Earlier this week, Mike Payton wrote about why he thinks the Detroit Lions will make in the playoffs in 2018. To make good on my word—and his word, too—here is my rebuttal to Mike’s promise to you, the fine and distinguished reader of Pride of Detroit.
On the Pride of Detroit ‘PODcast’ this week, Chris Perfett and I briefly touched on some of our least favorite sports cliches and why they suck. Nothing earns an eye roll from me quite like the phrase “Every team’s goal at the beginning of the season is to win the Super Bowl.” If you believe that, there’s some oceanfront property I have in Montana to sell you.
See, cliches can be fun, but aren’t they also kind of the dumbest things ever?
The Cleveland Browns won zero games last season and there’s a chance Hue Jackson is going to try and convince you and everyone else watching Hard Knocks that his guys have one thing on their mind: Super Bowl.
Hue, if you’re reading this, please don’t be that way. It’s okay to not have your head in the clouds. There’s nothing wrong with having realistic expectations for your team, and that’s where I’m at with the Detroit Lions as they head into a season with a lot of unknowns.
Change at the helm
Hiring a new head coach is maybe the most radical change a franchise can undergo in an offseason, and the Detroit Lions did just that by bringing in Matt Patricia from the New England Patriots.
Since 2013, there have been a total of 35 head coaches hired by different NFL organizations. From that pool of new hires, only ten of those coaches had at least 10 wins in their first year, and only nine of those coaches made the playoffs—just a shade over 25 percent.
Of course, as always, context matters. Some of these coaches came into scenarios which set them up for success. Situations in which they found themselves leading a talented, established roster with luxuries like a franchise quarterback—Andy Reid in Kansas City with Alex Smith—or all the makings for a great defense—Gary Kubiak in Denver. The Lions have Matthew Stafford, so sure, check off that box, but there are still big question marks with the rest of this roster.
And yeah, Alex Smith is a franchise quarterback, check the stat sheet.
Doubts on defense
Speaking of question marks, what can be made of this Lions defense? The secondary has a couple of outstanding, All-Pro level players in Darius Slay and Glover Quin, and is unquestionably the strength of their defense, but beyond that, who are you trusting to provide consistent, impactful play at other positions?
The linebackers are all an enigma, especially when it comes to how Patricia will use them. Is Jarrad Davis, a young and maturing linebacker who had a roller coaster of a rookie season, going to morph into a three-down linebacker in one offseason? Is Devon Kennard going to be able to generate push and pressure after not doing much of it in New York? Is Christian Jones going to be better than bad?
And up front on defense, are you comfortable with that group from start to finish? Kerry Hyder Jr. is coming back from an Achilles injury and he struggled with consistent production when he was healthy during his breakout 2016 season. Anthony Zettel had 6.5 sacks last year, but four of them came in the first four weeks of the season. Ezekiel Ansah hasn’t been healthy in two years, but he’ll be making north of $17 million this season in an effort to prove he can be a consistent pass-rush threat.
These are three guys the Lions are most likely expecting to give a ton of snaps to, and plenty of opportunities to contribute this season, but it seems like anything but a sure thing due to injuries or history of play. The Lions are spending almost 14 percent of their cap on defensive ends alone, that’s the sixth-highest percentage in the league, but in terms of talent, is this group better than average? Are they even in the top 20, 25?
Roster changeover was a net ________?
Payton asked in his article if anyone could think of a way the Lions got worse this offseason, but he said he tried and he couldn’t.
I don’t think he tried hard enough.
For this entire offseason, I’ve been of the belief the Lions made changes to their roster that made them different. Not better, not worse, but different in order to best fit the vision for new coach Matt Patricia. It makes sense, but it doesn’t change the fact of the matter: The Lions lost some of the best talent on their team in free agency.
Tahir Whitehead was one of the best run defenders in the league last season, 12th in the league among all qualifying linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. So on talent alone, that’s a huge loss. He didn’t fit the physical mold of the type of linebackers Patricia uses in his system, which explains the Kennard signing, but there aren’t many statistics that support Kennard being better, or an “upgrade” over Whitehead.
