By Will Burchfield
With the Lions’ playoff chances beginning to slip and a winner-take-all game versus the Packers taking shape on the horizon, a common sentiment has taken root within the team’s fan base.
“If I had told you three months ago we’d have a chance to win the division on the final day of the season,” so it goes, “you would have taken it.”
Fair enough. It’s a stance informed by preseason projections, which painted a pretty grim picture for Detroit. Nearly every pundit and fan pegged the Lions as a sub-.500 team and gave them almost no chance to make the playoffs, much less win their division. Considering they’re in first place in the NFC North with two games to go, it feels like the Lions are playing with house money.
So, yeah. You take it.
But what if the Lions lose their next two games, cede the division title to the Packers and miss the playoffs altogether? Do we still view their season through the same optimistic lens? Does the current sentiment morph into a more compromising one?
“If I had told you three months ago we’d win nine games this season,” so it might go, “you would have taken it.”
But you can’t. Not knowing what you know now.
Forget about expectations changing based on the Lions’ current position. Forget about the ceiling being raised based on the possibilities before them. This has nothing to do with what the team is capable of today.
The premise that a 9-7 season would have been acceptable is based on the assumption that it would have signaled improvement. And, a slight uptick in wins aside, can we really say the Lions have taken a step forward in 2016?
Fist of all, their 9-5 record could easily be 5-9. (Heck, it could easily be 1-13.) They’ve turned mostly mediocre play into a strong win-loss mark through late-game magic, the kind of magic that tends to hide larger team flaws. Aside from Detroit, the NFL’s nine-win teams have an average point differential of plus-60. The Lions check in at plus-16.
Second of all, they’ve amassed their strong record against a slew of mediocre opponents. In searching for the Lions’ most impressive victory to date, it’s hard to come up with an answer. Was it Week 1, in Indianapolis? Week 7, at home against the Redskins? Week 13, in New Orleans? The latter was the Lions’ best performance of the season, the only time this year they’ve outplayed an opponent from start to finish, but it also came against a team that is 6-8 and hasn’t made the playoffs in three years. Against teams currently above .500, the Lions are 1-4.
After considering the holes in their record, compare the 2016 Lions to the 2015 Lions. While this year’s team has made strides in some areas, so has it regressed in others, rendering the idea of progress pretty much moot.
The defense has been better, yes. After surrendering 25 points and 346 yards per game in 2015, the Lions are holding opponents to 20.4 points and 349 yards per game in 2016. They’ve made particular improvements in defending the run, yielding about 15 fewer rushing yards per game this season than last. (If defensive coordinator Teryl Austin lands a job as a head coach in the offseason, of course, the Lions may have a tough time carrying this momentum into 2017.)
But the offense has been worse. That may seem like a surprise given all the praise thrust in the direction of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, but the numbers don’t lie. In Cooter’s nine games as O.C. last season, the Lions put up 24.3 points and 346 yards per game. This season, with Cooter having had a full offseason to implement his playbook, the Lions are down to 21.5 points and 335 yards per game. Sure, the offense has often looked great at the end of games, thriving in desperate circumstances, but that’s long been a mark of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Special teams have been strong all season long, especially in regard to the efforts of punter Sam Martin and kicker Matt Prater. The former ranks second in the league in net average punting yards (43.9) while the latter ranks fourth in field goal percentage (91 percent.) But this duo was lethal last year as well, so it’s hard to say the Lions have made strides in this area.
What you’re left with is a team whose defensive gains have been nullified by its offensive shortcomings, progress on one side of the ball offset by regression on the other. That’s why the Lions’ success feels somewhat hollow. And that’s why a record of 9-7 wouldn’t represent a positive season or a meaningful step forward. You may have taken it back in August. You don’t take it now.
For the Lions to make this season count, to make it really stand for something, they need to lock up the NFC North either this weekend or next and then make some noise in the playoffs. Otherwise, they will have exceeded expectations without making year-to-year progress. And in looking to 2017 and beyond, where’s the positive in that?