Since the very beginning of the Martin Mayhew/Jim Schwartz era, the entire Detroit Lions organization has focused like a laser on winning as many games as possible on the way to establishing an enduring football dynasty.
Their goal is not to assemble a team merely capable of winning a Super Bowl. It’s to create an organization capable of competing in and winning multiple Super Bowls, and even capturing consecutive Lombardi Trophies.
There will be no desperate attempts to leap through a closing window of opportunity for the Lions, because that would mean sacrificing future successes for the sake of a shot at a single championship.
The Plan is to keep the window of opportunity wide open for a decade or more.
Both Mayhew and Schwartz understand that football dynasties are built and sustained through consecutive good drafts, timely trades (ideally for additional draft picks), and only occasionally supplemented with great-fit-and-value free agent acquisitions.
By adhering to The Plan, the Lions have managed to progress from zero wins in 2008, to two wins in 2009, and six wins in 2010, including four straight wins at the end of last season, one of them against the team that ultimately went on to win the Super Bowl.
From 2009 through today, Detroit has conducted three consecutive good drafts, signed a relatively small number of talented and affordable impact free agents, and made some very solid trades.
The Past is Behind Us
It’s time for Lions fans to finally put the failures of the last fifty years behind us and fully embrace the exciting future that will result from watching Mayhew, Schwartz and their players skillfully execute 'The Plan'.
We fans are no longer a perennial, collective Charlie Brown, and the new Lions aren’t Lucy. This organization is not going to yank the football away from us at the last moment. It’s the real deal.
The NFL has a rich, colorful history, and tons of statistics from which to base comparisons and make predictions.
Most of that history has been painful for Lions fans, and statistically speaking, zero franchises have ever gone from 0-16 to the playoffs in three short years.
However, the future of the NFL officially begins on August 4, 2011 when the first league year under the new, decade-long CBA officially kicks off. The Detroit Lions are poised to write a brand new page in NFL history, and in a good way for a change.
Looking Good on Paper
Pretty much everyone around the league agrees that Detroit now looks like a playoff-caliber team on paper. The question is whether the Lions can win enough games on the field to establish a winning record and get into the playoffs this season.
Sports Illustrated guru Peter King recently speculated that depending on how successful the Lions were during free agency, they were capable of pulling off “a little bit of an upset” and making it to the Super Bowl this year.
King has been wrong before, but he’s no fool, and is not noted for hyperbole.
Well, so far in this year’s abbreviated free agent signing period, Mayhew and Schwartz have acquired or re-acquired three solid linebackers (Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant and Bobby Carpenter).
They have also acquired or re-acquired two promising cornerbacks (Chris Houston and Eric Wright).
These free agent signings have significantly upgraded the Lions’ defensive back seven, both in terms of potential starters and depth.
Carpenter just turned 28 years old. None of the other FAs mentioned above is older than 26. Yet between all of them they have a combined 22 years of NFL experience, a fair chunk of it as starters.
Carpenter was a former first round pick for the Cowboys. Durant, Houston and Wright were all second round draft picks for their original teams.
Tulloch was a fourth round pick who averaged 122 tackles a year as a full-time starter, and racked up a career high 160 tackles last year, making him the second highest-rated tackler in the entire NFL. He's never missed a practice, and never missed a single game.
If you measure free agency success by how much money a team spent acquiring big-name players, Philadelphia, the Jets, and Houston would have to rank at or near the top of that list.
However if you measure free agency success by how well a team did in acquiring solid young players at key positions of need without overpaying, Detroit would be squarely at the top of that much more impressive list.
The Real World
You can run as many stat-based computer simulations you want, but none of those results will ultimately matter. The only way to determine how well the Lions will actually perform is on the field of battle.
As always, real-world success will be determined by how well the best guys we can put on the field each week have prepared and perform against our opponent’s best guys, with unpredictable injuries, questionable calls, and bad bounces typically contributing to the outcome of every contest.
Lions fans have every reason to believe that the momentum Detroit established during last four games of 2010 will carry over and be sustained throughout 2011. Detroit demonstrated real grit during the entire season, especially down the stretch.
After their latest draft and most recent batch of free agent signings, the Lions have much more talent and depth on both sides of the ball than they did last year. Additionally, most of the players injured last season are now healthy again.
There’s a very good chance that the Lions will look as good on the field on game day as they do now on paper. If so, it’s entirely possible that even in a tough division, the Lions can capture the NFC North crown, or failing that, gain entry to the playoffs by earning a Wild Card slot.