Mike also mentioned Haloti Ngata wasn’t much of a loss, but the Lions had 13 sacks in the first five weeks with Ngata on the inside. In the following 11 games, the Lions had just 22 sacks, including three weeks where they didn’t record a single one. Once again, for the third offseason in a row, the Lions were on the lookout for another disruptive presence in the middle, and that’s going to be... Sylvester Williams or Da’Shawn Hand? The reigning Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles went out and signed Ngata, so I’m not buying the “he didn’t have much left in the tank” argument.
And now, briefly, a moment for Eric Ebron, a player Mike has defended vehemently as good time, and time, and time again:
Ebron is a legit tight end in the NFL. @ me all you want now— Mike Payton (@POD_Payton) December 24, 2017
Here, in the aftermath of Ebron getting cut from Detroit’s roster in March of this offseason, Mike questioned what the point of cutting Ebron was if it didn’t net the Lions a big free agent addition—which it didn’t. From a talent standpoint, the Lions are worse off at tight end without Ebron on the roster. If Ebron’s salary for this season was anything within a reasonable figure, it’s hard to imagine the Lions cutting him considering their current depth at tight end. It’s nothing against Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, or Michael Roberts, but none of these guys have been given the type of workload Ebron had here in Detroit. Willson (9.94 RAS) is a superior athlete to Ebron (7.70 RAS)—which might surprise quite a few—and is a better run blocker—which probably doesn’t surprise any of you—but it’s not often you see guys suddenly put it all together and have a breakout season in their sixth year in the league.
The NFC North
The surefire way into the playoffs every year is by winning the division, but herein lies the problem for Detroit: On paper, they’re not the best team in the NFC North. They’re probably not even the second-best team in what might be the most competitive division in all of football.
The Minnesota Vikings added Kirk Cousins and a healthy Dalvin Cook to an offense that figures to be more than enough for a team with a top-5 defense in the NFL. As for the Green Bay Packers, they’ll get Aaron Rodgers back, the best quarterback in the league. The Packers addressed their biggest deficiencies in the draft by selecting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first two picks. Rookie cornerbacks can be slow to bring along, but Green Bay has more than enough up front in Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, and free agent Muhammad Wilkerson to disrupt opposing passing games and ease the pressure on their young secondary.
The Lions had a 5-1 record against the NFC North in 2017, but even that wasn’t enough to get them into the discussion for the division crown last season. Without the injury luck they caught in 2017—Cook was injured in the first meeting between Detroit and Minnesota, and the Lions’ schedule was completely Rodgers-free last year—it’s not going to be an easy task for the Lions to dominate their division for a second year in a row.
Lauryn Hill, probably the greatest emcee of all-time, once said, “Seasons change, mad things rearrange, but it all stays the same like the love Doctor Strange.” The schedule for the Detroit Lions will inevitably seem different as the natural attrition of an NFL season takes hold, it always does, but right now? Right now? It seems like an absolute hellscape where the term “margin for error” doesn’t even exist in imagination.
Setting aside the difficulty of the Lions’ in-division schedule, Detroit’s schedule seems to sink into a different circle of Dante’s Inferno every week after their home opener against the New York Jets. Detroit’s first date with the devil is a game at Levi’s Stadium against the most hyped team since teams have been hyped, the San Francisco 49ers. After that, Detroit takes on the Patriots at home, the Dallas Cowboys on the road, the Miami Dolphins in the state of Florida—aka hell on Earth where anything goes—and a matchup with the Seattle Seahawks at Ford Field to round out the first half of their out-of-division schedule. Woof.
Fast forward to Week 11 and it’s the Carolina Panthers back at Ford Field—that went wonderful the last time Cam Newton and Co. showed up—then it’s Week 13 and the literal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse lead the Rams into Detroit. Finally, it’s back-to-back road games to round out the Lions’ non-divisional schedule, a matchup with the Cardinals and a game against the Buffalo Bills in the dead of winter.
With all of the unknowns, all of the unproven commodities on both sides of the ball, and even at the head coaching position, it’s hard to make the case the Lions are set up for a playoff run in 2018.