To All my Sad Captains: My 2014 Detroit Lions Preview

Getty Images North America

Getty Images North America

If, like me, you’ve spent the better part of your life, rooting for a sports team, you realize just how fleeting success can be; especially if you’re a Lions fan. For as long as I can remember, Sunday afternoons in the fall have been riddled with disappointment, mixed with shame and a little angst. At this point, the very sight of the Honolulu Blue and Silver on my TV elicits a certain Pavlovian emotion of anxiety. Of course this begs the question why anyone would choose to root for a team that brings about such grief. My answer is simple, I love football, I love the NFL, and I can’t bring myself to quit the Lions. Besides, misery loves company, and in that regard I have plenty of both as a Lions fan. To put it another way, I look at Sunday NFL football this way:

“Another sunrise with my sad captains, with who I choose to lose my mind . . . and if it’s all we only pass this way but once, what a perfect waste of time . . .”

I’m not sure if any lyric could better epitomize just how soul-crushing it is to be a Lions fan.* Most years, spending 3-4 hours watching the Lions is a waste of time. Not just because they lose, but because of how they lose. To make things worse, they seem to be one of those teams that certain members of the sports-industrial complex have designated as a sleeper team this year. Such notions will only make this season’s inevitable descent into mediocrity that much more unbearable. A little salty you say? Sure, but my pessimism is borne out of a lifetime of disappointment as a Lions fan. A little hyperbolic you say? No, not really. Last season the Lions famously controlled their own destiny in the NFC North compiling a 6-3 record. With Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler missing significant time due to injury at the same time, a playoff berth seemed inevitable. Wrong. The Lions went on to lose 6 of their last 7; ultimately costing head coach Jim Schwartz his job.

Very little that I’ve seen or heard since then leads me to think this season will be different. To be sure, the Lions have brought in some offensive brainpower with the trio of head coach Jim Caldwell, quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Additionally, the Lions have added more offensive weapons by drafting tight end Eric Ebron 10th overall in this year’s draft, and signing free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate. However, they’ve done very little to address the defense, particularly in the back end, which is both thin and short on talent. Indeed, Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell points out the following:

Detroit benched each of its top four corners at different points last season, and it has brought three of them back. The Lions are actually going to start Rashean Mathis this year. Rashean Mathis! In 2014! On purpose!

Leading up to, and after May’s draft, Lions GM Martin Mayhew seemed to suggest that the defense wasn’t in as much trouble as some thought. Yet, as of this writing, the Lions are trying out 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback/Methuselah Impersonator Champ Bailey. Given that fact, it’s hard to imagine the Lions are honestly feeling secure with second year corner Darius Slay on one side and the 34-year old Rashean Mathis on the other.

Look, it’s not all bad. The front seven is in excellent hands with Ndamukong Suh up front and second year guy Ziggy Ansah coming off the edge. On offense, there are some obvious bright spots with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford. But looking at the schedule, no matter how many ways I try, I just can’t see more than 8 wins. So there it is, a prediction; the Lions will go 8-8.

Wins: Giants, Jets, Bills, Vikings (twice), Dolphins, Bears, Bucs

Losses: Panthers, Packers (twice), Saints, Falcons, Cardinals, Pats, and the Bears (away)

Best Case Scenario: We steal one game each from the Pack and the Saints, and then find the Bears without Cutler at the end of the season to go 11-5.

*Originally I had the lyrics from this wonderful Elbow song dedicated to my 2014 Michigan Football preview, but I couldn’t get that done before last Saturday. Needless to say, I had some long weekends last fall.

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“Millenesque” you say?

matt-millen-apI was none too pleased with my beloved Detroit Lions’ haul from this past weekend’s draft. But I’m not here to tell you whether any of the players that the Lions drafted will be solid contributors. After all, the draft is more art than science, as two well thought out articles released this past week made clear (see Vox.com and 538.com). Instead, I’m here to lay bare the ways in which the Lions continue to outthink themselves during the draft. Generally speaking, General Manager Martin Mayhew’s approach to player acquisition is deeply flawed. Indeed, Mayhew’s draft strategy is cognitively dissonant, incoherent, but worst of all brash. Strong words you say? Well let’s get started with Mayhew’s own words, as they illuminate the Lions’ player acquisition issues.

