This offense is whatever Matthew Stafford can make it in any given week.
Here Is What We Should Be Saying About The Lions
They’re a ball control offense and an average to mediocre defense, trying to make few enough mistakes to not cost their special teams players the game. Unquestionably the one area of the game that the Detroit Lions have dominated is special teams.
Their coverage teams have been incredible, their punt unit alone has four players that are playing at a pro bowl level, not including the punter. Johnson Bademosi, Don Carey, Miles Killebrew and Brandon Copeland have been spectacular in punt coverage. Additionally, I would bet my non-existent first born child on a Matt Prater field goal, if not so much on an extra point.
I do wish the coaches would stop forcing Andre Roberts to return kickoffs from the end zone, or letting him, whichever the case may be. The Lions are winning with their special teams, and their discipline on both sides of the ball. Nobody predicted that, but it is what is happening.
These Lions are not who we thought they were. They’re the most boring team in the world for 55 minutes, and the most electrifying for five.