2016 NFL Preview: Tempering expectations for the Detroit Lions

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The notion that anyone would have an expectation regarding the anticipated performance of the Detroit Lions so high it required public tempering is facially preposterous, especially considering that this is a team that made major coaching and administrative changes in the middle of last season and, going forward, will be without its generational talent, who opted for an early retirement over even one more game with this team.

Yet this is the time of every calendar year when Lions fans’ memories wane to their very shortest. Who’s Calvin Johnson? What’s coaching and management stability? We’ve got Jim Bob Cooter and Zombie Anquan Boldin!

I want the Lions to win every game, and I know that, each Sunday (/Monday/Thursday/Saturday sometimes/Tuesday maybe?), no team will look better on the gridiron than the Silver and Honolulu Blue Crew.

As recklessly optimistic as Lions fans may be at this time of year– which may be the happiest, relatively speaking, since they haven’t yet lost a regular season game– however, there are a few Coors Light Cold Hard Facts with which they need to reckon.   Continue reading

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Calvin Johnson is only 3/4 done

Wild Card Playoffs - Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys

All available signs indicate that Calvin Johnson’s NFL career is over. He’s borne a heavy burden for the Detroit Lions for nine seasons, during which he has performed at historically great levels, although injuries have limited his (still above-average) production in recent seasons. Nevertheless, outside of Johnson’s reportedly expressed desire to walk away from the game, there is nothing to suggest that, if he decided to continue his career, he would not continue to play at a very high level.

In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s projections show that if Johnson, who has compiled 11,619 receiving yards, stayed in the game, he could pull down an additional 4,355:

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That would account for twenty-seven-percent of his projected total receiving yards, and if Johnson were to reach that projected total of 15,974 yards, he would finish as the number two all-time receiver, just ahead of Terrell Owens’ 15,934, though still well behind Jerry Rice’s absurd 22,895. (So long as we’re projecting, it’s worth noting, as the article does, that Larry Fitzgerald (17,323) and Brandon Marshall (16,323) both project to finish ahead of Johnson’s projected mark.)

These projections, like many sports projections, are based in significant part on the performance arcs of past players. This is a reasonable methodological approach, and it’s probably the best and most widely used for these purposes. It has a few blind spots that are worth keeping in mind, however. One of those is the health of the individual player. There is no doubt that today’s players take their health and well-being more seriously and with a broader perspective than those of previous generations, including Rice’s. (There always will be exceptions, of course.) The backward-looking orientation of these projections mean that they will miss both new (or effectively hidden) injuries to the specific player, as well as new general trends regarding health and wellness, both of which could limit Johnson’s future production. So too, of course, could his desire to stop playing entirely. Also not directly included are rule changes and general changes in strategy, and here, those– rules that favor passing offense and a strategic shift to emphasize passing in offensive schemes– actually could push Johnson’s actual future output above his projected total.

Still, Johnson is thirty years old, he’s been banged up in each of his last few seasons, and his team’s present trajectory fairly is categorized as stagnant. As the FiveThirtyEight article reasonably concluded, “if Johnson ultimately decides to leave, good for him. If he ultimately decides to stay, good for football.” For fans, sports always will, in relatively equal parts, be about what was and what could be, and, as fun and important as imagining and projecting the sports future is, it’s just as important to realize what we have and have had play out before our eyes. Luckily for us, Johnson made the latter very easy and very enjoyable.

Calvin Johnson’s NFL career likely is over

ESPN reports:

Detroit Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson told his family and a close circle of friends before the past season that 2015-16 would be his final season in the NFL. He delivered the same message to coach Jim Caldwell the day after the regular season ended, sources told ESPN.

Johnson’s body has been so sore and his conviction so strong that he shared his decision to retire after the 2015 season with only two teammates — quarterback Matthew Stafford and linebacker Stephen Tulloch — with the request that they keep it confidential, according to sources.

[U]nless Johnson has the change of heart the Lions are still hoping for (but not many are expecting), one of the greatest players in Detroit franchise history is likely to walk away from the game.

The full report is available here.

As difficult as it is to imagine these Lions without their all-pro receiver, a change of heart on the retirement decision seems like a long shot, even by Johnson’s standards. While the team hasn’t given Lions fans much to cheer about in terms of postseason success and championship contention, like Barry Sanders before him, Johnson treated us to the special experience of cheering for one of the game’s all-time greats clad in Detroit’s Honolulu blue and silver.

