September 19, 2011

Lions Return After Decade of Futility

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In the parity-filled NFL, there are almost no “sure things.” In fact, I can only think of three: Bill Belichick will be seen on the Patriots sideline donning a gray hoodie (check), Michael Vick will get injured at some point in the season (check) and the Detroit Lions will be the laughing stock of the league (uh … ). I think it’s fair to say we can cross one of those things off the list.

After a victory over the rising Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-20, and an absolute thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, 48-3, the Lions have finally arrived. Boasting one of the most exciting offenses in football led by quarterback Matt Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson — whose nickname Megatron describes his physical abilities perfectly — and an ever-improving defense led by the monster known to humans as Ndamukong Suh, the Lions look poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

I was not exaggerating about the state of the Lions in the past. Since 2001, Detroit has never had more than seven wins in a season. From 2001 to 2010, the team went a combined 39-121. Their win percentage (24.4) over that period is the worst 10-year stretch in the NFL’s history. In 2008, the team became the first team ever to go winless in a 16-game season.

So how have the Lions gone from a historically significant disgrace to one of the youngest, most exciting teams in football?

The answer begins with the overhaul of their front office. During the 2008 season, their previous general manager Matt Millen — unsurprisingly hired before the 2001 season – was finally fired and replaced by Martin Mayhew. The second Mayhew took over, the Lions began making personnel moves that actually made sense and did not seem as if they were the result of where a dart landed on a board.

His first move was to trade the aging Roy Williams to the Dallas Cowboys for their 1st, 3rd, and 6th round picks in the 2009 draft.  In this draft, the Lions drafted Stafford first overall and Dallas’ 1st round pick became Brandon Pettigrew, one of the most exciting young tight ends in the league.

After suffering through another painful 2-14 season in which Stafford missed the last 6 games due to injury, things were finally looking up for the Lions. In the 2010 draft, they picked Suh as the second overall pick and added running back Jahvid Best to help Stafford in the backfield.

Then in an instant, the good vibes were lost as Stafford injured his shoulder in the season opener and played in just three games the whole season. Despite Stafford’s injuries, the Lions finished the season on a four-game winning streak led by journeyman quarterback Shaun Hill.

This was the first sign that the Lions might turn over a new leaf. The team knew that Stafford would become a star, so if a team led by Hill could win four in a row — including a win against the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers — could a team led by a healthy Stafford become a playoff contender?

This question was answered with a thunderous “yes” in these first two weeks. The scariest part is that the Lions are nowhere near their peak. Stafford is still improving and their second-leading receiver against the Chiefs was Titus Young, a rookie who made a 43-yard catch on third-and-24 that was so impossibly acrobatic that all the play-by-play announcer could mutter was “Wow.” Additionally, their first round pick, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was expected to make a Suh-sized impact, has been sidelined thus far due to foot surgery.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this team is its mindset. When a perennial loser finally has enough talent to turn around its fortunes, the last barrier it must break is the mental one. When a culture of losing surrounds a team for so long, it becomes satisfied with any win it can get and fail to keep pushing to reach its peak. The Lions have seemingly avoided this malaise.

After their win over Tampa Bay, an ever-improving playoff team, head coach Jim Schwarz did not celebrate the win; instead he told his team, “I don’t want to discount the value of a win, particularly a win on the road, but we’ve got to play a lot better than we played today. We had way too many mistakes that kept Tampa in this game.”

Schwarz did not exert any more exuberance over his squad’s start after a 45-point stomping of the Chiefs, simply stating, “We can play better” after shrugging his shoulders.

If the Lions continue on their current trajectory and keep striving to reach their best, it is hard to see this group missing the playoffs. The team will ride a healthy Stafford, while the defense bides its time until Fairley returns from injury.

Aye, there is the rub. Injuries. Out of a possible 34 games in Stafford’s career, he has missed 19 of them due to injury. If Stafford gets injured next week, all this momentum his team has gathered will disappear and an incredible start to the season will be completely forgotten. The Lions had a situation like this in 2007, when the team started 6-2 only to finish the season 7-9. So as optimistic as this start is, nothing is guaranteed. The Lions must keep pushing in order to truly lose their reputation as losers.

Original Author: Albert Liao