During this point in the off season, it seems like a majority of Lions fans fall into one of two categories, either the eternal optimist or the scrooge-ish pessimist.
The pessimist “knows” this is the same old Lions at heart. Nothing will ever change until the Fords sell the team and there is no reason to be hopeful. He scoffs at the Christmas morning high others get immediately following the draft, sure that these new picks are really coal with fancy wrapping.
Any seemingly wise move is either too good to be true or the player will be injured; regardless something bad will happen. This person probably doesn’t read this site, or, likely reads and chuckles at the futility of the over analysis and high spirits of the "true" fans.
Then there are those optimists who (like me) every year look at the draft and free agency and think, yes, this team has gotten better. We have all been wrong and burned before but know there is no point in being a fan without that glimmer of hope. We look to teams like the Red Sox or more recently, the Saints and think that someday that could be us.
While it may be too early to accurately predict how the Lions will fare in 2010, few will argue that they are not already improved greatly from last season. How many wins will that really equate too? That’s hard to say, especially considering how many factors can really play into a teams’ improvement from one year to the next.
During this space I would like to look at all the different factors contributing to an improved Lions team in 2010 and how this will translate to on the field performance. While flashy free agents and first round draft picks make the headlines, they are not the only contributing factors to a possible Lions turn around.
1 – Familiarity with Schwartz’s System
Or, more accurately, familiarity with the systems of Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham for all returning players. After all, no two schemes are exactly the same and all take some time to learn. As is common in failed franchises, there is a lot of turn-over in head coaches and coordinators making it hard to find consistency in a game plan.
When players are learning a system, often times there is slight hesitation where a player may have to “think” about his responsibility. In such a fast game as the NFL, even the smallest hesitation can get you beat or out of position. Once players learn and develop into a system after having spent a whole year and off season in it, they can start to react on and trust their instincts.
For a young team that already has a lot of learning to do, throwing new systems at them every year makes the process that much more difficult. Finding solid coordinators and being able to keep them around for multiple years is extremely valuable to a struggling franchise.
2 – Rookie growth from year 1 to year 2
The transition from the college game to the NFL is not an easy task regardless of position. The speed, complexity and talent on the field increases so much that adjustment and learning the NFL game is a process for any rookie.
Rookies do not have the luxury of a full off season with the team, often have to learn a new system from scratch and have the added pressure of battling for a spot on the team or for a starting position since they have yet to prove themselves.
Tremendous growth should take place during the first off season for any rookie and for the Lions, there are multiple rookies from 2009 who already have made an impact and have a chance to progress even farther.
3 – Key free agents with few significant losses
As I talked about in a previous article of mine, aside from Ernie Sims outside linebacker spot, the Lions have either maintained or improved upon the talent level at nearly every position on the team.
Rob Sims, Nate Burleson, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Chris Houston, Corey Williams and Tony Scheffler all have a chance to start and/or make an immediate impact.
What is most important is that while addressing all these off-season needs, the Lions did not make any new holes for themselves. No, not all have been completely filled, but a 2-14 team can’t be 100% patched in one year and it is unrealistic to think that all those holes could be filled.
True that the losses of Larry Foote and Ernie Sims could seem significant at a first glance, but Foote likely wasn’t the starter at MLB this year because of the emergence of Levy. Sims, on the other hand, while a decent weak side linebacker, was not going to be resigned when his contract expired after this season. Getting something for him now instead of letting him walk later was the right move.
4 – Contribution of a few impact rookies
This year’s rookie class might not make the same splash in volume as last year’s which contributed 5 players to start over half the games, there is the possibility for some rookies to make a very significant impact. Suh might not be the dominate force everyone is expecting immediately, but there is little doubt that he will be an instant starter and will cause opposing offensive lines to pay attention.
Best and Spievey are the other two rookies who may make an impact this year, with both having potential to start. Likely, Javhid will get a majority of the carries to start the year and will have a chance to showcase his talents right away while the Lions should smartly be cautious in bring back Kevin Smith. Should he prove himself, it may be tough for Smith to regain his starting job and instead resort to the role of complimentary back.
Spievey will be given a chance to start right away as well with the young but unproven Detroit group at cornerback. Even if he doesn’t manage to win the starting job, don’t count him out. Corners often need a couple years to develop. Even the Raiders Asomugha did not emerge until his 4th season. Spievey would be a valuable nickel back even if he isn’t ready to be thrown into the fire at first.
5 – Much improved locker room chemistry and leadership
When Jeff Garcia left the team after one year and went to play for the Eagles, an interviewer once asked him about his time spent with the Lions. A comment he made that I will never forget was about how little effort the entire team gave. He commented that you could walk into the locker room any given night and over half of the playbooks would still be sitting inside players’ lockers, even supposed starters and leader.
This losing attitude that seemed to plague the Lions for years has finally seemed to be eradicated. The overpaid, selfish players who only care about collecting a paycheck are gone. In their place are vibrant, firey leaders who are hungry to turn this team around.
Louis Delmas and Matt Stafford have become some of the unquestioned young leaders of this team quickly, bringing players in outside of mandatory team activities to grow together and work as a team.
Even in his 30’s, KVB has shown to have a non-stop motor who is willing to make sure he out works everyone on the field. These are the type of attitudes that are contagious and that a struggling team needs if it ever is going to have a chance to turn things around
6 – Better special teams
Football has three phases and the importance of good field position should not be taken lightly. Offensive and Defensive are not the only statistics that have consistently ranked toward the bottom of the league on a yearly basis, poor special teams is also partly to blame for years of sub-mediocrity.
A now more balanced and deeper roster lends itself to more talent from top to bottom and thus a better pool of special teams players to choose from. Along with this, we now have a new special teams coordinator in Danny Crossman formerly of the Carolina Panthers.
Danny had a very successful tenure at Carolina where in 2008 in lead a Panthers special teams unit that was in the top third of the league in most statistical categories, including 3rd in the league for average opponents kickoff position.
It’s Not All Sunshine and Rainbows
While this list looks great on paper, it still needs to translate into on the field production. In this “what have you done for me lately?” league, nothing will be handed to us and no slack will be cut from the media or football peers until wins appear on the bottom line.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Victory is that much sweeter when everybody counts you out. Remember the 2004 unbeatable Lakers? Pistons fans sure do.
This team still has a few holes to fill and a tough schedule to overcome, but for some reason, for us eternal optimists, this year feels different. It’s more than just that inner child / fan say “hey, it could happen” but something deeper that I can’t quite put my finger on.
The Millen monkey is off our backs and the Lane curse could finally be lifted. And while all of the above points individually may have a small impact, the collective impact that they could make is substantial.
Maybe it’s a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel or maybe it’s just a glimmer of hope on a distant star about to implode into another black hole. Either way, I’ll still continue to look to the future, wishful and eternally thinking that this could be our year.
And no matter how dismal things have appeared in the past, I just remind myself, as I sit and look out that window of the Chicago “L” train on my daily commute to gaze on Wrigley field, that at least we are not the Cubs.