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How the Lions went from toxic to turnaround

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The Detroit Lions are less toxic than ever. And for the first time in over a decade, it's safe to drink the Kool-Aid.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A new culture

There haven't been many opportunities in the last decade where true optimism deserved to shine through in early August. I'm not saying that hopes haven't been high; they always are. But there were years, even decades, where the Detroit Lions had no real hope. No true shot at a championship. Heck, no real shot at getting above .500. This year is different. Not only do the Lions have the pieces to make a run in 2015, but they've removed the toxicity that has plagued the team for years.

It's no surprise that when former Lion and current NFL Network analyst Nate Burleson was asked about this year's team, the first thing he mentioned was a culture shift from when he was in Detroit just two years ago.

"It's just a different focus," Burleson said. "There's a different culture now even from when I was here. Even though they went 11-5 last year, it's so much better they want to be. Which is exciting."

Complacency is a killer, and it seems to be nowhere in sight for these Lions. After going 10-6 in 2011 and making the playoffs, the team got complacent. Since then, there have been multiple reports about how the coaching staff at the time got ahead of themselves. They went from thinking "we're trying to get there" to "we've arrived." As soon as you think you've made it to the top, you should start looking for your parachute.

The Lions fell hard in 2012. It doesn't get much more toxic than a head coach starting a melee because of a handshake, or a player purposely sabotaging the entire offense. As much as the Lions wanted to think they had arrived, they were far from it. In hindsight it was embarrassing. There's more to being a championship-style organization than simply winning games. The culture shift since then has been apparent. And Jim Caldwell has a lot to do with that.

Rethinking fundamentals

When Caldwell initially interviewed with the Lions, he told the team's website exactly why he values sound, disciplined football:

"You have to be very good in terms of your fundamentals and techniques ruling the day. Those are the things that are going to carry you when times are difficult. Those are the things that are going to put streaks together. Those are the things that certainly will help you win games and get you enough games to get you into the postseason."

The Lions were just 3-8 in one-score games in 2012. That includes Shaun Hill's failed overtime sneak on fourth down, losing to the Houston Texans in every way imaginable and giving up a game-winning drive against the Indianapolis Colts. Compare that to last year, when the Lions went 6-2 in games decided by just one score. Some of that may have been luck, but it also came from a different mindset.

The Toxic Differential

There's toxic off the field, but there's also toxic on the field.

The term "Toxic Differential" was coined by former NFL head coach Brian Billick. The stat was created to determine how well a team was at creating and preventing both turnovers and big plays. For this instance, passing big plays are greater than 25 yards and rushing big plays are greater than 10 yards.

The formula goes like this:

Toxic Differential = (Big Plays For - Big Plays Against) + (Takeaways - Giveaways)

It's no secret that over the last 15 seasons, a majority of Super Bowl-winning teams have finished the regular season in the top 10 for Toxic Differential. The best outcome is to be positive in both Turnover Differential and Big Play Differential.

Here are the Lions' rankings over the last five seasons:

Year Rank Turnover Differential Big Play Differential Toxic Differential
2010 21 4 -15 -11
2011 13 11 -3 8
2012 29 -16 -20 -36
2013 20 -12 5 -7
2014 6 7 21 28

Obviously, there are other stats that help illustrate how fundamentally sound a team is, but this is a good starting point. The Lions are in much better shape going into the 2015 season than they were after the 2011 season. And that may be reason enough to have hope going into the season.

It's weird to even ask this, but have the Lions become a steady organization? There's no doubt that the Lions have made a philosophical shift. They were boisterous underdogs who had to fight (sometimes literally) and claw for every bit of respect they got. Now, after only one year under Caldwell's direction, the Lions seem poised to keep building on what they started last year.