Super Bowl preview perhaps?
Since Martin Mayhew took control of the Detroit Lions midway through the 2008 season—the lowest point in Lions history—a plan has been implemented that brings us to the brink of the 2011 NFL regular season.
Following a preseason where the Lions finished 4-0 and looked once again like preseason champs, it is only inevitable that they are drawing comparisons to that 2008 squad that was so devoid of talent.
However, as the eternal optimist, I propose that instead of being compared to that 2008 team, we should look back to 1993, when the Lions finished 4-0 in the preseason and went on to win their division with a 10-6 record.
Following are seven reasons as to why the 2011 Detroit Lions are much more like that 1993 team than the dearth of talent that was 2008.
For the first time in years, Detroit’s entire defense looks good on paper. Sure, paper and games are very different, but it’s tough to find anyone who is a glaring weakness on this year's starting defense.
Before last season, you wouldn’t be able to say that about any position on defense, let alone the entire unit. Even when the defensive line was overhauled last year and guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams and Ndamukong Suh were brought in, the rest of the defense was either sorely lacking (for lack of a better phrase) or nursing injuries.
By bringing back a guy like Chris Houston, who made the most of his opportunity in Detroit last season, and pairing him with Eric Wright, who, besides struggling at times last season, has been solid to say the least, the Lions solidified both CB spots on defense without breaking the bank. This allowed them to sign Stephen Tulloch, who was arguably the best free-agent linebacker on the market in addition to being familiar with the Lions’ defensive scheme, and Justin Durant. This not only solved Detroit’s run defense woes, but allows DeAndre Levy to play on the outside where he will cover the likes of Matt Forte and reduce the likelihood of screen passes going the distance.
In addition to these moves made in free agency, the emergence this preseason of Amari Spievey removes any doubts that there may have been at the safety position. After reporting to training camp out of shape, unprepared and struggling at corner (the position that Spievey was drafted at out of Iowa in the third round in 2010) out of the gate, Spievey was converted to safety. The position fit Spievey’s skill set, but he didn’t have time to get comfortable with the position before being forced into action last season.
With a new attitude and a sense of comfort that was unknown last year Spievey, by all reports, has embraced his new position and is playing with the speed and precision required of a defensive back in the NFL.
Not only have the Lions upgraded their starting defense, but positions across the roster have loads of depth behind them. Point of reference: The defensive line is so stacked that a player the Lions had to let walk due to lack of space on the roster, Turk McBride, will be starting for the New Orleans Saints tonight when they face the Green Bay Packers.
Gone are the days of players like Chuck Darby starting, let alone making the 53-man roster, for the Detroit Lions. Looking at guys like Bobby Carpenter, Tony Scheffler, Shaun Hill and Alphonso Smith and realizing they could start for a majority of teams is a quick reminder that this is not the “same ol’ Lions.”
Yeah, it's been awhile.
The last time the Detroit Lions had the same coaching staff in place for more than two seasons was the short-lived Bobby Ross era. Those were the days, from 1997 all the way to Week 9 of the 2000 season.
Talk about continuity. I kid, I kid.
Part of implementing a winning plan means having coaches, systems and players in place in place for more than one season. With another year under their belts, players will be able to act instead of think when they are on the field, which can be the difference between a goal-line stop and six points.
Not only does the continuity help old players, it also allows new players to learn from their teammates in addition to the coaching staff. Guys like Jeff Backus, Calvin Johnson, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Louis Delmas can get guys up to speed just as much, if not easier, than the coaching staff can.
Is it a catch?
After finishing 6-10 last season, many analysts and fans alike are crying foul when the Lions are linked with a playoff appearance this season. The response to this is that last year's 6-10 could have easily been 12-4.
Six of the Lions’ 10 losses last season were by five points or fewer. That’s right, one more score in each of those games and the Lions would have won the NFC North.
