In the NFL the difference between an 0-16 season and a 2-14 season is not great. It's like comparing horrible to awful, filthy to dirty.
If you ask the players, they'll tell you that going 2-14 this season was almost worse than the 0-16 debacle of 2008.
Because after that historical bad 0-16 season, Detroit cleaned house. They fired the entire coaching staff, they fired the GM, they gave 40% of that roster their walking papers. Forty Percent! That never happens.
And yet, it made little difference in the end result. You can understand how the discouragement level on this team actually increased .
However, in what may be unprecedented in Detroit Lions history, the fans might be slightly more optimistic than the players.
There is promise. There is hope.
Yes, the Lions are picking second overall, making this the third consecutive year Detroit has had a top three pick in the draft.
Yes, the roster still needs a massive overhaul even after replacing 40% of the team.
The hope lies in the 2009 draft class.
Matthew Stafford started 10 of 16 games for the Lions this year. He was healthy for seven of those games. So as a healthy starter, Stafford was 2-5.
His stats were barely better than Joey Harrington's stats as a rookie, but that's where the comparisons end.
Stafford is the real deal at quarterback with this team. There is the matter of giving him a better supporting cast though, starting with an O-line that can adequately protect him.
Brandon Pettigrew had a slow start but gradually improved as the season progressed. An injury cut his rookie season short and he ended up on the IR but not before showing Lions fans that the team probably has a valid playmaker at the position. His 1-yard touchdown grab on the final play of the game against Cleveland gave Detroit their second win of the season.
Louis Delmas is the early gem of the class. His play this season could earn him rookie of the year honors. Delmas did a little bit of everything on this Lions team, and at times looked like the only player in the secondary that was giving effort.
His rookie stats are pretty impressive. 94 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, two defensive touchdowns, one safety, and eight blocked passes.
DeAndre Levy will surely be the starting middle linebacker for Detroit in 2010 and in limited action this season, he has shown a lot of promise. His 85 tackles far surpassed Ernie Sims and he genuinely looked like he was playing for a starting position.
Sammie Lee Hill is harder to make a good judgement on. In limited playing time, he looked capable, but not flashy. However, if we are to believe the coaching staff, then Hill could be a starter in 2010.
So Detroit has at least four starters from this draft, maybe five. Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown will stay on as part-time contributors next season.
Anyway you look at it, getting four-five starters from a single draft is rare, and certainly something Matt Millen never came close to accomplishing. You can say that speaks to the state of the Detroit Lions, but it's a plus regardless.
In that respect, GM Martin Mayhew deserves a lot of credit. Mayhew has received a lot of criticism in his first season. Some was justified, some wasn't.
For instance, it wasn't Mayhew's fault he was hired to replace Matt Millen. Would a more seasoned and experienced GM have been a better choice? Undoubtedly yes, and that falls on ownership. That shouldn't diminish the job he has done this season.
Mayhew's task is larger than just one season worth of repair though. Millen's mark on this team will take at least two more drafts as good as the last one to erase.
Likewise, Jim Schwartz cannot be read fully yet.
A lot of the criticism that Schwartz took in his first season as a head coach is valid. In a lot of ways, Schwartz didn't look much different from Morhinweg, Mariucci, and Marinelli when he was out there coaching.
There were boneheaded moments like kicking a field goal with four minutes left in the game, being down by seven points.
There were frustrations, like starting a completely ineffective Daunte Culpepper (who finished his Lions career at 0-10) over Drew Stanton.
But there were also reasons to like the guy. His attitude was different from his predecessors. He changed the mindset of the team, he sounded smarter at press conferences, he seemed all-together more stable.
I mean, when is the last time a Lions coach didn't seem on the verge of losing his mind at the end of a season? It's been a while.
There isn't conclusive evidence in either direction to determine whether or not Schwartz will last beyond his current contract with the team, let alone finish his first contract, but keep in mind that Jim Schwartz has had less to work with than any of his predecessors.
Going into 2010, there is no reason to think this team can win more than six games, regardless of the schedule. So if the next season is already lost before kickoff of game one, the focus should be on the improvement of the 2009 draft class, and the potential of the 2010 draft class.
The focus should also be on Mayhew's offseason moves, and more than likely, there will be a lot of them.
Finally, the focus should be on Jim Schwartz's adjustments. Will Linehan return as offensive coordinator? Should he return? What about Cunningham? Stan Kwan?
2011 might be the year that progress is translated into a winning record, but only if the next two drafts are sparkling.
For now, the book on Mayhew and Schwartz is not complete, but it has a solid start.
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