The post-draft rankings and analysis march on, and the Detroit Lions continue to take a beating. Though ESPN put the Lions at an understandable 15th, Mike Clay posted a rebuttal that pushed them all the way down to 26th (Insider required). This ranking seems harsh in its own right for a playoff team that made some smart acquisitions through the draft, but the explanation that came with it was even more baffling:
“Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has generated a lot of positive buzz, but his offense ranked 29th in plays (60.6) and 23rd in touchdowns per game (1.9) last season.”
Clay’s issue with the offense was summarized in these two numbers, which are puzzling to say the least. These are interesting stats to hone in on, considering there is some low-hanging fruit available to attach the Lions offense last season. With 338.8 yards per game and 21.6 points per game, the Lions ranked just 21st and 20th, respectively. The rushing game was often the most-criticized aspect of the team, finishing in the bottom three of the NFL. No doubt about it, these numbers are not pretty.
However, these stats and Clay’s metrics fail to capture the whole picture and leave a very fragmented tale. While the Lions offense was not the most prolific in the league, they sneakily were one of the most efficient squads with the ball last season.
Behind the eight ball
The Lions defense looked decent for stretches in 2016, but they were still far from dominant. As a result, the offense started with the third-worst average field position in the league, inside their own 26-yard line. Additionally, a bottom-10 time of possession statistic was an indication of a defense who struggled to get off the field, giving the offense less time to operate.
Unsurprisingly, the Lions did not run as many plays as most of their peers, but this is should be a mark on the defense—or at least the team as a whole—and not the offense as Clay implies. Relatedly, less time with the ball only naturally leads to fewer touchdowns over the course of the season.
This is exactly where raw stats fail. One look at these numbers and it becomes easy to dismiss the Lions offense. But failing to account for the defense severely diminishes all that the offense was able to accomplish.
As mentioned before, the Lions had some of the worst starting field position in the NFL last season. While this surely affected their touchdown total, it did not hamper their ability to move the ball. Detroit averaged 0.34 first downs per play last season, meaning it took just under three plays on average to move the chains. This figure was the eighth-best in the league and only one of 10 teams to average under three plays.
Furthermore, with 35.7 yards per drive, the Lions offense was the fifth-best at moving the ball down the field. Despite poor starting field position, Detroit still scored on 41 percent of all possessions. Only six teams finished drives at a better rate, and each of them started farther down the field on average.
Finally, the Lions ranked first in both plays per drive and time of possession per drive. They often were put in difficult positions thanks to a struggling defense and kickoff return game, but they made the most of their opportunities. They may not have found the end zone every time, but they demonstrated an ability to keep the ball moving. With small improvements on the other side of the ball, the Detroit offense might be ready to post some lofty numbers going forward.