The bottom line benchmark for success in the NFL will always be a team’s win-loss record. Record books are written in black, not shades of grey.
Each team in the league has the same opportunities to succeed and the same obstacles to overcome as they compile their records.
Every team at times has suffered from injuries, poor officiating, questionable coaching decisions, player blunders and just plain bad bounces.
Even though the NFL has acknowledged officiating mistakes over the years, the league has never retroactively changed the final score of any game, and it never will.
The final score posted at the end of a game is what it is, regardless of circumstances.
So why bother talking about whether a team is better than its record indicates?
The answer is because if you’re interested in evaluating the future prospects of your favorite team and its rivals, it sometimes helps to look beyond the win-loss columns and into the grey area above the bottom line.
When a team actually is better than its record, the NFL inadvertently provides a sort of consolation prize: that team is awarded a draft selection slot that is higher than would otherwise be the case if it had won more games.
A strong case can be made that the 2010 Lions were a much better team than their record indicates. Because of this, Detroit will have an unusual opportunity next season to accelerate its talent acquisition program at a faster pace than if it had won three more close games instead of losing them.
How the Lions Found the Sweet Spot in the 2011 Draft
Detroit finished 6-10 in 2010. Seven of Detroit’s 10 losses were by eight points or less. Six of those losses were by five points or fewer, and four were by three points or less.
The Lions played some very good teams this year.
Among the teams that beat Detroit were the 14-2 Patriots, the 11-5 Jets, the 11-5 Bears, the 10-6 Eagles, the 10-6 Packers, and the 10-6 Giants. Five of those teams made it to the playoffs and three have made it to the Conference Finals. At least one of these three teams will play in the upcoming Super Bowl, maybe even two.
The Lions also beat a couple of teams with winning records. Detroit beat the Packers the second time around (and were the only team during the regular season to keep Green Bay from scoring at least one touchdown in a game all season), and they beat the 10-6 Buccaneers in Tampa.
In the process of finishing strong at the end of the 2010 season when many other teams would have already given up, the Lions not only broke their 26 road-game losing streak and their 19 game slump against division rivals, they also strung together four consecutive wins for the first time since 1999.
In doing so Detroit may have also found the sweet spot in the draft.
By earning the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Detroit picks high enough to snag a premier college player if they want, or high enough to be an attractive trade-down-for-more-picks partner.
During the last 10 years, the list of players drafted 13th include Brian Orakpo (Redskins), Jonathon Stewart (Panthers), Adam Carriker (now with the Redskins), Jamal Brown (Saints) and Ty Warren (Patriots).
However the Lions use their draft slots, their record of accomplishment—both above and below the bottom line—demonstrates that they will be building on a solid foundation of proven talent.
The Odds Favor the Lions
Under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew, the Detroit NFL franchise has turned itself around in a remarkably short time. By starting with a franchise that went 0-16 and taking it to 6-10 in two years, both men have shown that they know how to build a team.
Detroit is moving beyond the phase when, desperate for talent at almost every position, the team focused exclusively on drafting the best players available in the draft regardless of position.
The BPA philosophy explains why the Lions drafted Matt Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Jahvid Best, Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy, Amari Spievey, Sammie Lee Hill and Jason Fox.
During 2010, Detroit established a solid base of talent and its roster needs have now narrowed somewhat. However, the Lions still need to address their conspicuous weaknesses at linebacker and cornerback.
The team also has to improve their depth on both sides of the ball and prepare for the day when it will want to replace aging veterans, especially on the offensive line.
The Lions’ draft strategy will be driven to an extent by pre-draft acquisitions, assuming there isn’t a lockout or a strike. All things considered, this may be the ideal time for Detroit to target specific needs and to trade down to accumulate more picks.
Despite the success of both Green Bay and Chicago this season, odds are that one of those two NFC North teams will not return to the playoffs next season. After a long and feckless decade, the Lions window of opportunity is finally beginning to open.
