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Everyone here has an opinion on the Lions, right? Optimistic, pessimistic, indifferent... whatever it might be, it's still a formed opinion based on the data presented in the argument or situation. As the countdown to the Lion's training camp now enters the final week, I feel that we've all put our best thoughts and ideas to pen and paper (or more like keyboard to screen) to try to exude our feelings on what will happen with the Lions this year. Some are very optimistic and think that we can make the "P-word" (for those new to the site, I have vowed not to use the word that starts in "play" and ends in "offs" with respect to the Lions until they actually make it). Some feel like we have a lot to prove and are quite far from true contention. The thing about it is... none of us really knows.
The Lions of 2009 could be anywhere from a true-blue contender to a bona-fide joke. Where you think we might fall into place within that very wide margin is simply a guess based on your personal views of the off-season moves. Truth be told, this is probably the most unpredictable team put forth in Lions history. It's a perfect storm of intriguing mystery and debatable unknowns. The Lions were a winless team a year ago, but "appear" to have made some significant strides in the off-season. They also still "appear" to have some major holes. All of this breeds a level of uncertainty and it can be maddening to say the least.
I think the Lions will fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. I don't think we'll see all the potential come to fruition this year, but I also don't think we see a bunch of turkeys crapping all over the field all season long like last year. But for the first time in a long time, I think that the best case and worst case scenarios are miles apart.
The Best Case Scenario
This is all a matter of opinion... so I'm sure other's opinion of a best case scenario will vary. But taking all factors into account (schedule, off-season moves, etc.), I think the '09 Lions have a very high ceiling. Call me a Kool-Aid addict, call me über-optimistic, whatever... but I think if everything clicks, the Lions could shock a lot of people this year. This is not me saying that this will happen or that the Lions can go to the Super Bowl... it's just me saying that the Lions could accomplish more than some might think. Obviously, the stars must align and certain conditions must happen for the Lions to achieve the top end of the potential spectrum. I'll list a few of those.
First and foremost, the quarterback situation must sort itself out before the season starts. It cannot be a revolving door between Culpepper and Stafford and whoever is practicing best that particular week. And more importantly than the "who" is the "how"... meaning, how well the starter ultimately plays. In order for the Lions to achieve a high level of success, it is imperative that the Lion's offense is run efficiently and with leadership exuding from that position. I think both guys have that leadership quality, so it's ultimately about winning and execution. I know most will be shocked to hear me utter these words (especially you, KDawg), but I think the top end of this best case scenario can only be reached by playing Culpepper. Now let me level-set here. I personally think that the best thing for the team long-term is to play Stafford, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the best case scenario for this year... and with that as the backdrop - Culpepper might be the best shot of achieving that.
Next, the offensive line must show significant improvement in both the passing and rushing game. Duh, right? But to get more specific, I think the key is in momentous potential shifts from Cherilus, Loper and Peterman. It can happen. I think all three of those guys could surprise us and all of a sudden we find ourselves with a much improved offensive line. With Backus and Raiola, I think by this point it's "what you see is what you get". Backus will never be more than an average, inconsistent tackle - regardless of scheme. I do think his flaws can be masked somewhat by not leaving him one-on-one in the passing game and by having a good, bulky left guard next to him when executing the run offense. Raiola is feisty and probably an above average center for the most part. Regardless of what a lot of fans think about him, he is an asset to the team both on the field and in the locker room. If more players had his attitude, we would win more games. That said, Raiola will always struggle with the bigger defensive tackles in this league. He's just a tad too small and will always have that work against him. In the end though, if Cherilus, Loper and Peterman show tremendous strides, especially in the run game, we will have ourselves a pretty good line. So contrary to many opinions I've read here, this could be the first time in many years where our line is an asset versus a liability.
We all know Calvin is a mega-stud. He should account for most of our offense if Linehan is as smart as we all hope. Kevin Smith should turn out to be a good back for the Lions and is brimming with confidence and youthful energy. If Smith can turn into a great downhill runner and punch out 1300 yds this year, we will win a lot of games... even a few shockers. If you can combine that with a 100 catch season for Calvin Johnson, we will be fielding one of the better offenses in the league. I think two of the keys of that happening lie with two other players. Both Brandon Pettigrew and Bryant Johnson need defenses to fear them. Not like they fear Calvin, of course, but to fear them as enough of a threat that the defense is forced to view Pettigrew as a bona-fide blocking and receiving threat and Bryant Johnson as a guy that can burn the defense if too much attention is given to Calvin. If those two can pick up their roles quickly, this offense could be absolutely explosive... both running and passing. That's a scary and delightfully giddy thought.
The boom/bust potential of this team becomes very apparent when critiquing the defensive side of the ball. The obvious holes in the defensive line and secondary cannot be ignored. But again, if the dream of potential meets reality, this could be a really good group... my heavens, did I just say that?
First, the linebackers were the most significant upgrade to the entire team this off-season. If Larry Foote can show he's an every-down middle linebacker and a field general for this defense, we are going to be improved. If Julian Peterson shows that he can still be the versatile Pro-Bowl caliber player that has the ability to flawlessly cover as well as add 5-8 sacks to the defense, we are going to be greatly improved. If you put those two together with a newly energized Ernie Sims - who should be allowed to unleash his animal instincts and use his speed and tenacity effectively once again - we are going to have the best linebacking corps in the league - bar none. That is very exciting to me and is not simply a pipe dream - it could very well happen.
