Because of all the close losses the Lions have suffered this season, there have been jokes that they are the best 2-7 team in football history. As funny as it sounds and as strange as it may be to consider a team with two wins and seven losses the best at anything, it may actually be true based on the statistics.
The Wall Street Journal took a look at some stats surrounding the Lions' unlucky season and found some very interesting things. For starters, the Lions have suffered two losses this season by two points, two by three points, one by five and one by eight. The only double-digit loss came to the Vikings in the second game of this season, when the Lions lost by 14 points. Altogether the Lions have lost by an average of 5.3 points this season, and if you take the 14-point defeat to the Vikings out of the equation, the Lions have lost by an average of only 3.8 points.
While losses are losses no matter what the margin of defeat is, no team in NFL history with as bad of a record as 2-7 has outscored its opponents before the Lions pulled off the feat this season. Currently the Lions have scored 215 points and allowed 202 points, giving them a scoring margin of plus-13. There have been teams with losing records that have ended up with positive scoring margins in the past, and a couple of them ended up turning things around the following season, giving hope to the Lions.
Better yet, their point differential may be a sign of good things to come, as teams that lose despite outscoring the opposition tend to improve the next year. Across a full season, the 4-10 Cincinnati Bengals of 1971 had the worst record among teams with a positive point differential; in 1972 Cincinnati improved to 8-6. Likewise, the 2008 Green Bay Packers went 6-10 despite outscoring their opponents by 39; in 2009, the Packers finished 11-5.
Last season, when the Lions went 2-14, they were outscored by a whopping 232 points. What's more, they lost those 14 games by an average of 17 points. Although the Lions only have two wins this season, the games have been much closer, and if not for a bad call or a bad break here or there, Detroit could at least have four wins right now. To really get into the what-if scenarios, just think about what the Lions' record could be if Matthew Stafford had never gotten hurt against Chicago. The Lions were leading when he went down but went on to lose the game. Against Washington, Stafford played the entire game and the Lions won. Against the Jets, the Lions were ahead when Stafford left the game but went on to lose.
If the Lions had a healthy Stafford all season long, we may very well be talking about the playoffs right now. They obviously didn't, and going forward his durability is a huge concern, but even with Shaun Hill starting most of the games this season the Lions have made enormous improvements and have kept almost all of the games competitive. At some point the Lions will have to start winning games and forgetting about moral victories to provide hope for the future, but perhaps that is only a season away. You obviously can't guarantee that their unluckiness will stop next season, especially with injuries, but at the very least the Lions are making strides in the right direction, even if the record suggests otherwise.
I know many are ready to grab their pitchforks and run Jim Schwartz out of town right now, but to me it will come down to 2011. I realize many of you are much more impatient than I am, but the signs of improvement are there, and the Lions have come a long way since 2009. My hope is that with another offseason to add talent to the roster, 2011 will be the year where the Lions finally start to win more games and at the very least have a .500 season. If I were guaranteed that Stafford would be healthy all season my expectations might be even higher, because with him in the lineup this year the Lions have looked like a very explosive team.
I am very worried that Stafford could be the NFL's version of Greg Oden, which is why my expectations are tempered a bit, but even with Hill starting the Lions have looked much better. Obviously last week that wasn't the case, but all I'm saying is that the 2010 Lions have provided a lot of hope for what the 2011 team could be. We have been misled in the past by false hope, but the numbers actually back up the notion of improvement and a possible turnaround next season. I'm not going to go crazy on the Kool-Aid in the offseason just because there's no point to get my hopes up too much, but at the very least the numbers show that perhaps the light at the end of this depressing tunnel of losing may finally be nearing.