“I would say this. Our defense, we were right in the middle of the pack last year in points allowed; we were 15th. Our offense was 13th in points scored . . . there’s this perception that there’s this huge gap between our offense and our defense . . .”

A quote like this should give, even the most casual observer some pause. These few words uttered by Mayhew lead me to one astonishing conclusion: Mayhew can’t turn the Lions into a championship team because he doesn’t understand the team’s problems. At first I just dismissed Mayhew’s comments out of hand. Having watched the Lions religiously for as long as I can remember, this sentiment by Mayhew seemed to betray what I had observed watching Lions games these last few years. But the lawyer in me wanted to be fair, so I delved into the numbers, and as expected my hunch was spot on.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

Mayhew’s view on how the two main units of the team compare is divorced from reality. Don’t get me wrong, the defense is not horrible. Defensive tackle and franchise cornerstone Ndamukong Suh is one of the best at his position. The Lions also have a few nice pieces in place like safety Glover Quinn and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Upfront the other defensive tackle Nick Fairley has shown flashes of brilliance, and first round pick from 2013, Ziggy Ansah led all NFL rookies in sacks. So there’s a lot here to like. Statistically the numbers back that up to some degree:

The Good (league-wide rankings):

  • Rush Defense: 5th
  • Red Zone Defense: 3rd
  • Opposing 3rd Down Conversion: 1st

The not-so-good:

  • Sacks: 31st
  • Pass Yards Allowed: 23rd
  • Points Allowed: 16th
  • Pass Efficiency D (per footballoutsiders.com): 20th

Not alarming, but hardly championship level defense. But of course Mayhew isn’t making the point that the defense is great. Rather he’s making the point that the offense and defense are on equal footing.

Since both units were supposedly in need of improvement, Mayhew selected tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. That selection was made to address some glaring need in the passing game, which would help the offense overall. But does the offense need improvement? Or does it need to become more efficient? Again, I would argue the latter.

Notable Offensive Rankings (league-wide):

  • Yards Per Drive: 8th
  • Total Offense: 6th
  • Passing Offense: 3rd

How these statistics demonstrate a need for more offensive “weapons” in the passing game is beyond me. Especially when you consider these figures (league-wide):

  • Turnovers Per Drive: 31st
  • Rushing Yards: 17th
  • Pass Efficiency : 16th
  • Rush Efficiency: 27th
  • Scoring: 13th

So the Lions were 6th in total yards but 13th in scoring. This disparity is likely a result of turnovers, penalties, and a running game that was effective but not capable of getting tough yards or closing out games when needed. How an analysis of these figures translates to a need to draft another passing target is unclear. If anything, it shows a need for improvement in Stafford’s decision making. But equally troubling, is this belief that the Lions don’t have enough weapons on offense. The last time I watched a football game, I’m pretty sure I only saw one football on the field at one time. If that’s the case, then will Ebron be merely taking away targets from someone else – especially with Golden Tate and his $13 million in guaranteed money in the fold – or is he really going to improve on a passing offense that is already 3rd in the league? It sounds more like a shuffling of chairs on the proverbial deck.

HUBRIS 

I told a friend of mine on Sunday that this draft was “Millenesque” in nature. Of course this was a reference to former Lions’ GM/President Matt Millen who somehow took a perennially mediocre franchise and made it worse. At the heart of Millen’s ineptitude was a belief that he was somehow the smartest guy in the room. While Millen was a member of MENSA, he knew nada about drafting. Mayhew’s performance this past weekend seemed to reflect the same belief. While Mayhew was salivating at the prospect of drafting his 4th offensive player in 6 drafts in the 1st round, the rest of the league was taking note of the Seahawks dominant performance in the Super Bowl against the league’s best offense – the Denver Broncos. Indeed, 9 of the 11 playoff teams from last year (Seattle traded out) drafted defensive players. What’s more, every other NFC North team drafted defensive players while Mayhew was busy chasing bright, shiny objects in the dark. But wait, you’re arguing that since everyone else is doing it, that must make it right? Well, yeah, in a way. But this isn’t just some misguided belief, it’s backed by data.

