What happened the last time the Lions played the Browns in Detroit

In a few ways, it’s irritatingly cumbersome to write about the history of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Long synonymous with deep NFL failure, these two teams were very competitive and successful in that period of professional football that doesn’t count anymore (i.e., the pre-Super Bowl era), meeting in multiple NFL Championship Games in the 1950s. That lengthy historical leap isn’t quite a smooth one, though, since there’s a corporate continuity problem on Cleveland’s side due to team owner Art Modell’s controversial move and (sort of) transformation of the team into the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, with the “Browns” not returning to existence until 1999.

Additionally, for teams as old and geographically proximate as these two, the Browns and Lions meet only infrequently in the regular season. In the forty-seven NFL seasons since the NFL-AFL merger, Cleveland and Detroit have played each other just eleven times. Though they faced off only twice in the 1990s, there nevertheless was an effort during that period to drum up a rivalry of sorts in the form of “The Great Lakes Classic,” which was centered around preseason meetings– there even was a trophy, which, suitably, was modeled after the region’s most famous shipwreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The “Classic” fizzled, though, during a particularly unmemorable stretch for both teams:

Over the GLC’s 13-year run, the Lions and Browns were two of the three losingest teams in football, per Pro Football Reference. Over those regular seasons they ran out 29 different quarterbacks, gave 13 different skippers the whistle and posted a collective .339 winning percentage.

It obviously is tough to get excited about either of these teams on their own, much less when they’re playing each other. But a recent game in this series, the last one played in Detroit and the only one played in Ford Field, offered some real drama. Thankfully, the NFL Films crew captured it.

The 2009 season was Matthew Stafford’s rookie year, and he started ten games at quarterback for Detroit that season. On November 22, the Browns came to Ford Field, where, with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter, they found themselves with a six-point lead thanks to this blast-from-the-past play:

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Stafford now is the highest-paid player in NFL history, but, in 2009, Lions fans still were in the process of figuring out what the team had in its top overall draft pick out of Georgia. He’d soon let them know:

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The Lions will look to make it four in a row over Cleveland on Sunday. A win coupled with a Packers loss to the Bears (who knows) would give Detroit clear possession of second place in the division, which, in my opinion, remains winnable even if I refuse to buy into the hype train the national media runs out after Lions wins in nationally televised games. I’m thankful for the exposure, to be sure, but people are making way too much out of Monday Night Football wins over the Packers and New York Giants, two teams going firmly in reverse this year. The Sunday Night Football loss to the Steelers should serve as a strong reminder that the Lions have done nothing to demonstrate week-to-week continuity, and that red zone offense, in particular, remains a significant weakness. They’re only in the mix because of the poor quality of their divisional opponents. Here’s hoping they can capitalize on a weak nonconference opponent this week. In case you missed it, the Browns, at 0-8, are deep on the Road to XVI.

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Staffords of the future

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Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and his wife Kelly recently became parents of twin girls, an event that presents an opportunity to consider an interesting question, or, at least, a very typical question made interesting by attendant circumstances. When an athlete has a child, many assume– for plenty of good reasons– that the child will follow in his or her parent’s athletic footsteps. That speculation is all the more present when both parents are athletes, of course, as anyone who remembers the Steffi Graf-Andre Agassi wedding (or the Curry family) can attest.

Stafford’s sport, football, has begun a fall from grace in the public eye, and, we’re told, youth football will dry up as parents decline to permit their children to participate in a sport that now almost seems designed to induce lasting brain trauma.

On the other hand, there has been a push for increased inclusiveness in sports, from openly gay or transgender athletes to women pushing their way into male-dominated leagues. Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis sparked a new drama series on network television, and eloquent and mortally conscious baseball observer Sam Miller wrote after the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series win that the chance to see a female player in the major leagues was the only likely historical baseball event worth living for.

These two arguably diverging trends return us to the subject of the Stafford twins and the speculative question at the heart of this post: Is it more likely that one or both of the Stafford girls grows up to play football, or that football essentially doesn’t exist by the time they grow up?