At the time of this post, Johnson has not made a definitive public statement on the subject of his retirement, and neither have the Lions.

Matthew Stafford among NFL’s most-improved QBs in the second half of 2015

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In early November, after the Detroit Lions dumped their offensive coordinator, general manager, and team president, I wrote that people using those events as an opportunity to suggest that the team would be better off without Matt Stafford were wrong.

Those moves seemed to spark new life into the scuffling Lions, and while they remain out of the playoff picture for 2015, there are some signs that this won’t be an entirely wasted season.

According to data recently posted at FiveThirtyEight,* Stafford is among the most improved quarterbacks in the season’s second half:

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* QBR and ANY/A data compiled through December 22.

Stafford accomplished this without a corresponding increase in throws to top receiver Calvin Johnson, which is evidence that OC Jim Bob Cooter’s new offensive scheme is about more than looking out for no. (8)1. Stafford’s improved numbers also could reflect a positive regression to his true talent level, as well as signal indirect improvement in the team’s offensive line. (On that front, the numbers are a bit mixed, showing minor decreases in sack rate and yards lost due to sacks, while fumbles lost held steady, and fumbles increased in the second half of the season.)

2015 obviously has not been the best season for Stafford or the Lions, but the team would be foolish to part ways with their starting quarterback. A better second half from the former top overall draft pick should help to ensure that he stays in Detroit.

On a Northbound Train: ALDLAND Goes Live to Green Bay for Lions-Packers

The Detroit Lions currently own the longest road losing streak by any team against a single opponent in NFL history, having lost twenty-four games across twenty-three years to the Packers in Green Bay. That streak is on the line again this Sunday, when the Lions play at Lambeau Field, and we will be on the ground to take in the full experience.

Breaking this losing streak will be an uphill climb for these Lions. Their 1-7 record obviously compares unfavorably to the Packers’ 6-2 mark, and there is little reason to believe those records significantly misrepresent the true talent of these teams, at least in a comparative sense.

Still, there are reasons for the Honolulu blue crew to be hopeful this week. The Packers, after starting 5-0, have lost two straight games, both away, dropping their road record this season to 2-2. Their home in Lambeau is the NFL’s original Frozen Tundra, but this November Sunday is shaping up to be a balmy one by Upper Midwestern standards, at least reminiscent of Denver and Carolina’s outdoor stadia, where the Packers just lost, if not quite the Lions’ current temperature-controlled den.

The Packers do have weaknesses. For example, no NFL team has a worse three-and-out rate in 2015, something that should offer the Detroit defense an opportunity to slow down Aaron Rodgers & co. And Rodgers’ company is in flux this season. Top receiver Jordy Nelson is out for the year due to a preseason injury, and Green Bay has yet to find consistency in the run game. This week, they demoted starter Eddie Lacy in favor of his backup, James Starks, although indications are that both backs will see action Sunday. On defense, the Packers’ recent losses also have some believing that the team is susceptible to a deep passing attack.

With an offense that continues to feature Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford, a deep passing attack is exactly what the Lions should be emphasizing. Following the major shakeups in the coaching staff and front office in the last two weeks, it looks like this is precisely Detroit’s plan. New offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has been playing to his side’s strengths so far, and while Johnson has been limited in practice this week due to an ankle injury, there’s no indication that he’ll be unavailable Sunday.

On paper, things don’t look too good for the Lions this week, but then again, they almost never have. And besides, this game will be played on a not-so-chilly patch of Wisconsin greengrass, not paper. Anything could happen. We’ll be there to watch what happens happen. If you won’t, keep it tuned here and on twitter (@ALDLANDia) for crucial updates live from Green Bay.

Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

tailALDLAND’s weekly football roundup is back following week three of college football and week two of the NFL.

College Football

Pregame:

  • I caught snippets of ESPN College Gameday and Fox Sports 1’s college football pregame shows. Gameday remains the leader of the pack, but I’d like more time to see how FS1’s show develops. In the meantime, I’ll join FS1’s Joel Klatt in sending good wishes to the folks in Colorado dealing with major flooding right now.