GOOD TEAMS FIND VALUE IN SKILL POSITION PLAYERS

It’s often been said that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Some have argued that this is not always the case. They point to Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Green Bay as recent teams that did it with offense. I’ll set aside the obvious point that Stafford is not Manning, Rodgers, nor Brees. I’ll also set aside the other obvious fact that Jim Caldwell is 28-77 as a head coach without Peyton Manning. Neither point will make you shake your head as much as when you take a look at the drafting habits of the best teams in the league since 2000.

Indeed, since 2000, of the 10 winningest teams in the NFL (the only ones to win the Super Bowl besides Tampa Bay in 2002):

  • Only 2 teams took a WR or a TE in the top 10: Pittsburgh drafted Plaxico Burress 8th overall & Seattle selected Koren Robinson with the 9th pick
  • New England, the winningest team in the NFL since 2000 by 22 games, has never taken a WR or a TE in the 1st round
  • In fact, New England has only drafted 4 offensive players in that span (as much as Mayhew has in 6 years!)
  • Of the top 10 teams in the league since 2000, Pittsburgh has drafted the most offensive players in the first round (8); but only 2 played either WR or TE
  • By contrast, the Lions have drafted 16 offensive players in the first round!!! And 6 played either WR or TE…….6!!!!

But is it fair to include Millen’s draft in your comparison of the Lions to other teams? Well, no it’s not, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. Look, even if you ignored the Millen years, Mayhew has already equaled Belichick’s total of offensive players in almost a third of the time.

You’re not including other rounds, how is that fair? Because statistically, and intuitively, 1st round picks are indicative of where your priorities lie as a team, due to the fact that 1st round picks have the highest correlation of success in the NFL. 1st round picks are expected to contribute immediately, where as players in the later rounds are not. Regardless, Mayhew’s picks in the later rounds have been much worse, so I’m not sure if that would make his case any better. What these numbers reveal is the lunacy of focusing on offensive players. It hasn’t worked for the Lions in the past, and it is not a path that has been taken by any of the successful teams in the league. You would think that Mayhew would want to mirror the best practices of these teams; especially since he didn’t exactly learn from the master. Instead, he seems determined to repeat history rather learn from it.

INCOHERENCE

This draft was also marked by incoherence. For one, Mayhew’s actions are in conflict with his goals. And they don’t follow a clear “best player available strategy” as he suggests.

Mayhew’s stated goal was to get 3 starters out of the draft. Ebron will essentially be a 3rd WR, so I presume he will start. BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy (whom I like) should supplant Ashlee Palmer. That leaves several projects and a kicker. The center that they signed, in lieu of drafting a corner, won’t start. Neither will Caraun Reid (another guy I like) the defensive tackle from Princeton, or Nevin Lawson, the 5-9 corner they signed. Defensive end Larry Webster played one year of Division-II football, so he’s out, which leaves kicker Nate Freese. I suppose you would have to consider Freese a starter, but I highly doubt that that is what Mayhew had in mind when he made that statement.

The facts also belie Mayhew’s claim of drafting the “best player available.” For one, he traded away a valuable 4th round pick to take Van Noy. While I liked the move, he clearly wasn’t content standing pat where they were supposed to pick in the 2nd round. If Mayhew was willing to do so with Van Noy, why wasn’t he ready to do the same in the 3rd when they took a backup Center Travis Swanson? You would think he would have been eager to put that same aggressiveness to use to fill a hole in the defensive backfield.

CONCLUSION

This probably seems like the constant whininess you hear from fans after a process that takes years to distill. But at the outset, I stated that my issue was philosophy. All of these players may end up being solid contributors in the league. Mayhew has had some success in the past with players like Willie Young and Sammie Lee Hill. I’m just not convinced that the Lions have done enough in the draft to take forward steps in what will be a tougher division. And I don’t understand the wisdom of drafting a complimentary player – and that’s what Ebron is as the 3rd receiver – at the 10th overall pick. More importantly, Mayhew’s words and actions demonstrate a lack of understanding of his own team’s issues. And his decisions run counter to the manner in which the most successful teams in the league operate.

NFL Draft Recap

Although it’s not readily apparent from my usual posts, I am a huge sports fan.  And I’m an especially big fan of the Detroit Lions (I know sad right?).  For those of you that share my passion for the Lions, it has no doubt been a rough last few years.  Thankfully, GM Martin Mayhew – a disciple of former Pres/GM Matt Millen – has taken a series of steps to put my beloved Lions on the right track.  Continue reading