Home > NFL > It’s about to get a whole lot better to be a Lions fan

It’s about to get a whole lot better to be a Lions fan

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I haven’t had an opportunity to write anything about the epic Lions-Browns game, which was–strangely–epic for all the right reasons.  From a web-traffic perspective, it makes more sense to write about teams in the playoff push, as those articles would generate more hits.  But I feel like I should say at least something about the game because: 1) I haven’t written about either the Browns or the Lions since the beginning of October, and 2) the game itself deserves a minor mention at the very least.

There’s a strong American sports bias towards making the playoffs, and while I’m certainly guilty of this at times, I absolutely detest the fact that a game like Patriots-Jets (one great team vs. a average to below average team) will get national publicity and billing while a game between two close teams like Lions-Browns will be a punchline.  I was thrilled to find out that Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were shipped out to Foxborough for the weekend, because it made avoiding them quite easy.  And Lions and Browns quickly turned into my number two most watched early game because the match-up was intriguing from the start.

I’m not being sarcastic there.  The outcome affects the playoff landscape in no way, but heck, who cares?  I can print out a copy of the NFL standings in the morning and see the playoff landscape.  I spent three hours on my Sunday watching Redskins-Cowboys and Lions-Browns.  And I couldn’t have been happier (until the Cowboys scored, at least).  The Browns and the Lions are both depressingly bad, but neither displays the futility that you’ll see in a Raiders game, or a Buccaneers game, or a Bills game.

And more importantly, both teams left Ford Field at the end of the day much better than they came in.

From the Browns perspective, playing the Lions defense solved a lot of long term woes on the offensive end, and this game came a week after their defense showed a lot of life against the Ravens offense.  The team is 1-9, but that’s really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.  This is a team that has, in consecutive weeks, watched both units of their team throw up great results, and now they can spend the next six weeks of the season building on what they have accomplished.

For Brady Quinn, he really needed to enjoy a day that reminded a lot of people of his successful college days because he had just played horrendously against the Ravens.  Yes, a lot of his success should be credited to a Detroit defense that never got any pressure on him, and his two TD bombs were as much due to having his receivers run right through the Detroit secondary uncovered as anything he accomplished, but Quinn’s first four starts this year came against the Ravens (twice), the Broncos (remember when they were good?), and the Vikings.  Maybe all Quinn needed was to not be completely over-matched going into the game.  If this is the case, next week’s game against the Bengals will be very interesting, especially with the recent struggles of the Bengals’ offense.

But this article isn’t about either Quinn, or the Browns.  It’s about Matt Stafford and the Lions.  After the draft, I pegged Josh Freeman as the best quarterback in the class, Stafford as the one most likely to be successful (team-wise), and Sanchez the one most likely to bust.  I don’t see any reason why that prediction should be revised at this point, as the Jets are just now finding out that their $28 million man can’t throw to the left side of the field, and the Bucs are getting better-than-expected production from Freeman, and still sit at 1-9.  But for Stafford, a player who has serious accuracy issues and just struggled through a 4 INT game after missing 3 games with injury, his comeback win for the Lions might have just been a career saver.

That’s not hyperbole.  Stafford was a marginal prospect coming out of Georgia who came with plenty of physical tools and had a steep development curve.  While the Jets are probably (but not certainly, see: Young, Vince) screwed with Sanchez, and the Bucs might reach the realm of mediocre with Freeman, the risk the Lions put into Matt Stafford has the ability to pay off big-time if they develop him properly.  Now lets be clear:  I would never spend the first overall pick on a quarterback who lacks natural accuracy, especially since he got a contract valued at $80 million for six years.  But I’m not so naive to think that spotty accuracy can be a deal-breaker if a guy can get through his progression quickly, move well in the pocket, and deliver passes with rocket-arm velocity on them.  Stafford already has some great pieces around him in WR Calvin Johnson, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and RB Kevin Smith.  The offensive line has done a good job functionally in the passing game, although they haven’t given Smith anywhere to go this year.  Get a brusing guard and a project LT in there and you have something.

All of Detroit’s long term issues are on the defensive end.  And Quinn was exposing that talent deficiency all day, as many a passer has done before him.  The larger point is this: the Lions could have easily crawled into a hole after Quinn hit Josh Cribbs to go up 24-3.  But when Stafford was willing to throw them back into the game, they responded with the requisite big plays and defensive stands necessary to make his efforts worth it.  And while every Lions game the rest of the season figures to be a shootout, and they don’t have much of a chance to make a difference on Thanksgiving against the Packers, it’s time to finally point out that the Lions are a team on the rise.

This is not something we could have done when the Lions hired Jim Schwartz, or drafted Matthew Stafford, or barely held off the Redskins in Week 3 to win their first game in nearly two years.  At this point, they may sit at 2-8, but they have a legit chance at the 4 or 5 wins that many observers thought they would get to.  I think I’m ready to declare the dark days of Detroit football officially over.

So what’s the timetable?  2010?  In the NFC North, I think it’s a reasonable expectation that the Lions can compete for the division title next season.  The biggest issue would be importing that talent on defense, but I’m not even all that worried.  I think if the Lions end up starting next year with that big play offense that Matt Millen lusted for all those seasons, and compliment it with a diverse ground game, I think you can compete in the NFC without having a competent defense.  The best teams in the conference, the Saints and the Vikings, are strong on both sides of the ball.  Everyone else this year is doing it on one side of the ball, and not the other.

The Lions are not that far from being one of those “other” teams.

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