Assessing the merits of Lions Fever

May, 26, 2011
5/26/11
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Matthew Stafford & Nick FairleyUS PresswireWith Matthew Stafford healthy and the addition of Nick Fairley to an already stout D-line, expectations for the Lions are on the rise.
The coach of the Super Bowl champions notes the Detroit Lions are "definitely a football team that the rest of the NFL needs to be aware of."

The Lions use their top three draft picks on exciting playmakers who each add to a roster strength.

A respected statistical analyst demonstrates the team's quantum jump in 2010 and the likely impact of its draft class. Another describes the likelihood for elite play on the defensive line.

The franchise quarterback, sidelined for much of the past two years by injuries, is bigger, stronger and zipping the ball all over the field during player-organized workouts.

Upwards of 40 players show up for at least a portion of those workouts.

The HBO reality series "Hard Knocks" reportedly gives its stamp of approval by gauging the franchise's interest in participating this year.

Even rock star Bob Seger gets into the act, dedicating a song to Lions coach Jim Schwartz during a Detroit-area concert and declaring: "The Lions are going to the playoffs!"

I'm not impressed by the Lions' business decisions during the NFL lockout. But that sentiment shouldn't distract from the undeniable buzz developing around the team this spring. It's a truly modern version of hype, sparked by a four-game winning streak last season after a 2-10 start, stoked through Internet discussion and continuing through an offseason that remains incomplete for all teams.

Our job is to determine whether the Lions warrant the now-trendy notion they will contend for the playoffs in 2011. Are they an explosive offensive team with an elite defensive front? Or are they a still-rebuilding franchise, one that is merely benefiting from disproportionate name recognition thanks to years of high positioning in the draft?

My instinct is to place a cold compress or two on Lions Fever, at least in advance of a presumed free-agency period during which the Lions ostensibly must strengthen deficiencies at cornerback and outside linebacker. Moreover, their division includes the NFC's top two teams from 2010, and their 2011 schedule opens with road games in three of the first four weeks.

With that said, spring should be a time for hope, optimism and, most of all, positivity. (Even from me, especially during the lockout.) Instead of looking at Lions Fever through the prism of possible pratfalls, let's carve into stone a few goals that must be fulfilled in order for the Lions to make their first playoff appearance in 14 years.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Levy
AP Photo/J Pat CarterDeAndre Levy returned an interception for the game-winning score against the Dolphins last season.
1. Finishing must be a habit. The Lions lost 10 of their first 12 games last season, but six of those defeats came by a margin of five points or fewer. Then, suddenly, all four victories in their season-ending winning streak were decided by one score. The Lions clearly learned how to close out games in a way they couldn't during the first 12 games, whether it was linebacker DeAndre Levy's game-changing interception against the Miami Dolphins or tailback Maurice Morris' late-game runs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Schwartz repeatedly has said this offseason that the successes of one season can't be expected to carry over to the next. But this is one asset the Lions must maintain in their institutional memories after a decade of fostering a losing culture.

2. Someone else in the NFC North needs to slip or stay down. Responding to our initial Lions Fever post, reemer2104 wrote: "I'd be more excited about the playoff possibility if the Lions were in the NFC West. The North could be one of -- if not the -- best divisions in football next year so even a 10-6 record could land you in third and out of a playoff spot."

I'm not suggesting that the Packers or Chicago Bears need to implode, or the Minnesota Vikings need to remain in transition, for the Lions to be a good team. But their chances of joining two other NFC North teams in the playoffs aren't great. Since the NFL implemented its eight-division format in 2002, we've seen two instances of three playoff teams from the same division: The 2007 AFC South and the 2006 NFC East.

Asked about our competitive division this winter, Schwartz again cautioned against assuming carryover.

"It's something you're used to dealing with in the NFL," he said. "[In 2010], everybody was talking about Minnesota and the Super Bowl and they were basically bringing their entire team back, and it didn't work out as well for them. ... You can never anticipate what happens.

"I think we have gained a little bit of confidence in our division. We played Chicago -- they were a final four team -- and we played them really close, less than a touchdown both times. We split with Green Bay and played a tough game at Lambeau and we haven't played a good game out there in awhile. It's business as usual in the NFL -- everybody's good, everybody's dangerous and every coach can find a way where every team can potentially beat them.''

3. Quarterback Matthew Stafford must stay on the field. Stafford arrived in Detroit with the raw skills of an elite quarterback, but to me the point is not so much whether Stafford develops into a Pro Bowler in 2011 but whether he can provide continuity at the game's most important position.

As well as Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton played last season, an emotional swing and a game-planning adjustment take place whenever any franchise quarterback is sidelined. Typically, the change isn't conducive to a playoff run.

Take last season's 12 playoff teams as an example. Stafford missed as many games last season (13) as the primary quarterbacks of those 12 teams combined. The continuity on those playoff teams was no coincidence. The only team that endured any sort of quarterback transition was the Philadelphia Eagles, who had what can reasonably be called a non-traditional backup in Michael Vick.

With continuity at quarterback from the first day of training camp, the Lions would be in position to maximize the exceptional set of skill players they have accumulated over the past three years. Their offense could be as explosive as any in the NFL.

4. Twelve teams must be wrong about defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Much of Lions Fever can be attributed to the addition of an elite interior disruptor to what was already a powerful defensive line.

At one point in the pre-draft process, Fairley was on the Carolina Panthers' list as a possible No. 1 overall pick. His skill set hasn't changed since then, but obviously there were enough concerns about his work habits and demeanor to drop him to the Lions' position at No. 13 overall.

If the Lions can coax elite production from Fairley, it's reasonable to believe their line will further elevate and protect the rest of the defense. But if the concerns of other teams prove justified, the Lions will have a defense that once again can be exploited by upper-end quarterbacks. Their schedule not only includes two matchups apiece with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, but also games against Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Matt Cassel.

5. The Lions must find or develop reliable starters for at least some of the five apparent openings they have on defense -- two at outside linebacker, two at cornerback and one at safety. Help could come via free agency or internally, but let's at least note that this offseason hasn't been conducive to the type of work that helps young players develop. So any hope for a big leap from, say, cornerback Alphonso Smith is reliant on that player's individual work away from coaches.

Regardless, as the charts show, the Lions finished last season with one of the league's worst nickel defenses and least impactful group of linebackers. There are a number of ways to address those issues, but future personnel improvement must be part of the solution.

6. The Lions must squeeze another year out of an offensive line that largely has gone unaddressed during this rebuilding process. Wrote Yjacket2000: "I'd still like to see the Lions spend draft picks the next two years on the O-line like they've spent the last two years on the D-line. The game of football is all about the lines, and if they improve there like they have the D-line, that, in my opinion, could be the difference between being a playoff contender and a perennial powerhouse."

Right tackle Gosder Cherilus must return from serious knee surgery, unless the Lions believe that Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox could step in for him. Left tackle Jeff Backus, who turns 34 in September, and center Dominic Raiola, 32, must maintain their current levels of play.

If anyone could reliably predict an NFL season, Las Vegas would get out of the football betting business. So let's not pretend that we can say on May 26 whether the Lions will make the playoffs. But I think we should agree that the foundation for Lions Fever is real and grounded. It's reasonable to envision a path to the playoffs. In fact, we just did it.

Last year: The Packers ultimately justified their spring status as a Super Bowl contender.

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