The games — excitement building:

  • With a couple East Carolina fans in town, we watched the Pirates hang with Virginia Tech for about three quarters. The Hokies did all they could, including badly missing a bunch of close kicks, to hand ECU the game. Frank Beamer looked like he wanted to puke, but his team managed to hold it together in the end. Virginia Tech 15, East Carolina 10.
  • We were flipping between that game and UCLA-Nebraska. When I first checked in on this one, Nebraska had a 21-3 lead, and it looked like the best early game of the day would not materialize into a competitive affair. That turned out to be sort of true, but not in the way I expected. UCLA scored thirty-eight unanswered points to beat the now-mythological blackshirt defense in Lincoln 41-21.
  • The game of the day belonged to Alabama and Texas A&M, and it lived up to the hype. Johnny Manziel and the Aggies started very hot, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and choking the Tide’s early drives. A&M scored touchdowns on its first two drives, which averaged 71.5 yards and 2:06 off the clock. Alabama responded, though, methodically amassing thirty-five temporarily unanswered points and carried a 42-21 lead into the fourth quarter. The Aggie defense had yielded to The System, but Manziel wasn’t through, although twenty-one fourth-quarter points wouldn’t be enough to top Alabama. The Crimson Tide remain undefeated, winning 49-42, but Manziel unequivocally proved that he is must-see football every time he plays, and his cohort, receiver Mike Evans, deserves some credit too.     Continue reading

Why does ESPN hate Detroit?

I’ve written before about Detroit’s “inferiority/superiority complex, and one of the ways that manifests itself is in Detroiters’ (and Michiganders’) belief that national media sources ignore or marginalize them.

The reality is that it’s a big country and there’s plenty happening all over the place to fill national media broadcasts. People also probably get tired of hearing about how life is tough in the Motor City. But ESPN’s emphasis on the coastal cities, especially New York and Boston, whether things are good, bad, or uninteresting there, feels like it belies the notion that the Worldwide Leader is looking to spread its coverage evenly and objectively. There’s probably somebody who’s spent too much time next to the Belle Isle salt lick with a scientific analysis of the network’s Motown slights. Thankfully I don’t have anything like that (heck, I don’t even have a television– am I qualified to write this post? any post for this website?), but I do have a lifetime of accumulated, small experiences, little things that build up over the years like plaque, arterial blockage, uric acid, or whatever early middle age male medical condition the target sports audience has, as determined by the concordant commercial advertisers.

I’m not talking about being accustomed to only seeing the Lions on other teams’ highlight reels— that’s just a bad team making the film editors’ jobs easy. It’s things like the ESPN Radio “SportsCenter” segments on their morning show, Mike & Mike, always starting with the Yankees or Red Sox game and frequently omitting the Tigers’ score from the night before. And stuff like this, from two nights ago:

These are small things. Petty things. Sometimes undefinable things. But they’re real things, at least insofar as they’re experienced, or perceived to have been experienced. When things are bad, Detroiters want the attention to validate their sorrow. (That’s why I wanted the Tigers to lose 120 in 2003. At least the record books would have to bear witness to that misery.) When the supercharged Tigers got off to a disappointing start this season, was Jim Leyland “on the hot seat,” from a national perspective? No way. Bobby Valentine? Almost immediately.

Anyway, trotting out all these examples would be an unenjoyable exercise for me and unenjoyable reading for you. It’s about getting your fair attention for bad times and good. And times are pretty good right now. Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and the MVP in the same season last year! He got shelled as the All-Star game starter last night, but he’s dating Kate Upton! Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball! Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in football! (And ESPN’s Chris Carter can’t acknowledge that?)

Alright, enough.

Sportsnight in the D: ALCS & MNF

For the first time in ten years, Monday Night Football was in Detroit, and following a 24-13 victory over Chicago, the Lions are 5-0 for the first time since 1956. The home crowd affected the game, helping to cause the Bears’ nine false-start penalties, and officials only had to stop play once for a foreign object thrown onto the field, which I think is pretty good, all things considered. ESPN’s decision to replace now-banished Hank Jr.‘s traditional open with a Detroit-themed segment narrated by legend Barry Sanders was a nice touch too. All of this helped distract Motown sports fans from the painful, extra-inning demise of their baseball team that concluded moments before kickoff. Even if the Tigers were healthy, I’m not sure Texas still isn’t the better team, and the Tigers certainly aren’t healthy. Down 0-2, they return to Detroit for the third and fourth games of the series. Right now, coming home is about the only thing cutting in their favor in this series. If Calvin Johnson can swing a bat, now would be the time for him to speak up.