COMMENTARY| The Detroit Lions have long suffered the stigma of being a bottom feeding team that has been perennial losers for most of their existence. Everyone remembers the infamous 0-16 season but do you know that in the last 50 NFL seasons only 14 Lions teams have posted winning records and only once in 1993 did they win more than 10 games? After serving as the model for ineptitude in sports for half a century it finally seems like they are starting to turn things around.
I know what your thinking, why then did they go 4-12 last year? Why did the same old Lions miss the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons? What is it that almost every other NFL team has that they don’t? The answer is confidence and confidence breeds unity and unity breeds wins and wins breed a winning traditions. Every NFL team right now is talking about it weather they call it confidence or swagger or playing with an edge. They all know that the difference between the 1st round players drafted with the same size and stats as the 7th round player is confidence in themselves and their abilities. They call it intangibles, it’s the one thing you can’t teach on a blackboard or in a playbook. It has to be earned on the field and has to be earned together. Building a team that is willing to go to war together is the key its not how many pro bowlers you have or 1st round picks its how they play together that makes the difference. Why are these same old Lions different?
#5 Free Agent Interest– Everyone wants to play for a winner, and players know which teams give them the best chance for success. Sure there are those players in the NFL that go where ever the biggest paycheck is, but most players want at least a glimmer of hope for a championship. Players like Reggie Bush & Glover Quin bring leadership and confidence to the team. Players wanting to be in Detroit and wanting to play with Detroit Lions players starts the ball rolling and makes others believe that this team has something going for it. Teams like the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys have done it for years and are perennially seen as hot spots for veteran leaders to finish out their careers and possibly get one last shot at the show. The Lions are not at that level yet but think back to the last time they signed a big name free agent. Can you? I can’t. I do know that when you have successful people that want to work with you it makes you feel successful.
#4 The Big Uglies– The Lions have said farewell to Jeff Backus and for all his criticism and lack of team success he was one of the most consistent and durable linemen in the NFL and was a fixture at the position for the Lions for more then a decade. Now we have first round pick Riley Reiff taking over who showed signs of great athleticism and versatility by playing H back last year. He has all the physical tools for success and has had a year to learn how the system works and his role in it. Paired with Rob Sims on that side and Dominic Raiola the Lions have one of the most athletic left sides in the NFL. Throw in the addition of mauler Larry Warford who was a steal in the third round of the draft this year, and you’ve got the makings of what could be a real strength for the offense. Giving Matthew Stafford the chance to make magic happen while giving Reggie Bush and Mikel Leshoure some holes to bust some runs into the secondary. The longer they play together the stronger their play will be but I believe that this offensive line has the right combination of young hungry athletic players with veteran leadership. As the offense succeeds they’ll gain more of the confidence they need as a team to dominate the trenches.
#3 The Defensive Line– Probably the biggest strength of the Lions and what most defensive coaches will tell you is the first place to start building a great defense is the front four. Now the Lions did lose Cliff Avril in the off season but we did get Ziggy Ansah who I believe will be a Jason Pierre-Paul caliber player. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are the best young defensive tackle tandem in the NFL. I challenge anyone to name two players under 27 at that position on the same team who are better. Throw in a few hungry veterans like Jason Jones and Willie Young who play with urgency and you get the makings of a front four who can wreck havoc in any teams backfield. I think this is the year we find out that most of Avril’s success was based on constant double teams to Suh and that Ziggy Ansah is a FREAK who will solidify the pass rush and catapult the Lions defense into a championship caliber squad. Imagine being the poor soul who has to block either Ansah or Suh by himself while his lucky teammates get to double team the other one.
#2 Calvin Johnson– Like I need to tell anyone how amazing it is to have the best player who’s not a quarterback in the NFL on our team. You couldn’t build a better wide receiver in a video game. He is not only the best at his position but he is so far ahead of the curve that you have to look back to Jerry Rice to find a more complete wide receiver. Even then Rice doesn’t have anywhere close to the size and strength of Johnson in fact I think the only thing Jerry Rice had that Johnson doesn’t have yet is two hall of fame quarterbacks throwing him the ball. It’s like having an automatic man advantage on the field whenever Calvin lines up. He demands constant double teams on every play and sometimes warrants triple teams when a passing situation is obvious. No other player in the NFL demands the use of two or three players just to contain him. Even when the Lions struggle he dominated, when they have a hard times he sets records and when they finally do get all the cylinders firing together watch out cause it’s going to be scary to see him go to work.
#1 Matthew Stafford– We all know that it all starts with the quarterback spot and teams will do anything and give away everything for just a shot at drafting a starting quarterback. Its the one thing you HAVE to have to compete in the NFL today. We are in the age of the passing game and teams destinies rest of the arms of their signal callers. Its not like it was 20 years ago when you could get away with a strong defense and running game or 10 years ago when a stellar defense and game manager was enough. Now a top 10 quarterback is necessary just to have a shot at a championship. Now the Lions have Matthew Stafford who has all the tools, great mechanics, great leaderships, an arm that can put a football in orbit and the most important thing GUTS. He has faced more adversity in his first two years then most players see in a career, he was given the task of taking a win less team and making them not just competent but competitive. He did it all while averaging 5000 yards over the last two seasons and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio. He has the ability to win games in the fourth quarter and he gives the team the sense that they are never out of it as long as they have him standing upright.
I know there are those of you who will never give the Lions the benefit of the doubt and every scrap of success will be buried under a mountain of scrutiny and doubt. Well those things will probably never change but from what I’ve seen this off season and the buzz here in the D gives me confidence that this time is different.