How important is this final month for Jim Schwartz’ tenure in Detroit?
I’m going to start this discussion by listing a number of cherry-picked teams who won 6 of their first 8 games.
- The 2011 Detroit Lions
- The 2011 Cincinnati Bengals
- The 2011 New York Giants
- The 2010 Atlanta Falcons
- The 2010 New York Giants
- The 2010 Baltimore Ravens
- The 2009 New England Patriots
- The 2009 Cincinnati Bengals
- The 2009 Dallas Cowboys
- The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers
- The 2008 Washington Redskins
- The 2008 Carolina Panthers
- The 2007 Tennessee Titans
- The 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers
- The 2007 Detroit Lions
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of teams that started 6-2. The 2008 Ravens and Steelers and the 2007 Giants all have 6-2 starts in the last five years that resulted in deep playoff and super bowl appearances. They also have a couple of 6-2 starts that fizzled out before the beginning of the playoffs. But this is 15 of the 20 teams that began exactly 6-2 in their first eight games. Between those first 12 teams (excluding the 2011 teams), 6 of them managed to win their division. But those 13 teams have combined for just two playoff wins. Simply put, you can win a ton of games before Halloween, and it doesn’t say anything about the talent of your team beyond the fact that you have a significant advantage in going to the playoffs. Teams that start 6-2 over the last five years are .500 teams in the second half of the year, as a group.
Which brings us to Jim Schwartz’ 2011 Detroit Lions, who are struggling to find a way to grab a wild card spot in a three way tie for the 5th seed with the struggling Chicago Bears and the not all that impressive Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons, I believe, are expected to make it to 10 wins and get one of the last two playoff spots. Whether they get the fifth or sixth seed depends on how the Bears and Lions finish, but at 10 wins, the Falcons will clinch a playoff spot one way or another because only the Lions and Bears can mathematically make it to 10 wins without clinching their division. And the only thing that can keep the Falcons out of the playoffs at 10 wins is if the Lions win out to get the 5th seed at 11-5.
But after the Falcons get themselves into the field, a 9-7 6th seed has about a 50-50 chance of occurring mathematically. Without chewing through a whole lot of farfetched tiebreakers or situations where the Cardinals or Seahawks win out, the obvious front runner for the last wildcard spot is whoever finishes second in the NFC North. And presuming the Lions get to 8 wins after taking care of Minnesota this week at home, the Lions have a really good chance to make the postseason if they can avoid a huge collapse.
The Lions haven’t made the postseason since 1999, haven’t posted a winning record since 2000, and haven’t posted a winning record and made the playoffs since Barry Sanders was in his prime in 1997. Based on those facts alone, the end of this season is huge for the Lions. That lengthy history of defeat also will serve to protect Jim Schwartz’ job status regardless of the results they post at the end of the season. But to flip the discussion on it’s head, the Lions need to post at least a 2-2 finish before we can even argue that their season has been successful. A 2-2 finish gets the Lions into the postseason more than half of the time, and it’s obviously not the fault of Schwartz if he doesn’t get enough help to make the playoffs at 9-7. In short, I believe at 9 wins, the Lions can call themselves on the right track, or at least spinning their wheels in place compared to last year, where at 8 wins, I think the Lions may have regressed over last season’s 6-10 finish from last year, when the Lions won four games to close out their season.
If they’ve regressed from 2010, I think they need to take a critical view of their entire operation. The Lions will have reached a point where Calvin Johnson was pretty quiet over a 3-8 finish for the Detroit Lions. They will have reached a point where a passing offense run primarily by backup QB Shaun Hill was more effective in 2010 than the passing offense spearheaded by a healthy Matthew Stafford in 2011 was. They will have made no headway on developing a running game. And the offensive draft picks made by the Lions in the last three drafts will have produced preciously little return on their investment, compared to the greatness of their defensive picks and signings.
There’s still time this year to make the above arguments look like nitpicking. But if the Lions finish strong and make the above arguments look weak, the Lions will have finished second place in the NFC North, and will have made the postseason with a 10-6 record and have put together a three game winning streak heading into Week 17. At 10-5, there’s no way the Lions season can be spun where it doesn’t look like a significant improvement over their recent past.
But the Lions are going to have to play significantly better to run off those three wins. And based on the last seven games, the Lions may not be good enough just yet to pull off that run and a 10 win season. Will they ever? I think they either need to prove, 1) they are already at that level and have underachieved of late; or 2) they need to start drafting significantly better on offense, while 3) accelerating the process of winning with offensive free agents.
And I think those last two propositions put head coach Jim Schwartz in a really bad situation that reeks of having to win in 2012 with a roster that might not be as close as we thought when the Lions opened 5-0 this season.