What in the World Is Wrong with the Detroit Lions?

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What in the World Is Wrong with the Detroit Lions?
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On October 28, the Detroit Lions won their Week 9 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks to improve to 4-4 on the season.

At that time, many Lions fans were wondering why the Lions were having such a disappointing start to the season. Over six weeks later, Lions fans are longing for the "disappointment" of a .500 record.

That disappointment has only grown over the course of an ugly six-game stretch in which the Lions appear to be regressing a little each game.

So, what exactly is up with this team that has gone from a 10-win playoff team to a 10-loss team with an inside track at a top-five draft pick?

More to the point, how in the world have the Lions regressed this badly despite posting statistical improvements in key areas?

Detroit's 2011 and 2012 seasons are a good example for anyone trying to show how stats don't tell the whole story. The NFL likes to measure teams based primarily on total offensive and defensive yardage, but if those are truly telling stats, there's no explanation for this:

NFL Ranks for 2011 and 2012 Detroit  Lions

2011 Lions

2012 Lions
(14 weeks)

Total Offense 5th 2nd
Passing Offense 4th 1st
Rushing Offense 29th 23rd
Total Defense 23rd 12th
Pass Defense 22nd 11th
Run Defense 23rd 18th

All right, I've got it. So the key to turning a playoff team into a hapless 10-loss team is to make significant improvements in every single major statistical area.

Wait. No. That doesn't make sense. At all.

That's because stats don't tell the whole story.

Despite what the statistics may say, the Lions offense has not looked incredibly effective all year, not because of its inability to move the ball, but because of its inability to finish drives.

The Lions went six games straight without a first-half touchdown, and they failed to convert in a number of key situations last week against the Cardinals, most notably this one:

This, really, is at the core of the Lions' troubles. What has really fallen off from last season is consistent execution.

That means more scoring and less mistakes.

Realistically, the Lions were not a team that performed brilliantly on a consistent basis last year, but they made the most of their breaks and were one of the best second-half teams in history, with a record four comebacks of 17 points or more.

This year, the Lions try to come back and dig themselves a deeper hole, like they did against Arizona. Barring that, they just fall short, or they let the other team mount a dramatic comeback.

 

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Problem, Lions?

But to get at the heart of the Lions' issues this year, it's necessary to go beyond the base stats.

And the reality is, the Lions won a lot of games last year by doing the very same things they're letting their opponents do this year.

In 2011, the Lions had a turnover margin of plus-11, and seven of those turnovers became defensive touchdowns.

In 2012, the Lions are sporting a turnover margin of minus-nine, and neither defense nor special teams have found the end zone through 14 games. Opponents, however, have returned 10 kicks or turnovers for touchdowns, and many of them have been decisive scores in their games.

In fact, the Lions have already allowed more touchdowns in 14 games (43) in 2012 than they did throughout all of 2011 (42). At this point last year, the Lions had allowed 35 touchdowns.

Yet the Lions have a statistically better defense in 2012? How does that add up?

Part of it is the return touchdowns, sure, but a much bigger issue is that the Lions are making key mistakes that are ruining them in the field-position battle.

The Lions' most recent contest at Arizona is, once again, a prime example. The Cardinals scored five touchdowns on less than 200 yards of total offense. That doesn't happen unless there's an opponent offering up scoring chances that don't require a lot of offense.

And indeed, the Cardinals' first two touchdown drives went a combined 11 yards, and that turned out to be the only offense the Cardinals needed, though Beanie Wells ran in a garbage time touchdown late in the fourth quarter from 31 yards out.

The Cardinals won that game, and they deserved to. But the Lions didn't exactly make them have to work especially hard at it, you see.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This has been the problem with the Lions, not just this year, but last year as well. They're talented, sure, but they can't impose their will on anyone.

The Lions of the last two years have generally had two game patterns:

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

1) Play most of the game listlessly, with no grasp of the game flow, only to scramble for a comeback attempt in the second half

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2) Assume complete control over the game for roughly three quarters, but fail to convert opportunities to touchdowns, giving the opponent a chance to reverse the tide of the game.

Neither of these is indicative of what winning football looks like, but the Lions made it work in 2011 behind 41 passing touchdowns, a great turnover margin and a bit of luck.

This year, the Lions aren't getting the bounces, and they certainly aren't getting the calls.

And for the first time in many years, neither Matt Millen nor the barren roster he left behind is to blame here. This isn't an issue of talent, it's an issue of the talent on the team executing the game plan.

The Lions' bad luck this year is in part just that: bad luck.

But in today's NFL, teams have to make their own luck. That means being in position, catching passes, winning the one-on-one battles and doing the little things we've come to find cliché in football discussions.

The Lions haven't done that this year, and it shows in their record. I'm not convinced the Lions are as bad as their regression in record shows, nor as good as their statistical gains would suggest.

In reality, they're much the same team as they were last year, with a major case of karmic backlash for all the last-second heroics they pulled out in 2011.

What do the Lions need most to improve in 2013?

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The Lions have all the markings of a team that can pull out of their 2012 tailspin with only minor adjustments, because the problem is not who is playing, but how they are playing.

That puts much of the onus for fixing the mess the Lions have become in 2012 on head coach Jim Schwartz, who is primarily responsible for preparing his team to execute.

It's easy to see the Lions are capable of playing good football, because they do it from time to time.

The challenge for the Lions in 2013 is to play the kind of football they are capable of for 60 minutes a game. They're good, but not good enough to consistently get away with playing only a solid half of football a game.

That worked out because of some good breaks in 2011, but 2012 is showing how effective part-time football is as a long-term strategy.

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