The Detroit Lions' 2011 season may well mark one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history. Only one other NFL team has ever gone from zero wins to the playoffs in three short years. Yet, the Lions are poised to do just that.
In its first season as an NFL expansion team, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14. By 1979, Tampa had won the NFC Central title and beat the Wild Card Eagles in a Divisional Playoff game. Twenty-two years later, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
That's not bad, except for the 22-year lag in finally winning the Super Bowl. It won’t take the Lions anywhere near that long to go from qualifying for the playoffs to winning their first Super Bowl.
Detroit is the only team in NFL history to go 0-16 during a regular season. Unlike Tampa Bay, the 2008 Lions were not an expansion team. It actually took years for the team to get that bad.
Unlike the fledgling Bucs, the Lions did not enjoy the benefits of a special draft that allowed them to claim 39 players from other NFL teams to kickstart their roster.
In 2009, the Lions had to start its rebuilding effort from scratch.
Detroit began its reconstruction project by promoting Martin Mayhew to general manager. Mayhew then hired Jim Schwartz as head coach and Shack Harris as senior personnel director.
This trio quickly identified and signed roster upgrades via trades, free agency, the annual draft and the waiver wire, adding over 20 quality players to their starting lineup in two short years, either as full-time starters or as replacements for injured starters.
In 2010 alone, the Lions added over 25 new players to its roster.
With only five picks in the 2011 draft, it looks like the Lions found three additional rookie starters at impact positions in the first two rounds.
Qualifying for the Playoffs
In 2002, the NFL reorganized itself into two conferences of 16 teams, with each conference composed of four divisions of four teams each. Each conference sends six teams to the playoffs: the winners of its four divisions, plus two conference Wild Card teams.
In the event teams finish with identical win-loss records, a formula is used to determine which teams qualify for the playoffs, or to determine playoff seeding.
From 2002 on, 15 teams have qualified for the playoffs with 9-7, 8-8 or 7-9 records, either as division winners or Wild Card teams. Three Wild Card teams during this period went on to win Super Bowls (Steelers, Giants and Packers).
Conversely, during this same period of time, four teams with 10-6 records and one team with an 11-5 record failed to make the playoffs.
Theoretically, if the 6-10 Lions win three more games than they did last year, they have a shot at a Wild Card slot.
If they go 10-6, Detroit is not out of the running for the NFC North crown either. Last year, the Lions played the Super Bowl-winning Packers very tough, losing their first matchup by two points (28-26) and winning the second matchup by four points (7-3) with stout defense.
Two Things Teams Can’t Do to Improve Playoff Prospects
1) A team can’t change the conference or division it plays in.
Beginning with the Jan. 26, 2003, Super Bowl, five AFC and four NFC conference teams have won the Lombardi Trophy. That’s a pretty even conference mix.
However, two of those Super Bowls wins went to New England (AFC East), two went to Pittsburgh (AFC North) and two went to teams from the NFC South (Tampa Bay and New Orleans). The Colts (AFC South), Giants (NFC East) and Packers (NFC North) won the other Super Bowls during this period.
It stands to reason that if your team competes in a division against other teams that consistently compile double-digit season win records, your strength-of-schedule challenge will be more difficult.
2) A team can’t dictate its season schedule.
Since 2002, a team’s NFL schedule has been determined in the following manner:
-Each team plays the other three teams in their division twice: once at home and once on the road (six games).
-Each team plays the four teams from another division within its own conference once on a rotating three-year cycle: two at home and two on the road (four games).
-Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference once on a rotating four-year cycle: two at home and two on the road (four games).
-Each team plays two intra-conference games based on the prior year's standings. For example, the first-place team in a division will play against the first-place team from another division within the same conference. The second-place team in a division will play against the second-place team from another division within the same conference, and so on.
To some extent, a team’s odds for success in making the playoffs in a given year are affected by a cyclical luck-of-the draw factor.
Last year, for example, NFC North teams played their four non-conference game against teams from the AFC East, traditionally a tough division. This meant that the 2-14 Lions played games against two 2009 AFC East playoff teams, the Patriots and Jets.
This year, NFC North teams will play their four non-conference games against teams from the AFC West, a division that sent only one team to the playoffs last year. By contrast, in 2010, AFC East teams compiled a combined record of 36-28, while the AFC West collectively went 31-33.
