Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Lions are finally not terrible

The fact that the Lions are—at the very least—a decent team is awesome. Since Barry Sanders tore my still-beating heart from my body and ate it Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-style retired, the NFL has been a letdown every season. When your team sets the record for “worst five-year stretch” in NFL history among other notable achievements in futility, everything else in professional football ceases to be enjoyable. That is one of the first things that I noticed when the Lions started winning this season. Obviously, winning makes fans happier which in turn makes everything more enjoyable including the simple act of breathing and eating doughnuts. However, the fact that other games actually matter to the Lions now changes everything. Instead of watching a Packers-Redskins game and wondering why the NFL even exists, I can actually view the match-up as a game featuring possible playoff opponents. Whereas in most seasons, a Redskins game would put me to sleep, the fact that they are only one game behind Detroit with the tiebreaker advantage makes their games important. The Lions being competitive again allows fans to take part in the whole NFL experience again. The last Saturday in April (the NFL Draft) used to be the playoffs, Super Bowl, and off-season wrapped up in one for Lions fans. I’m used to focusing on the draft starting in week three of the regular season. Since #20 left (or since Millen arrived if you prefer), every game after week four or five had the same significance whether it was against a good or a bad team: none. The presence of the Giants, Packers (2), Chargers and Cowboys on the remaining schedule used to just be another way of saying, “0-5.” Now, it means an opportunity for the Lions to play their way into the playoffs.

As happy as I am that the Lions are winning, I’m equally pleased with the way it has happened and the manner in which the success has been treated and accepted by the fans, media, and players. I read a quote the other day from a Lions player—I can’t remember who said it or where it was printed so please don’t hurt me Chris McCosky—that expressed satisfaction at the idea that the Lions were finally giving their fans something to cheer about. Lions fans have been pissed off for six years. They had a right to be. The fact that the current players acknowledge that right and appreciate what the fans have been through makes it easy to support this bunch.

The media has also treated the Lions success the right way. The players have been annoyed—and I can see their point—with the relative skepticism shown by the local media. I would be disappointed if the media wasn’t skeptical. Six years of misery and failure doesn’t get thrown out the window because of one good eight-game stretch or even one good season. Millen isn’t all of a sudden a great GM. The players have not earned the right to never be criticized or second-guessed again. The Lions are winning right now. If that keeps happening this season and next, then perceptions can start to change. Only then can Millen be viewed as a good GM or as having done a good job. Only then can the players be given the benefit of the doubt.

The Lions have matured as the season has progressed. That maturation has happened on the field and on the sidelines. The team has started to rely on the running game which has yielded a more balanced and effective attack. The defense is putting pressure on the quarterback which is the hallmark of a good defense. Granted, the Lions have not beaten a slew of great teams. In fact, I’m not sure that the Lions haven’t even beaten a single “good” team. However, good teams are supposed to beat the bad teams. The Lions have done that. Clearly, the debacles at Philly (L 56-21) and at Washington (L 34-3) are worrisome. This team still has to play its best game to even have a chance against good teams. I presume, though, that at least half of the teams in the NFL would gladly change places with the Lions. This isn’t a talent-less team like the last Lions team to finish above .500 (2000). This team has talent. This team has a very good and sometimes dominating defense. This team has playmakers all over the field. One could look at the current version of the Lions and make a pretty good comparison to the ’05 Tigers. People who follow baseball closely knew the Tigers were heading for an explosion in the not-so-distant future. I get the same feeling with this team. Obviously, there are positions that need to be improved and personnel obstacles that will need to be overcome. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the offense if/when Mike Martz leaves for another tour as a head coach. It takes 2-3 years to install his offense. The Lions are still getting used to everything his offense entails. If he leaves, it’s possible that the offense will undergo a change in philosophy which will likely cause some stagnation. Jon Kitna is much better than anyone thought he’d be. He clearly has a grasp of the offense. He has a tremendous amount of confidence. However, he probably has a shelf-life of two or three years. When he moves on, the Lions will need to bring in a capable replacement or everything could go south in a hurry. Fortunately, those are problems that all teams face—even good ones.

This team is young and talented. It appears to have a man with a winning vision at the helm (Marinelli). I don’t think this version of the Lions is going to resemble the “win one year and lose the next” version that we had to endure in the 90’s. This might just be the first consistently good Lions franchise in most of our lifetimes. It’ll be interesting to see if all of this comes to fruition because Millen will need to get the credit. Nobody has ever been more publicly maligned than Millen—and deservedly so. However, if he can do something that nobody has ever been able to do since the NFL/AFL merger—turn the Lions into a winning franchise—then he will be a hero in Detroit. And really, Millen’s failure thus far has been no different than Ilitch’s decade-long failure as the Tigers’ owner. The only difference is that Ilitch had the Red Wings to mask the failures of the Tigers. Plus, doing a terrible job does not preordain someone to doing a terrible job forever. Bill Belichick is a perfect example of that.

The remaining schedule is not easy. I can say—with a decent amount of confidence—that the Lions are going to beat my best-case scenario prediction before the season (which was seven wins). I have never been happier to be wrong. However, the Lions have a lot of work to do if they are going to even sniff the 10-win mark as predicted by Kitna. I’m starting to think that the Lions will have to do just that to make the playoffs. The way it looks now, there is one playoff spot open in the NFC. The Packers, Cowboys, Saints, and Seahawks will probably end up being the Division winners. The Giants appear to be on their way to one of the Wild Card spots. That leaves the Lions, Redskins, Bucs, and Panthers to fight for the last Wild Card spot. The Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Bucs and the Redskins hold the tiebreaker over the Lions. Hopefully, the Bucs can beat the ‘Skins on November 25 which would give the Lions a reprieve if all three teams finish with the same record. The Lions have—by far—the most difficult schedule of the group. The Bucs have—by far—the easiest schedule. The Bucs get Atlanta (2), Houston, and San Francisco. Even their more difficult opponents aren’t the greatest in Carolina, New Orleans and Washington. The Lions have the Packers (2), Chargers, Cowboys, Chiefs, and Giants. All are .500 or better. The Lions also have to play at Adrian Peterson. That makes this week’s game at Arizona the most important Lions game in seven years. Win and the Lions can afford to close out the season 2-4 and still have a pretty good chance at the last Wild Card spot. Lose and the Lions will have to split against one of the most difficult end-of-season schedules in the league. The good news is that, win or lose this week at Arizona, the game the following week against the NY Giants immediately becomes the most important Lions game in seven years. I can get used to this flirtation with hyperbole. It’s much more exciting than preparing for the draft in late-September.

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