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Lions to follow 49ers path? ESPN’s Bill Barnwell makes compelling case

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Could the Lions make a worst-to-first jump? ESPN lays out a convincing case.

Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

I’ll be honest, when the first comparisons between the 2019 Detroit Lions and the 2018 San Francisco 49ers began to emerge, I didn’t think much of it. It seemed like a desperate grasping of straws from Lions fans craving for any sign of optimism going forward. A team that went from 4-12 to the Super Bowl was an easy source of inspiration, especially one with a head coach in his third year. But this league has a rich history of head coaches that struggled in their first two years and never turned it around. Kyle Shanahan was one of the very rare exceptions.

But since these comparisons were made by fans in the waning moments of the 2019 season, others have started to make this connection, too. Last week, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said there “are some parallels to San Francisco,” who, like the Lions, got to coach the college all-star game in Mobile.

Now ESPN’s Bill Barnwell is seeing similarities between the two situations. This week, Barnwell listed “Five teams that could be the 49ers of 2020” and the Detroit Lions were at the top of his list.

Some of the parallels he makes are obvious: The 49ers were without Jimmy Garoppolo for the entire 2018 season. The Lions went winless without Matthew Stafford in the final eight games of the 2019 season.

Other comparisons are a bit more interesting. Take, for example, Detroit’s poor interception “luck” in 2019. Per Barnwell, the Lions had a league-low interception rate of 1.1%, and because interception rate is one of the most inconsistent year-to-year stats, the Lions should see improvement in 2020.

“Over the past decade, 20 teams have posted an interception rate under 1.5%,” Barnwell wrote. “The following year, their average interception rate was 2.6%.”

Similarly, the 49ers had just two interceptions last year. This year, they had 12.

Additionally, Barnwell notes that adding a key defensive piece at the top of the draft could be the boost that the Lions need. Nick Bosa has been a stud in his rookie year for the 49ers, and while Barnwell admits it’s unlikely they’ll get Chase Young, the Lions have a golden opportunity to grab an immediate impact player in the draft.

“Even without adding Young, the Lions should be able to nab somebody who will make a significant difference on the defensive side of the ball,” Barnwell said. “Early mock drafts have the Lions opting for Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah, which would give Detroit the outside corner it has long lacked across from Slay.”

Of course, the biggest difference here is the set of coaches. Shanahan has been long viewed as an offensive genius and saw his success travel from Houston to Washington and Atlanta before landing in San Francisco. While Matt Patricia had a similar reputation as a defensive genius, he doesn’t have the deep resume that Shanahan has.

Finally, Barnwell points out an important sign of potential positive regression for Detroit that has been mentioned a few times here: the Lions’ poor record in close games. Take, for example, this eye-opening stat from Barnwell.

Detroit was 2-4-1 when it held a lead with 15 minutes to go; the rest of the league was 198-33.

Or this one:

They lost or tied three games they were winning with one minute to go and lost a fourth that was tied in the final minute. Three of those four games were against teams that made it to conference title games.

The entire piece is worth a thorough read, as it makes a fair argument for both the similarities and the differences between the Lions and 49ers. And it goes much deeper than the basic face-value comparison.

There is no guarantee that there will even be a “2020 49ers team” next season, but nothing wrong with a little January hope.