No other NFC Wild Card contender has demonstrably more talent, better balance on both sides of the ball, or is better coached than the Lions.
None of them even remotely comes close to having a better D-line rotation. And none have players with more heart or a greater desire and commitment to win than Detroit does.
A Brief Fly-Over of the 2011 NFL Landscape
Some of the older, established football dynasties are aging and beginning to weaken. Peyton Manning is 35 years old. Tom Brady is 33. While it would be foolish not to believe that either the Colts or Patriots could mount another serious Super Bowl run this season, neither team looks quite as formidable as they have during the last decade.
That being said, it’s always a mistake to underestimate a team coached by Bill Belichick, who is a genius at accumulating additional draft picks every year.
Among current NFL dynasties, the Steelers—one of the most stable and successful franchises in modern NFL history—are probably in the best position to continue their reign.
Ben Roethlisberger is 29 years old, and the Pittsburgh franchise has always excelled at drafting promising young players and preparing them to step up and perform when needed.
The Saints have a talented young head coach who managed to win Super Bowl XLIV and give the city of New Orleans a much-need boost in morale.
However, the Saints regular season slump at the end of last year and disappointing first round playoff loss to Seattle last season raises legitimate questions about the organization’s ability to build a true dynasty.
Drew Brees is 32 years old. During the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, New Orleans has gone 10/6, 7-9, 8-8, 13-3, and 11-5. The Saints play in a division with two very tough, up-and-coming teams, Atlanta (13-3 last season) and Tampa (10-6 in 2010).
This coming season will largely determine whether New Orleans will remain a dominant team or become a one-and-done Super Bowl champ à la Baltimore circa 2000.
Meanwhile, a handful of “almost there” teams have been steadily positioning themselves for a run at the throne during this new decade. This list includes the Jets, Falcons, Ravens, Texans, Cowboys, Chargers, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Giants, and the “all-in, dream-team” Eagles.
Of the NFC teams on the list above, it’s likely that either the Jets, Giants or Dallas will win the NFC East. It’s also likely that either the Falcons, Buccaneers or Saints will win the NFC South. It’s unlikely that any team from the NFC West will compete for a Wild Card slot in 2011.
Lions Playoff Scenarios
This year the Lions are fortunate to play one game against each hopeful team in the NFC South (Tampa and New Orleans on the road, Atlanta at home).
Beating some of these teams would give Detroit an advantage under the rules governing Wild Card team selection, thus substantially improving their opportunity to enter the playoffs as an NFC Wild Card team.
Detroit also plays Dallas on the road (again) this year, providing yet another opportunity to reduce competition for one of the two NFC Wild Card slots.
In all probability, if the Lions don’t win the NFC North title (they actually have the talent to do so this year), they will probably have to rack-up a 10-6 season, with at least a couple of those wins coming against either Atlanta, Tampa, New Orleans, or Dallas in order to enter the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
Last season the Lions lost to the Cowboys on the road during Week 11 (35-19) and bounced Tampa out of the playoffs by beating them on the road during Week 15 (23-20).
Getting into the playoffs this year will be no cake-walk for the Lions, but it is definitely do-able with the additional talent Detroit has added to its roster.
Belief and Trust
It’s not easy for long-suffering Detroit Lions fans to allow themselves to believe that their franchise has finally turned itself around. However, Mayhew and Schwartz have earned the benefit of doubt.
History had demonstrated time and again that The Plan works. Mayhew and Schwartz didn’t invent it, but they deserve credit for understanding its power, and skillfully implementing and executing it in the Motor City.
They deserve even more praise for sticking with The Plan despite the tremendous pressure generated by short-sighted fans to sign enormously expensive, often past-their-prime, big name free agent prima donnas.
Dynasties aren’t built overnight, but by definition, they last longer than a single season.
During the last decade or so, the Rams, Ravens, Buccaneers, Colts, Giants, and Saints have each won a Super Bowl, but because of the hit-or-miss manner in which they assembled their teams, they have yet to repeat that feat.
In that same span of time, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and the Steelers have won two.
For the last four years, Green Bay’s Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have almost exclusively relied on the draft to build the team that won the Super Bowl last year, and is likely to win at least one more Lombardi Trophy during this decade.
Detroit fans would be delighted to win a Super Bowl, and it will come now, sooner, rather than later. But after a fifty-year drought, Lions fans deserve better. They deserve a dynasty, and Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew are well into in the process of building one in Detroit.
They trust The Plan, and Lions fans should trust them and enjoy the ride.