What happens between now and the first regular season game next year could very well determine the fate of the Detroit Lions for the next decade.
To their credit, the Lions have battled bravely against some very good teams this year, and despite ten disappointing losses, they have never given up.
But now it’s all come down to this:
Will the Lions man up and double last season’s win-loss tally, break their NFL record 26 game losing streak on the road, end their string of 19 consecutive division losses, and establish positive momentum going into next year?
Or will they end this season with a whimper?
Reloading During the Off-Season
After this season is over, how the Lions go about reloading their roster via trades, free agent acquisitions and the draft will reveal just how savvy and committed to success the front office really is.
Detroit has solid talent at a handful of positions, but needs serious upgrades at many more in order to take this team to the next level.
But after next year's draft has been concluded, and the trade and free agent signing deadlines have come and gone, the Lions’ destiny will be solely in the hands of head coach Jim Schwartz.
Schwartz has to prove that he’s capable of effectively utilizing every player that ends up on his roster next year. He has to eliminate stupid penalties, improve the team’s blocking and tackling techniques, and execute creative, unpredictable schemes.
Simply put, Schwartz has to win more games than he loses next season in order to give Motor City football fans something they desperately need: confidence that their team has finally climbed out of the cellar for good and will be legitimate playoff contenders more often than not.
No one really expected Schwartz to pull all of that off in 2009, but many fans expected at least four to six wins this year. Unless the Lions salvage the remainder of this season and show significant improvement in 2011, the NFLPA may not go on strike, but large numbers of Detroit fans will.
Rising from the Ashes
Last year, Jim Schwartz was asked to do what no other coach in NFL history has ever done: take a hapless 0-16 franchise and build a winner from its ashes. Fair or not, he has fewer than twenty games now to convince Detroit fans that he can get the job done before they seriously begin clamoring for his head.
Early next year, when the dust from this season has settled, Schwartz would benefit from setting aside some quiet time to think about the lessons football history has to offer and gain a better perspective on the challenges ahead of him.
Rediscovering the Formula for Building a Winning NFL Franchise
Once he has a chance to relax and unwind a little, Schwartz should realize that the formula to create a successful franchise hasn’t fundamentally changed since 1920, when the American Professional Football Association was formed (it was renamed the “NFL” two years later).
Every successful NFL franchise has followed essentially the same recipe. It’s not rocket science and it’s certainly not secret. It has always involved mixing equal parts of talent, technique, motivation and savvy.
Reporter: “Coach, how do you feel about your team's execution?” Tampa Bay Coach John McKay: "I'm all in favor of it."
At its most basic level, football is a game of blocking and tackling. No matter how complex the game has become, and no matter how much stronger and faster athletes are now, if your team blocks and tackles better than the team you're playing, you win.
Good blocking and tackling techniques are taught and reinforced at every level of football, from junior leagues through college. Then they are reinforced again and again throughout the entire season by every team in the NFL.
For sixty minutes once a week, professional football players are expected to use good technique and faithfully execute their assignments on every play. Failure to do so can result in injury to your quarterback, sacks, penalties and missed opportunities to move the chains and score or stop an opposing team from scoring.
Even the best players occasionally miss a block or tackle. But players who blow more than an occasional assignment don’t do so because they haven’t been taught proper technique.
They miss tackles and blocks because they lack the pride, will, discipline and desire to do their jobs. Or they are afraid of injury. Coaches owe it to their team to weed these kinds of players from their rosters as quickly as possible.
The Importance of Depth
Having solid depth behind your starters is important to compensate for the inevitable injuries that every team in the NFL suffers.
But just as importantly, having solid depth also allows a coach to bench players who may be in a slump or aren’t executing their assignments consistently.
The Lions have solid backups at a few positions, most notably on the defensive line.
But Schwartz and Mayhew haven’t had enough time yet to establish solid depth behind the offensive line, or the linebacker corps and secondary, which have been depleted even further due to injuries.
In addition to finding new starters for the roster next year, adding good depth at most positions has to be very high on the Lions' must-do list.
It’s always easier rounding out the roster for a good team that already has quality starters at most positions. But that’s doesn't describe the team that Schwartz inherited. The Lions’ cupboard was pretty bare after the 2008 season.
Last year, Schwartz was forced to serve up Mulligan Stew every Sunday.
This year, he was able to add a little more meat and potatoes into the mix.
Next season, fans will expect a three course meal served up during every game.
Thank you sir, may I have another?
“Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate.” —Vince Lombardi
If he doesn’t realize it already, by the end of this season Jim Schwartz has to understand that anger is a limited motivational tool.
