By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Master of Motown
You can't talk about the Detroit Lions' future without talking about their past.
They placed only one member on the all-1970s, 1980s, 1990s or 2000s teams (Barry Sanders). And even when they had Sanders they could manage only one playoff win, a divisional smackdown of the budding-dynasty Cowboys in 1991. The last postseason victory before that day? The 1957 NFL championship game.
The Lions have produced only six seasons with double-digit wins since 1934 – the Colts have had that many since Facebook was founded. Worst of all? Wayne Fontes is their all-time winningest coach (66 victories).
So, yeah, Detroit's history is about as depressing as its current economic climate. But just like Eminem gave Detroit something to be proud of (if you like misogynist rap and white T-shirts), the Lions look like they might have something special brewing as well.
Yep. The Detroit Lions are a stock worth buying ... in small amounts.
The 2010 storyline: For the first time in a long time, the Lions put a good product out on the field in 2010. The statistical improvements from 2009 to 2010 were fairly dramatic. But this is the Lions, after all. So that good product resulted in a 6-10 record. The Lions played nine Quality Opponents, third-most in the league. Their -4.3 PPG scoring margin in those games was better than winning teams like Tampa Bay, Chicago and the Jets. But the Lions went just 2-7 vs. the iron.
Their improvement was seen across the board and they didn't have any glaring deficiencies they defined the team in recent years – like the worst pass defense in history in 2008 (110.8 Defensive Passer Rating). They also weren't particularly strong in any area, either, although Ndamukong Suh's remarkable rookie season gives them an identity other than Loserville for the first time since Sanders was running wild.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 6-10 (17.7 PPG – 26.6 PPG)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-7 (20.7-25.0)
Last five seasons overall: 18-62 (.225)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Offensive Hog Index (8th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Passing Yards Per Attempt (26th)
All Quality Stats
Defensive Passing YPA: 21st (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Quarterback Rating: 19th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 20th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Offensive Passer Rating: 19th (breaking it out as a stand-alone Quality Stat in 2011)
Relativity Index: 15th (once-proud Quality Stat being reintroduced for 2011)
Statistical curiosity of 2010
The Lions went into the final month of the season 2-10, yet they outplayed the Super Bowl champs twice over the course of the year. Detroit outscored Green Bay, 33-31, outgained the Pack, 717-519 and won the turnover battle 7-5 in splitting the season series: a 28-26 loss in Week 4 and a 7-3 win in Week 14 that launched Detroit's hopeful season-ending four-game win streak.
Best game of 2010
44-6 win vs. St. Louis (Week 5). While this wasn't quite as convincing as the final score suggested (the Rams actually enjoyed a slight edge in yards and first downs), it was still the third-biggest blowout of the NFL season, the team's first win after an 0-4 start and the catalyst for an excellent close to the year.
Worst game of 2010
45-24 loss vs. New England (Week 12). Another reason to be excited about the Lions – they really didn't have a complete stinker all year. Their worst loss was on Thanksgiving vs. the red-hot Patriots. The final score was ugly. But the Lions really impressed in front of a national audience before letting it get away in the second half.
Defensive line. Their Defensive Hogs were just O.K. according to our statistically magnificent Defensive Hog Index. Blame subpar run defense and generally underwhelming linebacker play. But the Lions were sixth in Negative Pass Plays forced (10.48 percent of dropbacks) thanks to the front four.
Not only was DT Suh monstrously good, Cliff Avril had 8.5 sacks on the outside and draft busts Lawrence Jackson (Seattle) and Turk McBride (Kansas City) found success off the bench in Detroit, combining for 11 sacks in 2010. DT Corey Williams and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch also did plenty of good work, giving the Lions one of the deepest DL rotations in the league.
Head coach Jim Schwartz always had great pass rushing lines as an assistant in Tennessee, and he's found the same formula in Detroit.
Back seven. The Lions didn't get great QB play in 2010. Twenty-sixth league-wide in Passing YPA says it all. But considering they started all three of their guys and played a very tough schedule, they get a pass there (no pun intended).
Pass defense is a different story. The Lions get credit for fielding a more respectable pass defense this year after getting absolutely obliterated in 2008 and 2009 (dead last in Defensive Passer Rating both years, worst DPR ever in 2008). But things still weren't great. Detroit allowed a Defensive Passer Rating of 89.2 (23rd), despite picking up 43 sacks, suggesting that the improvement had more to do with Suh and pressure up front than anything the other guys were doing.
Detroit put in a whole new crew of DBs in 2009 and basically did the same for 2010; can they find some stability and get another step closer in 2011?
General off-season strategy/overview
The Lions don't have any major concerns in free agency, with most of their guys locked up. But, assuming the return of some type of salary cap, they also have more than the average committed toward salary in 2011 and probably wouldn't be poised to make any major moves.
So, the Lions will have to build with the draft – something they've been historically bad at. But GM Martin Mayhew has been far from incompetent since taking over in 2008. He traded Roy Williams to Dallas for a first and a third (advantage, Mayhew), and the 2009 and 2010 drafts were effective. QB Matthew Stafford was the right choice at No. 1 in 2009, even if injuries have held him back, and Suh is an obvious gem.
His other top picks – TE Brandon Pettigrew, RB Jahvid Best and S Louis Delmas – all have at least flashed the type of potential and production their pedigree suggests, and are major building blocks going forward.
What do they need this year? Most mocks seem to favor an offensive tackle, but their Offensive Hogs were very strong in a division deep with great defensive fronts. They finished No. 8 on our Offensive Hog Index and were No. 4 league-wide at protecting the passer. So the mock drafts favoring an OT are misguided.
Picking No. 13 in the first round, they'd be wise to either move up a few spots to get one of the two great cornerbacks (Prince Amukamara, Patrick Peterson) or move down to get a linebacker later in the first or early second. They could also use a legitimate No. 2 receiver next to Calvin Johnson, but later.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
If the Lions played in a lesser division, we'd have no problem projecting them as a playoff contender this season. The third year under Jim Schwartz points to nothing but growth, and if Stafford stays healthy and matures they could pass by Chicago and Minnesota. But there are still a lot of question marks, and the 2011 schedule includes just two games against truly bad teams – home vs. Carolina, at Denver. Other than that, it's pretty tough all around, and the reason that 8-8 looks like the ceiling. When you've been down as long as the Lions have, .500 will feel like heaven.