The Past is Not Always Prologue to the Future in the NFL
Since 2002 when the NFL reorganized its two conferences into four divisions of four teams each and kept its 12-team playoff format, on average six of the teams that made it to the postseason in any given year failed to return the following year.
This healthy playoff-team turnover is primarily the result of the NFL’s multi-pronged effort to generate parity through its college draft award system, the utilization of a salary cap and its yearly scheduling formula.
There are secondary reasons as well.
Injuries are common in the NFL and they often take a toll on the overall performance of teams throughout the season.
The NFL front office can’t prevent a franchise from bungling its way into the basement of the league and dwelling there for years. It can’t force a senile owner to sell a team or fire an inept GM.
Some organizations are much, much better at scouting and acquiring talent than others. Detroiters are keenly aware of what happens when an owner hires a hapless general manager and then fails to recognize and correct that mistake for years.
Some coaches are far better at developing, motivating and utilizing players than others. A few are given too much organizational power, while some are given too little.
Poor hiring and firing decisions are common in the league. At last count, there will be at least seven new head coaches going into next season, and there could end up being as many as a dozen.
Numerous other coaching staff changes at the coordinator level and below have already occurred and will continue.
When you contrast the many obstacles that a team must overcome to be a consistent winner in the NFL with the minimal opportunities that the league itself provides to excel, it's easy to see why teams that consistently make it to the playoffs are the exception rather than the rule.
Windows of Opportunity
On occasion, desperate teams that believe they are close to making a Super Bowl run have mortgaged their futures in an attempt to jump through what they view as a closing window of opportunity to try to win a championship.
These tend to be teams that have failed to consistently draft well and develop solid depth behind aging or ailing starters. Finding themselves in this situation, these franchises succumb to the temptation to trade future draft picks and/or break the bank in order to acquire players they think can help them win today.
Washington, Dallas and Minnesota are the most recent examples of organizations that have unsuccessfully attempted the “win-today-at-any-cost” gambit.
By comparison, solid franchises always make sure their window of opportunity stays wide open. Teams in this category include New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
It’s important not to confuse routine, non-draft supplemental team building with foolhardy talent grabs.
Lots of successful NFL franchises benefit from the selective addition of experienced free agents at positions of need, and many have been successful in executing trades involving quality players who, for one reason or another, are no longer good fits in their prior organizations.
In Detroit, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Rob Sims, Cory Williams and Nate Burleson were acquired in this manner.
However, over time, nothing consistently strengthens a team’s roster more effectively than a series of successive good drafts. The draft remains the time-tested gold standard for building football dynasties.
The Secret to Success In the NFL
Over time, the most successful NFL franchises have had supportive owners, competent GMs, good scouting organizations and stable coaching staffs that consistently and effectively utilize every player on their roster.
A short list of teams that have met these criteria over the last five decades would include the Patriots, Steelers, 49ers, Dolphins and Cowboys.
Each of these franchises has one other characteristic in common—their dynasties were largely built and sustained via the draft. They are or were adept at identifying and adding quality value-pick players that were good fits for their organizations.
These teams have all excelled at developing young players and preparing them to compete at a high level largely on the team’s own timetable. They accomplished this despite the fact that because of their winning records, they were typically assigned late draft picks year after year.
The New England Patriots are perhaps the best case study of how good organizations reload every season through the draft. For more insight into how head coach Bill Belichick manages to pull this feat off, follow the link below and scroll down a bit.
The Flaw In the System
In any given year, NFL teams are assigned draft picks in reverse order of their success during the previous season. The worst team gets the first pick and so on down the line. This seems like a fair system, and in theory it is.
The problem is that the first player selected in the draft expects to get paid more money than the player selected after him and so on down the line. Partly because of the power of player agents in the NFL, rookie draft picks expect to get paid more money than the player selected at their spot in the prior draft.
So while the worst teams theoretically get a shot at the best players in the draft, the existence of an NFL salary cap combined with the absence of a rookie salary cap ultimately limits a team’s financial ability to add quality players (especially free agents) and turn itself around.