On the other hand, this year, Detroit will play four games against two division rivals that made it deep into the playoffs last year, one of them making it all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
Four Things Teams Can Do to Improve Playoff Prospects
1) Continually upgrade their rosters with young, talented players through consecutive, successful drafts, especially at impact positions. Utilize free agency, trades and waiver wire acquisitions to fill positions of need. Avoid players with character issues.
As mentioned earlier in this article, this is exactly what the Lions have done. Mayhew and Schwartz just completed their third consecutive successful draft.
They have also selectively added free agents when it makes sense like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Nate Burleson, Bobby Carpenter, Corey Hilliard (from Cleveland’s practice squad) and undrafted free agent Randy Phillips.
They made trades for guys like Shaun Hill, Rob Sims, Tony Scheffler, Corey Williams, Lawrence Jackson and Chris Houston, and they also acquired players like Turk McBride, Ashlee Palmer, Stefan Logan and Isaiha Ekejiuba via the waiver wire.
With the most recent draft, the Lions are now fully loaded at all of the “flash-bang” offensive skill positions and have created a D-line rotation that will give quarterbacks nightmares all season long.
As it stands today, the Lions are built to score often, control the pace of the game in the fourth quarter and deny opposing QBs time to go deep, and when they do try to stretch the field, it will be against seven-man coverage more often than not.
2) Maintain continuity whenever possible.
Continuity allows players to adapt to each other. It reduces the learning curve, especially for young players, and it boosts the benefits of prior experience. It allows teams to build on established schemes when installing new plays.
2011 will be the third consecutive year the Lions’ coaching staff has remained intact, with the single exception of replacing special teams coordinator Stan Kwan with Danny Crossman last season.
Detroit will also go into this season with a solid core of seasoned O-linemen who performed much better last year than many fans gave them credit for and will be even better this year with a healthy Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus.
3) Add depth and flexibility.
Every team in the NFL will experience injuries to its starting players. The ability of a team to compensate for those inevitable injuries will have a big impact on the success of any given season.
For example, last year, the Lions won games with QBs Matt Stafford, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton. On the other hand, Detroit’s running game suffered because of nagging injuries to RB Jahvid Best, RG Peterman and RT Cherilus.
This year, the Lions “drafted to strength,” which meant they drafted players at positions they were already relatively strong at with their first three picks. This added significant depth to their defensive tackle, wide receiver and running back units.
Additionally, Schwartz made it clear that in most cases, a player’s ability to contribute at multiple positions is a key factor in making the Lions’ 53-man roster.
For example, players who can play both guard or tackle, middle or outside linebacker, either of the cornerback or safety positions or can contribute to special teams play have an advantage in making the final roster.
This philosophy has added to the Lions depth and improved Detroit’s special teams performance, resulting in better field position.
4) Build on momentum.
Last season, the Lions defied most analysts’ predictions by winning their last four games. They also ended their lengthy divisional and road game win droughts.
Although the current labor dispute is not helpful to the Lions’ effort to build on last season’s momentum, Detroit is in better shape than a lot of other teams in dealing with this situation.
The Lions had a very good draft this year, maintaining their coaching staff and scheme continuity and having very good turnout at player-organized workouts.
Starting out this season well would build on last year’s momentum and significantly boost player and fan confidence in a big way.
The Lions will open on the road against Tampa this year, then host Kansas at Ford Field and travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings. All of these games are winnable for Detroit. The Lions got a come-from-behind win at Tampa late last season, and Detroit matches up well against the Chiefs and Vikings.
The Lions Measured Against Playoff Checklist
The Lions organization has done everything possible—under the circumstances—to improve their odds of getting into the playoffs this year. They have:
-Continuously upgraded their roster, most recently through a draft that received high marks from analysts across the board.
-Maintained continuity during a period of labor uncertainty that has placed a premium on the value of continuity.
-Steadily improved their roster depth and player flexibility quotient.
-Established momentum with a four-game win streak at the end of last season.
No one can accurately predict how a season will play out. Win-loss records and playoff prospects are sometimes determined by unpredictable injuries, touchdown catches that are first called but then overturned at the end of close games, good or bad bounces and ill-timed penalties or missed assignments.
Getting to the playoffs requires a lot of preparation, hard work and determination, as well as a little bit of luck.
Schwartz and Mayhew checked off every item on the list of things they can control in order to position the Lions for the playoffs in 2011. All that’s missing so far is a little luck, and 53 years after our last NFL championship, they're due.