By Brian Spencer
Progress, as it relates to the Detroit Lions, lies truly in the eye of the beholder.
At 1-5 heading into their Week 7 bye, the Lions are clearly no longer a laughable doormat. Casual observers perusing the standings are likely to think “same ol’ Lions”, but this team is no pushover. With a little luck, they could be anywhere from 3-2 to 4-1… again, depending on your point of view.
We all remember what happened in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, so theoretically, at worst, this team should be a semi-respectable 2-4, with 10 more chances to exceed last year’s final haul of 2-14. In Week 2, they lost a nail-biter at home to the Philadelphia Eagles, 35-32, were soundly beaten the next week in Minnesota, then squandered a chance to win in Green Bay for the first time in nearly two decades in dropping a very winnable game against a very beatable team, 28-26. That led to a 44-6 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams (the team’s biggest win since 1995), then, finally, to a heartbreaking 28-20 loss to the New York Giants in Week 6. At least they covered the 10 1/2 spread on Sunday; appreciate that, guys.
If you’re adding up the carnage at home, that’s 4 losses by a combined 18 points. In the feeble NFC North, if this team had simply been awarded the win they deserved against the Bears, then pulled it together long enough to steal one of those other winnable losses, they’d stand a hopeful 3-3 and be right in the thick of things. Specifically, they’d likely be tied for first place. All it would have taken was one less missed tackle there, not turning the ball over here, not getting flagged there. Considering this franchise is just one season removed from their historic 0-16 record, and came into the 2010 season sporting a 3-37 record over their last 40 games, these close calls have to be considered progress.
But let’s be honest: most teams in the NFL can point to one or two key moments in a game in which they came short as the difference between a win and a loss. That’s called parity, and the NFL has cornered the market on it; the cliche “on any given Sunday” truly defines this league. (See the moribund Arizona Cardinals, who at 3-2 in the NFC
Joke West could actually be on their way to the playoffs.)
So welcome back to the NFL, Detroit Lions: you’re just like all the other lower-rung teams now. You’re good enough to be in most games, but still not good enough to win most games.
My Lions have racked up all kinds of interesting, maddening stats on this noble march to the bye week:
– Last year only the Tampa Bay Bucs and St. Louis Rams scored less points than the Lions in the NFC; through five games this season, the Philadelphia Eagles are the only NFC team that’s put up more points.
– So far the Lions are one of 16 teams who’ve scored more points than they’ve given up: of those teams, the Lions and San Diego Chargers (2-4) are the only ones with losing records.
– Last year the St. Louis Rams were the only NFC team that had less interceptions and less sacks than the Detroit Lions defense; this year, so far the Lions have both the fourth-most sacks (one behind the Rams, ironically enough) and fourth-most interceptions.
– The Lions have been penalized more than any other team in the league (59).
– Lions starting left tackle Jeff Backus has only given up 3 sacks so far on the season, a respectable number given some of the names he’s been asked to block (Jared Allen, Julius Peppers, Osi Umenyiora, etc). Those three sacks, however, have resulted in two quarterback fumbles/turnovers, and one strained right shoulder on a franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. Stafford has not played since the second quarter in Week 1.
– Rookie running back Jahvid Best burst onto the NFL scene (and into fantasy football circles) in Week 2 with a scintillating performance against the Eagles, gaining 78 yards on the ground, 154 receiving yards, and scoring thrice. Lofty comparisons to former Lion greats like Barry Sanders and Billy Sims ensued; for all the hype, though, Best has yet to rush for more than those 78 yards in a single game, is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, and his Lions are the second-worst rushing team in the NFL.
In the absence of wins, however, there is something to be said for simply being competitive–just ask the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers. There’s also something to be said for having a plan in place and young cornerstones to build around–just ask the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers. The Lions are in a much better place than they have been in the last decade, and are getting closer, but we’re all going to have to endure a few more twists of the nuts before this team truly turns it around. Hey, they’ve already given you honolulu blue balls every year since 1957, what difference does another year make?
You love seeing rookie Ndamukong Suh dominate this early in his young career and look every bit like the best player in his draft class; the kid is a first-year Pro Bowler if he keeps this up. Remember that pseudo-debate leading up the draft about who was the better defensive tackle prospect, Suh or Gerald McCoy? If you do, forget it. It’s early, but I haven’t heard a peep about McCoy, taken third overall, down in Tampa Bay. Through five games, McCoy has 8 tackles compared to Suh’s 21 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, and all kinds of pressure and hits on opposing quarterbacks.
Call him Beast Man.
You drool at Calvin Johnson’s casual, quiet, explosive start to the season, despite the modest stats (29 catches for 437 yards, 5 TDs). Make no mistake, Megatron has been stellar when he’s been targeted and is catching almost all of the catchable balls thrown his way; the problem is that he still isn’t seeing as many as he should be. It’ll be a thing of beauty when the offensive coaching staff realizes that he needs to run a fly route and get the target, poor coverage or not, when he’s gifted with single coverage. There’s a better-than-average chance he’s going to come up with it.
You see the potential for guys like Stafford and Best to be special players, and see the makings of a solid core on defense with playmakers like Louis Delmas and, lately, Alphonso Smith, a second-round pick in last year’s draft who was cast off by the Denver Broncos but has played his way into the starting lineup in Detroit. After seeing limited action the first few weeks, he’s already logged 16 tackles, 3 INTs, and 1 return TD capped off by the Carlton Banks. We still haven’t seen second-year starting middle linebacker DeAndre Levy in action yet, either, due to lingering injuries. He too is apparently somebody this team feels confident is somebody to build around.
Brandon Pettigrew (25 years old) and Tony Scheffler (27) are locked up for the foreseeable future as the team’s top tight ends, and so far this year have combined for 59 receptions, 553 yards, and 2 TDs. They comprise what so far is looking like the top tight-end combo in the NFL.
This is all well and good. The Lions are no longer more than likely to be down by 20+ points at the end of the first half, in every game, every week. They’re competitive, they’re making plays, they have core pieces of the puzzle in place, they probably wouldn’t be defeated by the top-10 college football teams.
Does that make the losing any more palatable? No, not really. But in my eyes, I see progress. And for now, I’ll just have to take it.