Needless to say, last year was a historically dismal one for the Detroit Lions and much has been made about it. What’s done is done. Yet everyone in that organization and in the city of Detroit has put 2008 behind them, as they should.
Looking ahead, second-year running back Kevin Smith made a bold predic...err, guarantee that the Lions would make the playoffs in 2009—though he declined to say whether it’d be through winning the division or taking the wild card.
Well, there’s nowhere to go but up.
What if I say that the Lions will indeed make the playoffs?
I will not.
Instead, I will say with firm conviction that the new-look Lions (literally and figuratively) are headed in the right direction.
The organization cleaned house in the offseason and how could you not?
With a new coaching staff, a new philosophy, a first overall draft pick (who can also serve as the new face of the organization), and even a new logo, it is still not easy to predict how the Lions will do in 2009.
After a winless season, every game this year will look tough for the Lions, every team better. Yet, when you consider the pieces GM Martin Mayhew has put together combined with the strengths they already had (yes, they did have strengths), the Lions should be decent.
Prediction: four-six wins
With the NFC North scheduled against the not-too-great NFC West this year, they have a good chance to pick up some wins and, more importantly, gain momentum in reversing the misfortunes that have plagued the franchise.
Beyond scheduling the NFC West, the NFC North also has the task of facing a good AFC North. The Lions start their trek through the division right at the top of the heap against the Super Bowl Champion Steelers in mid-October.
The schedule isn’t much easier before then.
In fact, the Lions will not play a sub-.500 team in 2008 until they follow the Steelers with a trip to Lambeau Field. Eventually, they’ll meet up with the likes of St. Louis and Seattle starting in November.
Then, the wins will come.
Though Smith’s guarantee will fall a little short, the Lions should realistically compete for about four to six wins—victories against several NFC West teams, perhaps the fast-falling Cincinnati Bengals, and possibly a divisional win against the Packers.
Depending on where the Bears are at in the standings in the last week of the regular season, the Bears may only play their reserves if they’ve already clinched a playoff berth by then, allowing the Lions to pull out a late-season win in downtown Detroit.
Learning the new systems/schemes and building chemistry early on is vital for the Lions to, not only meet these expectations, but possibly exceed it. The coaches must have faith in their players while the players must buy into the system.
Though there is still work to do, the talent has been drafted. The experience has been acquired.
We’ve heard all about Matthew Stafford. Calvin Johnson is increasingly becoming one of the premier receivers in the league with every incredible catch after incredible catch.
Though not too many people were happy with picking TE Andrew Pettigrew so early in the draft, no one can argue that Pettigrew has great potential.
Louis Delmas, down I-96 from Western Michigan, was one of the top-rated safeties in the draft. Receiver Derrick Williams is a versatile weapon from Penn State who will demand a bit of attention away from Calvin Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Lions have mixed in a good set of intelligent seasoned veterans by acquiring players like Julian Petersen and Larry Foote for an upgraded linebacking corps. Teamed with Ernie Sims, Detroit’s linebacker corps went from a past weakness to one of the more seasoned LB groups in the league.
They bring back Daunte Culpepper at QB. Obviously, Culpepper isn’t the Culpepper of old, but it is an improvement over Dan Orlovsky.
The players are just the tools however. So, the Lions must wipe away all psychological effects from last year to use their resources effectively.
But just as the players must, so too must the coaches. Scott Linehan joins the Lions as their new offensive coordinator after basically failing as the Rams’ head coach the past three seasons.
Still, he’s had plenty of experience as an offensive coordinator. But it is Mike Schwartz who has the monumental task of turning around this franchise. Luckily, Mayhew got the ball rolling in upgrading several facets of the personnel.
To fall short...
There’s still plenty of work to do however, and the Lions could easily fall under four wins.
First and foremost, one obstacle is the psychological aspect of being the first professional football team to go winless.
If the Lions cannot get over last year, with all the disappointment and embarrassment, the same ol' team, psychologically, will continue to come out of the locker room.
Another obstacle comes from the sacrifices of acquiring Julian Petersen. DT Cory Redding is now in a Seahawks uniform.
The loss of Shaun Rogers after the 2007 season definitely played a role in the Lions’ 2008 season. So, the Lions have basically sacrificed their defensive line for a better linebackers. Just as in 2008, the loss of Redding may play a role in 2009.
In addition, the offensive line also needs help despite having a pretty decent team captain in Mike Raiola. Culpepper has lost a step and if the O-line cannot protect he or Stafford, defenses will fill up the box with Smith in their targets. As with any team, a lack of first downs is always an obstacle to success.
The lack of depth on this team may cost the team some wins should key players get hurt. Analysts and coaches alike fear that if Stafford gets thrown into the fire too early, the pressure and potential failure may cost the Lions a career. That, of course, is a stretch, but the fear is still there.
Laslty, with the addition of new coaches and veterans around, who is going to take leadership of this team? Petersen and Foote are prime candidates for the defense but they are brand spankin' new to Detroit.
Will the mildly-talented players who've been in Detroit for a while object to those new seasoned vets taking over the locker room? That's yet to be determined.
The Lions have NFL-ready players across their depth chart, but having to plug players in at different times with different calibers does affect the chemistry. As stated, chemistry is key.
But the Lions (and Detroit) are tired of thinking and witnessing the worst. At rock bottom, there is nothing to do but begin thinking optimistically. With at least one member of the Lions, he’s taken that first step.
I applaud Smith for his new outlook—fired up by the sunrise of a new day with rays bleeding out the optimism necessary to break out of a deep depression.
He, and the Lions, will need it.
Heck, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?