Professional football players, like the rest of us, are driven to excel for a lot of different reasons. Pride, respect, recognition, loyalty, and playing time can also be powerful motivators.
Successful coaches know how to get inside the heads of each individual player on his roster and then bring those individuals together into a highly functioning team.
“Winning” will always be the bottom line, but motivating each player on a personal level to do all the little things right during every single play of every game is how games are won.
If you don’t play with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.
Jim Schwartz doesn’t need to be reminded of the Vince Lombardi paraphrase above.
Per FoxSports.com, only ten players from the Millen era remain on the Lions' current roster. Since their tenure began, Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have replaced 24 starters. Only two players on the entire defense were on the team two years ago.
Schwartz also replaced special teams coach Stan Kwan this year.
Coach Schwartz already understands the importance of upgrading his roster by finding individual players who have talent and indomitable spirits, the kind of men who hate to lose and who are willing to give it all up during every single practice and game.
Those kinds of guys are always out there if you know where to look.
Some, like Corey Williams, Rob Sims and Tony Scheffler (or Peyton Hillis), were at one point on teams that didn’t utilize them effectively for one reason or another. They can be acquired in trades.
Some of these guys the Lions need are about to become free agents.
Like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson before them, many soon-to-be free agents are currently on teams that are replacing them with younger, less expensive players.
Or they may be stuck as a backup for somebody perceived to be either a little better, or paid too much to bench.
And some future Pro Bowl players like Kurt Warner, Willie Parker, Wes Welker, Antonio Gates, James Harrison and Jeff Saturday won’t be drafted at all and can be signed by savvy teams as free agents after the draft.
Savvy is as Savvy Does
Love him or hate him, Bill Belichick has put together the best win record of any active coach in the NFL.
Under Belichick, New England has won nine games or better each season since 2001. He’s been to the Super Bowl four times and won three of them. And he’s the only coach in NFL history to win sixteen regular season games.
Having just trounced the Jets 45-3 and standing atop their division at 10-2, the Patriots have a good shot at getting to the Super Bowl again this year.
So how does a team that has consistently finished at or near the top of the league year after year manage to have two draft picks in each of the first four rounds of next April’s draft?
How do they end up with twelve draft picks overall?
It’s because Belichick has mastered the art of addition by subtraction.
Addition by Subtraction
Almost every year, Belichick trades players, sometimes even NFL stars, for draft picks. He trades guys like Richard Seymour to Oakland, Randy Moss to Minnesota, Laurence Maroney to Denver, and David Thomas to New Orleans.
And because he has developed a keen eye for undervalued talent, he is able to add guys that other teams have discarded, like Danny Woodhead, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Jets in 2008 and waived this year.
Martin Mayhew has already pulled a few “Belichicks” since replacing Matt Millen as Detroit’s GM. Most notably, Mayhew traded Roy Williams to Dallas for the Cowboys’ first, third and sixth round 2009 draft picks.
Mayhew also executed a brilliant three-team trade, sending LB Ernie Sims to the Eagles to acquire TE Tony Scheffler and a seventh round 2010 pick from Denver, which in turn received a fifth round draft pick from the Eagles.
After this season is over, Schwartz and Mayhew will have to decide which players to keep and which players could actually help the Lions more by being traded for other players and draft picks.
Addition by subtraction is how you continually build a stronger roster year after year.
Which Way Will the Lions Tip Next Season?
Twice in their eighty year history, the Lions have gone winless during a season.
The first time was 1942, when Detroit went 0-11. It took two years after that before they managed to record a winning season, and then they slumped pretty badly during the rest of that decade.
That slump ushered in the first glory decade for the Lions. During the 1950's, Detroit played in four league championships and won three of them.
The second time Detroit went winless for an entire season was 2008.
Only in retrospect, and only with a measure of irony, would Lions fans come to view the 1990s as the Lions’ second most successful decade.
Under Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross, the Lions made it to the playoffs six times from 1991 to 1999, but never made it farther than the Conference Championship. After that, the best record Detroit has managed to post so far in this millennia was 7-9 in 2007.
Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew have managed to assemble a remarkably talented roster in a short period of time given where they started from.
However, what they do between this Sunday and next September will determine whether or not 2011 is the beginning of another glory decade for the Lions or ten more years of wandering aimlessly in the desert.
How you would turn the Detroit lambs into Lions by next year?
And if Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew were to read and follow your suggestions, look into your crystal ball and predict Detroit’s 2011 record.