“But,” you say, “that’s a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda.” True, but what was so close and yet so far away gets a lot closer this year when Matthew Stafford is inserted into those type of games instead of Shaun Hill or Drew Stanton.
With an arm like a cannon, the accuracy of a sniper and all the intangibles you could ask for in a quarterback and leader of your franchise, Matthew Stafford has shown he has the ability to lead the Lions to greatness. But after missing more games during his first two seasons in the NFL than he has played, Stafford must remain healthy for the entire season for any hype surrounding the Lions to become reality.
By making a visit to Dr. James Andrews (hopefully for the last time) following the end of last season to have surgery on his injured right shoulder, Stafford put himself in a position to leave his injuries in the past. Throughout college he showed he could take a hit and get right back up there is no reason to assume that Stafford is “injury prone.”
What more resembles the truth is that he took some pretty big hits and landed the worst possible way that he could. When he injured his shoulder the first time, surgery should have been performed then to help prevent a future occurrence, à la Sam Bradford. It was not, and the rest, as they say, is history and Stafford was knocked out in Week 1 of the following season.
While this was in no stretch of the imagination a good thing, it wasn’t entirely a bad thing either. While injured, Stafford didn’t just sulk on the sidelines. He sat in the coach's box and got to view the game from a new perspective. He got to watch the game next to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and learn the offense from both a player and coach’s perspective. If this preseason has been any indicator, Stafford has complete control over the offense and is capable of running the no-huddle as well as anyone in the business.
A graduate of Belichick’s School for Coaches, Jim Schwartz has brought with him a sense of professionalism and focus that hasn’t been seen in Motown for a long time.
A top-notch evaluator of talent from his days as a scout, with the mantra of revolving the scheme around the players, Schwartz gets the most out of his players and doesn’t try to force anything.
A key thing to note about Schwartz is that he has not always been perfect when it comes to coaching decisions on Sundays. However, with every mistake he has made, it has been just that: a mistake. Balancing the right amount of ego and humility, Schwartz has been able to learn from mistakes and not repeat his past failures.
Prior to last year's four-game winning streak to end the season, Schwartz’s team was 2-10. After a dismal season, many teams would have packed it in early and written off the remaining games. But Schwartz kept his guys motivated and got them to keep fighting, for themselves and for the fans.
Add to this the talented coaching staff Schwartz has surrounded himself with (two former head coaches, Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham) and you have a coach who doesn’t have to resort to micromanaging and can focus on the team as a whole.
It’s also pretty cool that he gets ready for games by listening to bands like Judas Priest.
Everything starts and ends with Martin Mayhew. From the moment Matt Millen was fired and he took over as interim GM, to taking over as the permanent GM following the 2008 season, and up to now, Mayhew has done nothing but upgrade the Detroit Lions. From hiring Jim Schwartz to restocking a team that was devoid of talent, Mayhew has made a complete demolition seem like a weekend remodel.
As a member of Millen’s staff, many questioned the permanent hiring of Mayhew initially, me being one of them. But what Martin Mayhew has shown is that working under Millen was the best opportunity that an aspiring GM could ask for as he learned what not to do.
Utilizing the draft to pick the best players available as opposed to reaching for need, Mayhew has quickly built a roster full of very young and very talented players. Always searching for ways to upgrade the roster, Mayhew has also had a lot of success via free agency and trades. Major contributors like Corey Williams, Alphonso Smith, Chris Houston, Shaun Hill, Rob Sims, Tony Scheffler and Lawrence Jackson have been acquired for next to nothing. By targeting players who are in unfavorable situations and who have the potential to flourish in the Lions’ system, Mayhew avoids overpaying for “shiny” players.
It is because of Mayhew’s genius and his ability to stick to his initial plan with unwavering certainty that the Lions are in position to be a playoff team this season.
Mark it down, place your bets, take it to the bank: The Detroit Lions will be in the playoffs this season, just like those 1993 preseason champs were.