Thursday, May 03, 2007

The 2007 Lions didn't catch any breaks

Now that the NFL Draft is over, let the rampant win/loss predictions for 2007 begin. I can’t remember a year when there wasn’t a least a good-sized contingent of Lions fans either saying “this is finally the year” or “we might be able to sneak into the playoffs at 8-8.” I used to do that when I was 10—not so much now. Despite the hoopla of the Calvin Johnson pick—and the eradication of trouble-makers per the Marinelli Doctrine—the draft almost never has anything to do with how the Lions will perform the following season.

The number one indicator of how the Lions will fare—other than the fact that they’re terrible—is the pending schedule for next season. Dating back to the Wayne Fontes-era, the Lions have failed or succeeded based largely on the difficulty of their schedule. The NFL schedule has always been created to give the better teams from the previous year a more difficult schedule and the weaker teams from the previous year an easier schedule. The Lions made a killing off of this in the 90’s. They seemed to almost purposefully fail every other year simply to set up a “cupcake” schedule the following season. This phenomenon somewhat started in 1989 but really got going in 1991. Here is how many games the Lions won in odd years starting in 1989:

1989 7
1991 12
1993 10
1995 10
1997 9
1999 8

Alternatively, here is how the Lions fared in even years starting in 1988:

1988 4
1990 6
1992 5
1994 9
1996 5
1998 5

In odd years in this range, the Lions had a mean win total of 9.33. In even years, the Lions had a mean win total of 5.66. I don’t believe the difference has anything to do with coincidence. The Lions were just good enough to do well with a poor schedule and just bad enough to do terribly with a difficult schedule.

Seemingly every year, Lions die-hards aren’t able to resist predicting absurd win totals based on the draft and “supposed” player development. I understand the excitement that goes into preparing for the upcoming football season. But, things have changed dramatically since the 90’s. The Lions can no longer limp into the playoffs with a roster full of holes. The “reward” of receiving a weak schedule for having a poor previous season has all but disappeared due to the league’s schedule realignment. The Lions were 3-13 in ’06. Their subsequent schedule in ’07 features teams with a combined ’06 record of 129-127. Needless to say, the Lions have their work cut out for them.

Here is how the games play out for NFC North in 2007:

Six games vs. NFC North
Four games vs. AFC West
Four games vs. NFC East
Two games against equivalent team from previous season in NFC West and NFC South

The last two games are all that exist in the name of the old NFL style of giving weak teams from the previous year easier schedules and vice versa. The Lions have had awful rosters for six years now which is one of the primary reasons they’ve fared so poorly. It’s also evident that not having the luxury of having an easier schedule has halted any type of miracle season. I think the way the NFL has the schedule set up now makes the most sense. There’s no need to punish good teams and reward bad teams. It was great to be a Lions fan in the 90’s when this policy almost single handily allowed the Lions to make the playoffs six times in the decade. Regardless, that policy was a misguided attempt to promote parity. The Salary Cap took care of that problem.

So, when you’re predicting the fate of the ’07 Lions, don’t bother thinking about who is playing QB or WR. Just look at the schedule. I have looked through the schedule quite a few times and I can’t see where this team will be able to improve more than a couple games in the win column. I realize that the Lions are capable of winning any game on the schedule per the “Any Given Sunday” mantra. What I tried to do is factor the likelihood of a victory. There are likely to be as many instances of the Lions beating a team they should lose to as there are of the Lions losing to a team they should beat so I don’t pick too many upsets. Sadly, the NFC North has been paired up with the two strongest divisions in football. So things are already looking bleak. Here is the schedule:

1 Sun, Sep 9 at Oakland
2 Sun, Sep 16 Minnesota
3 Sun, Sep 23 at Philadelphia
4 Sun, Sep 30 Chicago
5 Sun, Oct 7 at Washington
7 Sun, Oct 21 Tampa Bay
8 Sun, Oct 28 at Chicago
9 Sun, Nov 4 Denver
10 Sun, Nov 11 at Arizona
11 Sun, Nov 18 NY Giants
12 Thu, Nov 22 Green Bay
13 Sun, Dec 2 at Minnesota
14 Sun, Dec 9 Dallas
15 Sun, Dec 16 at San Diego
16 Sun, Dec 23 Kansas City
17 Sun, Dec 30 at Green Bay

Let’s break the schedule down the way the NFL does.

Intra-division games:

At best, the Lions could finish 3-3. Since they haven’t beaten Green Bay at Lambeau Field since I was in seventh grade, it’s not a stretch to consider that a loss. Winning at Chicago is nearly impossible. I don’t see the Lions beating Minnesota twice—especially since they haven’t won at Minnesota since 1997. So, 3-3 is the absolute best case scenario.

NFC East games:

The weakest team in the NFC East is Washington and the Lions have to play the Redskins on the road. That is 50/50 at best. The Lions will be underdogs to Dallas, Philly, and the NY Giants. I will reluctantly give the Lions a 1-3 record against those teams.

AFC West games:

The weakest team in the AFC West is Oakland but the Lions have to travel to Oakland. The Lions should win this game but it’s probably 50/50. They will be huge underdogs to Denver and San Diego and slight underdogs to KC at home. The best I can give the Lions in this group of games is 1-3.

NFC West and NFC South games:

The Lions have to play Arizona on the road and Tampa Bay at home. Arizona and Tampa Bay are in the same boat as the Lions. I think both games are 50/50 so I’ll give the Lions a 1-1 record here.

Keep in mind that I have tried to give the Lions the benefit of the doubt. A 3-3 record in conference is really pushing it. Unless Calvin Johnson has an immediate Randy Moss-type presence, the Lions will do no better than 6-10. If Johnson is unstoppable, then I can see an extra win at home against KC and a win at home against either the NY Giants or Dallas. That would be good enough for an 8-8 record. But, realistically, the Lions will be staring at another 10+ loss season come December. Hopefully Millen has his wide receiver fetish out of the way so he can start using his first round picks on strengthening the most important needs on the team (i.e. OL, LB, and CB). Then again, do we really need Aaron Gibson, Chris Claiborne, and Bryant Westbrook? Maybe that’s why Millen keeps taking WR’s; the alternative has been even worse.

Lastly, I do want to apologize for three Lions posts in a row. You don't deserve that and I will try not to let that happen again.

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