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Monday, January 4, 2016

Detroit Lions - A Tale of Two Seasons

Not two separate seasons, but the Lions' season before and after their week 9 bye.   The differences are stark.   In the first 8 games, the Lions went 1-7.  The 8th game was played in London, against a Chiefs team that at that time was 2-5.   This winnable game proved to be the low point of the Lions' season, as they not only lost, but got blown out 45 - 10.   [It was also the turning point for the Chiefs who went on to win all the rest of their games.]  This was the first game with the Lions' trio of new assistant offensive coaches.  Their predecessors had been fired just before the team boarded their trans-Atlantic flight, so their opportunities were limited.   The team looked to be in disarray.

Mercifully, the next week was a bye.  And the Lions did more than lick their wounds with the time off.  Owner Martha Ford sacked team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew.
This couldn't have effected the play on the field very much. I'd like to say that promoting Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator was they key to the Lions' second half success, as the Lions averaged 18.6 points per game through game 8, and 26.1 from game 9 on. But that might be less than half story.

Here are the results of the Lions' games this season.

Game Lions Opponent W – L
1 28 33 L
2 16 26 L
3 12 24 L
4 10 13 L
5 17 42 L
6 37 34 W
7 19 28 L
8 10 45 L
9 18 16 W
10 18 13 W
11 45 18 W
12 23 27 L
13 14 21 L
14 35 27 W
15 32 17 W
16 24 20 W

Graph 1 shows the production of the Lions' offense in points per game.  Also shown are a 4-game average, and season average to date.

Graph 1 - Lions Points

The first game was not bad for the offense, as they scored 28 points, but they lost anyway as the defense gave up 33 to the Chargers.  Week 6 was by far the best game of the first half of the season. Stafford threw for 405 yds. - 166 of them to Calvin Johnson - as the Lions eked out a 37-34 O/T win at home vs the Bears.   The rest of the first half was close to an offensive drought as the Lions' next highest score was only 19.

They remained stuck on 18 in games 9 and 10, then exploded for 45 against the Eagles in game 11. That's when the new offensive presence made itself known; and the Lions went on to score at least 23 points in all the remaining games, except for a 21-14 loss to St. Louis in game 13.   The Rams finished the season number 13 in point prevention, allowing 20.6 per game.

The red line gives a rolling 4-game average, significantly higher in the 2nd half of the season, and still climbing at the end.  The yellow line is season average to date.  This perked up in game 11, and continued a slow climb from there to the end of the season.

I didn't realize this until I took a look at the numbers, but the 2nd half improvement in the defense was even more impressive.  In games 5 and 8 they gave up 42 and 45 points, respectively. In only one of those first 8 games did they hold their opponent under 24 points - and that was a 13-10 loss to Seattle where they got stiffed by the Zebras, who somehow neglected to give them a first down at the Seattle 1 yard line with 1:45 left in the game.

After the bye week, no opponent scored more than 27 points - a total reached twice.  The first time was the result of a heroic hail Mary completion by Aaron Rogers following yet another horrendous gaffe by the the Zebras, who gave Green Bay a free play with no time on the clock, following a phantom face mask call by an official who was approximately 3 miles from the action.  The second was against the Saints in game 14, but the Lions scored 35 to secure the win.

Graph 2 shows the opponent's scoring, same color and detail as in graph 1.

Graph 2 - Opponents Points

The defense did pretty well in games 2, 3 and 4, but was dismal the rest of the first half.  After the bye week, they did much better, knocking 16 points off the 4 game average from game 8 to game 16. Both the 4-game average and the average to date peaked at the game 8 debacle in London.  After that, the defensive turn around was stunning.   The Lions finished the season 23rd in point prevention, allowing 25.0 per game.  The first half average was 30.6 points, while the 2nd half average was 19.9.

None of this takes into consideration the quality of the opposition - something I might [or might not] take up an a follow-up post.  But the turn-around after mid season gives me hope for the future. The fact that the team improved dramatically in both offense and defense is very encouraging.

The Lions finished the season 7-9.  But this should have been no worse than 8-8, and almost certainly 9-7, but for the inexcusable ineptness of NFL officiating.    Matt Stafford is probably not a top 5 QB under any circumstances.  But he was excellent in the season's final few games.  With him and a few other skill players in key position I think the Lions can become a play-off team again next year.

Addendum:  The Lions played one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year, facing 8 teams that made the playoffs - including Minnesota and Green Bay, who they each played twice.  Next year they have 4 games with teams from the NFC East and AFC South, this year's weakest divisions.   This is just more good news.


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