Second, we must get pressure from the down lineman to be at all successful. Avril needs to have a double-digit sack season. There's no room for wiggle there. To reach our max defensive potential, Avril needs to take a massive step forward and become the next, young Dwight Freeney. Also, we need to get more plays than we think we can get from both Grady Jackson and Chuck Darby. They need to surprise everyone with their play. We also need to get some semblance of a rotation from our depth guys. From Fluellen to Cohen to the young Stillman alum, we need our back-ups to make an impact - or better yet... play well enough to take over as starters. Even the best case scenario on the line is not very good, I think. But if we can keep from leaking like a sieve and get some pressure on the opposing quarterback, we should be moderately improved.
As for the secondary... two things are vital. The first thing depends on the defensive line getting pressure. That should mask some of the matchup problems in coverage, because again... I think the ceiling of the secondary is not very high. Second, Delmas must be an animal. He must catch on quickly to the speed of the NFL and make an immediate impact in the run defense. If we are forced to rely on the likes of Manual and Pearson, we can really only be below average at best in our secondary.
All in all, I believe the offense has the potential to be very good... maybe a top ten offense if all of the above happens. The defense, while potentially fielding the best linebacking corps in the league, might only be able to crack the top fifteen to twenty if all the stars align. But if the offense is ranked 8th-12th and the defense is ranked 15th-20th, that might mean a winning season. This, of course, is all barring significant injuries to our key playmakers. Unlikely scenario... yes, but what a wonderful thought and my most realistic best case scenario.
The Worst Case Scenario
Well, coming up with the worst case is pretty easy. Just sit back in your desk chair, close your eyes and think about the 2008 season. There you go... worst case scenario. But, we have a different coaching staff and different personnel... so the road to unimaginably horrible will have to follow a different set of street signs this year.
First, a catastrophic injury to someone like Calvin Johnson, Kevin Smith, Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, Louis Delmas or one of the quarterbacks without the other being able to match great play, would likely end any bid to reach our peak potential. Calvin would be a deal-breaker. Without him, our passing game will lose every bit of potency and most likely become the anemic game of dink-and-dunk that we've come so accustomed to watching over the past few years. Our defense without Peterson or Foote will most definitely be a setback. Those types of big-name injuries almost always start a bleeding process for the team and slowly through the season, it all unravels.
Of course, if both Culpepper and Stafford struggle... game over offensively. I think we are sure to get some good play out of Calvin and a few good runs from Smith, but we had those last year. What we lacked was consistent line and quarterback play and without that again, we will rank no higher than last year. And that, my friends, is losing football. Not just losing, but badly losing football.... as in, down by 24 at the half and not getting any better kind of football. That same level of offensive play will result in five or fewer wins and a guarantee at another top ten pick in the draft next year.
Defensively, it is a very slippery slope. I don't think I need to go into a ton of detail here as we all know that there is a good chance that this defense could really struggle this year. As stated above, an injury to one or two of the starting linebackers and this thing could get ugly very quickly. We might see those same gaping holes and blown coverages of last year. Also, we have to remember that Cliff Avril is a Matt Millen pick and although not taken in the second round, how well have his third rounders panned out? We have to face the possibility that he might not produce his potential alá Kalimba Edwards. If he doesn't, we'll get an average-at-best outing from White and that simply won't be enough pressure. Without at least a decent rush from the front four, we are looking at an exposed secondary and a weakened linebacking group. I believe in Schwartz and that he will be prepared on gameday, but I don't care if you are Vince Lombardi incarnate, you can't win or scheme without talent... period. If we can't get pressure, cover or do the simple things like tackle or force turnovers, it's 2008 all over again and we are looking at a long, long season.
I think that it might be very easy to see a worst case scenario, unfortunately. I think that's why I've tempered my expectations to brace for some of those situations above to materialize. Injuries will happen. That's just a part of football. Let's just hope that they are not tagged to a Larry Foote or a Julian Peterson. If they do, they will neutralize a massive amount of our defensive versatility and you will see less blitzing and a lot more of the bend but don't break zone scheming we all hate so much.
As I alluded to in the name of this article, there are so many unknown factors that could shift the Lions from contenders to cellar-dwellers that it can drive you crazy trying to decide which team we will ultimately see. I think we'll see a combination of the two resulting in a progressive, but ultimately losing season. I think that they'll make opponents respect them, but still not have enough talent to shut teams down or get over that hurdle of closing games out. If that's the case, we're in for a roller coaster ride this season. I foresee with all my Jedi wisdom that we will have some shining moments that give great hope to the future mixed with moments of shear frustration and speculation of whether we will ever turn the corner. I see all this happening within each game. I can see a 90 yd Culpepper/Stafford to Calvin Johnson play to go up by 3 late in the fourth quarter, only to turn around and see our secondary get torched on a skinny post for 75 yds between Anthony Henry and Daniel Bullocks with 30 seconds to go. I think it's going to be one of those seasons. Most likely, it won't be until week 8 or so before we will know the true identity of this team.
Ultimately, we have to understand this is really year one of the Detroit Lions Version 50.0. There's just not enough talent and it will take the best of every scenario to realistically come away with a winning record. Could it happen? Absolutely. Will it? Most likely, no. But the excitement and frustration lies in this team's enigmatic character. High hopes shrouded in the unknown. But guess what? The Lion's first preseason game is in exactly 21 days. That's when we'll get our first glimpse of either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde... whichever decides to show up.