That’s one of the reasons why team owners want to institute a rookie salary cap, and why under the right circumstances, veteran players would support the idea.
It’s simply wrong to pay a rookie who has never played a down in the NFL more money than guys at the same position who year after year have demonstrated their worth on the field of battle. This flaw in the draft system hurts the game.
Teams that end up with the worst record in any given year usually have problems that even the first pick in each of the seven rounds of a single draft can’t solve even if that team is wise enough to draft well.
In the NFL, perennial cellar dwellers are generally franchises that have exercised poor judgment over several consecutive seasons. They tend to either have inept GMs, poor scouting departments, ineffective head coaches or some combination of each.
Absent good organizational judgment, talent acquisition becomes a hit-or-miss proposition, with the odds of success less than that of a coin toss.
Finding Franchise Players Involves As Much Intuition As Science
It’s often true that the very best players coming out of college will end up being selected in the first 10 or 15 picks of the draft. But it’s also true that a fair number of top draft picks turn out to be busts.
Lions fans are all too familiar with draft busts. Charles Rogers, Andre Ware, Joey Harrington and Mike Williams were all early first-round Lions draft disappointments. However, Detroit is far from the only franchise to waste a top pick on expensive, highly scouted/highly touted studs that turned out to be duds.
Even a partially comprehensive list of early draft pick busts would easily exceed a dozen players in the last decade alone, some of whom are no longer even in the NFL.
Sadly, even if a bad team with a very high draft pick manages to select a franchise player, lots of those guys are doomed to become the best players on an otherwise talent-challenged franchise that is at best years from playoff contention.
Barry Sanders isn’t the only player in the Hall of Fame who never played in a Super Bowl. There are well over 50 other guys in the HOF that never made it to an NFL championship game.
It’s also true that lots of perennial NFL Pro Bowl players and Super Bowl champions were late round draft selections or were signed as undrafted free agents.
Tom Brady and Terrell Davis were sixth-round draft picks, and Shannon Sharpe was selected in the seventh round. Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Antonio Gates and John Randle—who have 26 Pro Bowl appearances between them—were never drafted at all.
Despite all of the college game tape reviews, exhaustive scouting reports, combine tests, college pro days, team pre-draft visits and endless analysis by professional and amateur pundits, some very talented, highly motivated people always fall through the cracks.
A player’s ability to excel in the NFL often depends on intangibles that can’t be easily measured. No amount of science in the world can replace the seasoned judgment of someone with an eye for talent who has the wisdom to look beyond the obvious.
Prognosis For the Lions in 2011
By maintaining continuity at the most critical coaching and administrative positions in the organization the Lions will have an advantage going into next season.
After guiding the Lions through successful back-to-back drafts, there is no reason to believe that general manager Martin Mayhew won’t make it three in a row.
Detroit’s scouting staff, led by James “Shack” Harris, will continue to do a fine job of identifying value picks that are good fits for the team.
Head coach Jim Schwartz has earned the respect of his players and Detroit fans by improving the Lions' record from 2-14 in his first season to 6-10 in his second year.
This is an especially impressive accomplishment when you remember he inherited a team that went 0-16 the year before he took over.
Schwartz’s Lions simply never give up, and as the season progressed, he demonstrated how he has taught the team to turn close losses into wins.
Detroit will also enjoy continuity at the offensive and defensive coordinator positions.
Scott Linehan created offensive schemes that won games with three different quarterbacks and a patchwork running back squad that racked up more combined yardage in the last six games of the season than it did in the first 10.
Gunther Cunningham ran a defense that gave up 23.1 points per game this season, down from a league-worst 30.9 points last year, and he did it with a highly improvised linebacking corps and secondary.
With an entire offseason to get injured players healthy and acquire additional talent, the Lions will finally be in a position to make a run at the playoffs for the first time since 1999 when they entered the postseason as a Wild Card team.
This coming year, Lions fans will be able to point with pride to their team’s long-awaited resurgence written in black in the record book. They will no longer have to spend as much time looking in the grey area above the bottom line to find reasons for hope.