Did the Detroit Lions Need a New Coach?

After the Detroit Lions destroyed the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving it was expected that this past weekend fans of the Lions – and yes, I am one of these sorry people – would be watching Detroit in the playoffs.  But that obviously didn’t happen.

The reason our expectations were not met is because in each of the last four games of the season the Lions held a lead in the 4th quarter but still managed to lose.

Along the way, the Lions lost because…

a. the Baltimore Ravens attempted and made a 61-yard field goal after a drive stalled on the Lions’ 43 yard-line; and the Ravens decided to ride their entire season on a 61-yard field goal rather than attempt a 4th and 8 conversion (had the Ravens missed they would have lost the game and just about been eliminated from the playoffs).

b. the Giants – faced with 4th and 7 from the Lions 42 – decided to go for it in overtime against the Lions.  Had the Giants failed the Lions would have just needed about 30 yards to wins the game.  But the Giants succeeded and subsequently kicked the game winning field goal.

c. The Lions – faced with 4th and 12 from the Vikings 41 – decided not to kick the field goal or go for it.  Instead, the Lions punted with about five minutes to go and never saw the ball again.

Had two of these three decisions gone the Lions way, the Lions would have been in the playoffs this past weekend.  But these games – and the season — did not go the Lions way so now this team is searching for a new coach.

This collapse has led me to ask three questions:

1. Were the Lions under Jim Schwartz prone to 4th quarter collapses?

2. The Lions were among the leaders in turnovers in 2013. Could Schwartz have fixed this problem?

3. Does changing the coach ever help the Lions?

Fourth quarter collapses?

For the first of these questions I looked at the last three seasons for the Lions.  Across these seasons the Lions played 49 games (48 regular season games and a playoff game).  Across these games the Lions

  • won 21 games and lost 28
  • scored 1,269 points and surrendered 1,245 points

Given the Lions offensive and defensive production, the team should have expected to win about 25 games.  So the team was a bit unlucky.

I also looked at where the team was after three quarters and what happened in the fourth.

  • After three quarters, the Lions scored 845 points and surrendered 843.
  • In the 4th quarter the Lions scored 424 points and surrendered 402.  These numbers suggest the Lions have been a bit better in the 4th quarter (relative to the first three).

So contrary to the Lions experience across the last month, it doesn’t appear that the Lions under Schwartz had a history of fourth quarter collapses.


They have had a different problem (as noted by the second question).  To see this, consider where the Lions ranked on offense (total yards per game) and defense (total yards surrendered per game) under Schwartz:

  • 26th best offense, worst defense in 2009
  • 17th best offense, 21st best defense in 2010
  • 5th best offense, 23rd best defense in 2011
  • 3rd best offense, 13th best defense in 2012
  • 6th best offense, 16th best defense in 2013

These numbers suggest the Lions offense got much better under Schwartz.  The defense, though, improved but never became elite.

Yards are only part of the story.  The other issue with the Lions is turnovers.  Here is where the Lions have ranked with respect to turnovers under Schwartz:

  • the worst turnover differential in 2009
  • 11th best turnover differential in 2010
  • 4th best turnover differential in 2011
  • 3rd worst turnover differential in 2012
  • 4th worst turnover differential in 2013

In 2009 the Lions clearly had turnover problems.  The next two seasons, though, the Lions improved damatically.  But then the last two years, the Lions again had a problem.

Many of these turnovers are attributed to Matthew Stafford (since he is the quarterback throwing the interceptions).  This past season, Stafford ranked 6th in the NFL in interceptions.

Stafford’s issue with interceptions led Brian Billick to note that Stafford would be fine if he just cleaned up his turnover problem. It also led Kurt Warner to argue that Stafford was the most undisciplined quarterback in the NFL.

Warner’s comments are somewhat odd when we consider

a. there were five quarterbacks who threw more interceptins than Stafford, and

b. across each player’s career, Warner threw more interceptions per 100 attempts (relative to Stafford)

Regardless of the oddity of Warner’s argument, it is clear that both Billick and Warner seem to think that turnovers are something that players and teams can change.  Back in 2006, though, I made a different argument in the New York Times.  In this column it was noted that Tom Coughlin – head coach of the New York Giants – was supposed to have some way of addressing turnovers.  Coughlin has led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins, so apparently he must know something.  Stopping turnovers, though, does not appear to be among the things Coughlin knows.

To illustrate, this past season, Eli Manning – quarterback of the New York Giants – led the NFL in interceptions (this was also the case in 2010).  And the Giants in 2013 led the NFL in interceptions and turnovers (and finished second in fumbles lost — the Broncos were first).

As noted in Stumbling on Wins, turnovers in football are perhaps the most random statistic in all of professional sports.  The season-to-season correlation for interceptions per past attempt and fumbles lost per rushing attempt for quarterbacks and running backs is less than 5%.  This suggests that turnovers are just something that happen, and there isn’t much a coach can do to change this reality.

New Coach?

So the Lions were not necessarily prone to 4th quarter collapses and turnovers — which seemed to be a problem — is not something that coaches seem capable of changing.  Nevertheless, it appears fans of the Lions are in favor of getting a new coach.  This brings me to my third question: Does changing the coach make a difference?

I have been a fan of the Lions all my life.  Since 1969 (when I was born) there have been eleven times the Lions began a season with a different head coach from the person who began the previous season.  Here is how these changes have worked out:

  • seven times the team won more games
  • the average improvement was 0.6 wins
  • the most wins the team added was 4.5, when the team improved from 4-11-1 under Monte Clark to 7-9 under Darryl Rogers
  • the team also improved 4 wins when its record improved from 5-11 (under Wayne Fontes) to 7-9 under Bobby Ross.
  • In both of these instances, the team returned to 5-11 the next season

These four bullet points suggest that changing the coach isn’t going to make much difference.  Such an argument is consistent with something Brian Burke said recently at AdvancedNFLStats.

There are exceptions, like [Mike Singletary], but my hunch is that NFL coaches are mostly interchangeable.

I think at the NFL level, all coaches employ the same best practices. There is no secret sauce that one coach has over another in terms of instruction, motivation, strategy, etc. This is because of the highly mobile, fluid market for coaches and the large size of their staffs. There are very strong constraints on deviation from league norms in any dimension.

Also, from statistical analysis, we can measure the variance in team performance attributable to randomness (sample error due to a short 16-game season) and player impacts (the addition or subtraction of a player’s impact on team production, player interaction effects). There is very little variance left that can be attributed to other causes, including coaching. In other words NFL outcomes are overwhelmingly driven by player talent and luck, and there’s not much room left for coaching to make a big impact.

So did the Lions need to change head coaches?  I don’t think there is much evidence that a different coach in Detroit will get dramatically different results.  I expect the Lions to have a “good” offense next year.  And if the turnovers are reduced – a change that could happen (even if a coach can’t necessarily make this happen) – the Lions could have a “great” offense.  If the Lions also improve the talent on the defensive side of the ball, perhaps the Lions will be better next year.

And then maybe I can see the Lions in the playoffs. Of course, odds are they will lose in the playoffs.  After all, that is the fate that eleven of the twelve teams will suffer.  But playoffs are better than no playoffs (I think).

My future playoff disappointment, though, is probably not dependent on the person the Lions choose to walk the sideline.

So for those fans who are excited about this change, please remember this observation:  Since 1969 fans were excited about a new coach eleven different times.  That excitement, though, never matched reality after the coach was hired.

– DJ


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