Time for August Optimism for Fans of the Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions will win at least nine games in 2010.  At least, that’s what Tiki Barber claims.  And it is with this bold prediction that I begin my latest for the Huffington Post.

Although Barber’s forecast will make any fan of the Lions happy (at least, it made this fan happy), my post actually built upon an observation made by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Statistics.  Specifically, preseason forecasts are worthless.

That being said, I am optimistic that the Lions are about to get better. 

What leads to such optimism?  Obviously years of abuse have had their effect. But beyond this point, let’s note a few positive signs.  Only four of the eleven players who started on defense for the Lions in the majority of the team’s games last year will be in the opening line-up in 2010.  And on offensive, Matthew Stafford is now in his second season (supposedly this helps a quarterback play better).  And he now gets to throw to a receiving core that not only includes Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, but also Nate Burleson and Tony Sheffler. And when Stafford is not throwing to these targets, he will be able to hand the ball to Jahvid Best.

Beyond an influx of talent, I am also encouraged by offensive scheme the Lions are supposedly going to employ.   During the offseason the Lions traded Ernie Sims – a starting linebacker (and former top ten pick) – for Sheffler.  The addition of Sheffler means the Lions are going to often work out of a two tight end formation.  This formation puts Pettigrew and Sheffler at the end positions, Johnson and Burleson at wide receiver, and Best in the backfield.  From this formation the Lions can obviously run, which I believe is what you tend to do out of this formation. But because Sheffler and Pettigrew are also receiving threats, the Lions can also employ essentially the approach the team used when it reached the NFC title game in 1991.  Yes, the Lions can return to the run-and-shoot. 

For those who don’t remember, the run-and-shoot was essentially the hurry-up offense teams employed for years.  But instead of using it with two minutes to go in a half, the Lions (as well as the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons) used this as their base offense.  This meant the team always lined up with four receivers and one back.  On each play, all four receivers would go out for a pass.  This meant the defense had to play pass on every down, which opened up running lanes for the back (and it helped that this was Barry Sanders).

The problem with this offense was that if the other team knew you wanted to run – which it would suspect was the case if you had the lead – the offense became easier to stop.  Consequently, holding leads seemed difficult during the run-and-shoot days.

The current offense, though, is the run-and-shoot on steroids.  Instead of four little receivers, the Lions will have three giants (Johnson, Pettigrew, and Sheffler).  And this means when it is time to run, the Lions should have success.

Jim Schwartz – the Lions head coach – is not a system guy.  He basically will do whatever he thinks works. This means the Lions are not going to be in the two tight end formation all the time. But when they are, I expect success.  Defenses cannot know when they see this formation if the Lions are going to run or pass.  And that uncertainty should make the offense more successful.

As for the defense, the Lions front four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Ndamukong Suh, and Cliff Avril should be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks without the need of a blitz.  And that was evident during their first exhibition game.  Unfortunately, once you get past the front four, there are question marks.  Still, as Barber argues, if the offense does well, the defense doesn’t need to do much for the Lions to win more frequently.

So does all this mean the Lions will be successful?  As I noted at Huffington Post, turnovers and injuries defy predictions. Plus the interaction effects in football are quite large (much larger than anything you see in basketball). This makes forecasting football difficult.  In other words, despite all that I just said, there really is no way to know what the Lions will do in 2010 in August.  And this isn’t just true for the Lions.  No matter what people might think, we really don’t know what will happen in the NFL in August.

The upside of this difficulty is that fans of the Lions can always be optimistic in August.  In contrast, fans of the Pistons should already start thinking about the summer of 2011.  Because it looks like the Pistons will not do well in 2010-11 (and yes, we will probably touch on this story again and again in this forum).

- DJ

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