You may expect the Detroit Lions to get a lot of praise this offseason. After all, they just made the playoffs for the second time in three years, Matthew Stafford is coming off arguably the best year in his career and Detroit upgraded their offensive line in free agency.
However, Mike Clay of ESPN doesn’t quite see it that way. On Tuesday evening, Clay released his preliminary power rankings for the 2017 season, and he isn’t very kind to the Lions. He doesn’t have them in the top 10. He doesn’t have them in the top half of the league. In fact, he doesn’t have the Lions in the top two-thirds of the league:
Early NFL Power Rankings. Some tuning still required, but this is roughly where we stand... *ducks* pic.twitter.com/A3eToYSXAm— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) March 28, 2017
He has the Lions all the way at 27th.
Now, before you start sticking pins in your Mike Clay voodoo dolls, realize that power rankings at this point in the season are not only impossibly hard, but essentially pointless. At this time last year, ESPN had the Lions ranked at 25th mostly talking about how the loss of Calvin Johnson would cripple their offense.
That being said, don’t be surprised if this is just the beginning of lowered expectations for the Detroit Lions. A lot of people look at the season Detroit had last year and view it as “lucky.” Given that the Lions had eight fourth quarter comebacks last year, it’s easy to see that point of view.
“Regression to the mean” is a common term you’ll see when analysts are trying to predict for next NFL season. The term essentially means that a team either overperformed or underperformed in accordance with normal odds, and the law of averages suggest their performance will balance out the next year.
Regression to the mean is commonly linked to two telling statistics: turnover margin and record in close games. The idea is that over the course of a long period of time, teams average a turnover margin of zero and have close to an even .500 record in close games. So, essentially, teams that abnormally performed well in close games or had a uniquely high turnover margin in a year “overperformed” that year and are more likely to see a lesser performance the following year.
For the Lions, their turnover margin was -1 in 2016, so there shouldn’t be much change in that next year. However, the Lions were 8-5 in close games (as defined by games decided by seven points or less). It’s reasonable to expect Detroit to perform a little worse in close games in 2017, even if they have one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the NFL. Analysts will undoubtedly use this ammo against the Lions this year.
They’ll also use the way the Lions finished their 2016 season against them. When Detroit had to face four straight playoff teams to finish the year, they went 0-4. Experts will be hesitant to place the Lions among the NFL’s elite with a finish like that.
Finally, almost all of the advanced metrics sites had the Lions as one of the worst teams in the NFL last season. Despite finishing 9-7, the Lions ranked 27th in Football Outsider’s DVOA and had just the 14th best offense and 27th best defense according to PFF.
While Clay may be Public Enemy No. 1 for Lions fans this week, there’s little chance he’ll be the last. Detroit won’t get a ton of respect around the league until they have real accomplishments under their belt or perform well against the league’s best. Until then, Lions fans will have to deal with perceived disrespect from national writers.