Detroit Lions 2016 Wild Card preview

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Head coach Jim Caldwell has the Detroit Lions back in the playoffs for the second time in his three-year tenure. After ending the season with three consecutive losses, the Lions (9-7) will play the Seahawks tonight in Seattle in the first NFC wild card game, which kicks off at 8:15 Eastern on NBC.

Detroit’s playoff history in the Super Bowl era isn’t pretty. In the fifty seasons since the 1966 merger, the Lions have appeared in the postseason in just twelve of those seasons, winning just one game.

That one win, a 38-6 dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys on January 5, 1992, also was the last NFL playoff game hosted in Detroit, and one of only two ever in the Super Bowl era (not counting games, like Super Bowl XL, in which the Lions, obviously, did not participate).

The national press picked up on an interesting narrative following that win, which featured Barry Sanders, of course, and also Erik Kramer, whom they highlighted as “a strikebreaker,” or, in the words of Cowboys defenders Jack Del Rio (now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who have an AFC wildcard meeting with the Houston Texans this afternoon) and Tony Casillas, “a scab.” Kramer had played for Atlanta as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike, something that upset apparent union tough guys Del Rio and Casillas and, the New York Times postulated, Kramer’s ostensible supporters in the center of the UAW universe (“this grizzled, battered town, this blue-collar, lunch-bucket town”). The on-field performances by Kramer, who had claimed the starting job after starting the season as the team’s third quarterback, and Sanders that day erased any internal concerns that might have troubled the Honolulu blue and silver faithful, however. They also silenced Del Rio:

Del Rio kept up the verbal barrage during the game, or part of it, anyway.

“I didn’t hear him make any more remarks after the first quarter, said Kramer.”

Detroit only led 7-3 at the end of that first quarter, but Dallas already had amassed half of the points it would score all day. Kramer threw three touchdown passes, Sanders finished the day with a forty-seven-yard TD run, and the Lions defense even got in on the scoring action, when Mel Jenkins intercepted starting Dallas QB Steve Beuerlein and ran it back for six. By at least this one measure– Super-Bowl era playoff wins– then, Kramer might be considered the Lions best-ever playcaller.

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This time around, the Lions quarterback again is the lead story. Matthew Stafford has struggled somewhat since injuring the middle finger on his throwing hand (pictured above, both pre- and post-injury). He claims he doesn’t rely much on that finger for gripping the ball, but the injury can’t help. Nor do recent injuries to other key contributors like DeAndre Levy, Marvin Jones, Ezekiel Ansah, Travis Swanson, and Riley Reiff, all of whom are likely to be game-time decisions. It also is not clear whether the team has a running back, although the emergence of Zach Zenner has caught the eye of at least one Seahawk defensive lineman.

While Detroit’s nine wins came on the back of a weak schedule, the Seahawks (10-5-1) also had some bad losses this year, dropping games to the Rams and Saints and going 0-1-1 against the disappointing Cardinals. They are coming off a win in Week 17, but they barely scraped by two-win San Francisco. This has not quite been the dominant Seahawks squad of recent seasons. Still, they best the Lions in all of the usual statistical categories and are 7-1 at home, where the game will be played tonight. (The Lions were 3-5 on the road this season.)

Any pieces of good news at this point are going to be small, but a notable one is the absence of Earl Thomas, one of Seattle’s best defenders, who will not play due to a leg injury. Seattle’s aggressive defensive tendencies also may help twist this piece of seemingly bad news into good news:

Lions fans are upset because Brad Allen, who calls a lot of penalties and officiated two Detroit losses and no wins, will be refereeing this game. Caldwell isn’t worried about the NFL assigning Allen to this game, though, and neither am I, because I think, in general, playoff games are officiated differently; Allen will have a completely different crew under his supervision; and, despite Seattle’s 2-1 record in Allen games, Seattle’s defensive strategy shouldn’t mesh well with a referee who throws a lot of flags. Their “efficient-breach” approach allows them to be aggressive, because they know that, even if their defenders commit pass interference or defensive holding on most every play, the officials won’t flag it every time. It therefore might not be a bad thing if Allen and his crew called more penalties in this game, so long as they do so fairly.

Another matchup to watch will be the Detroit defensive line against the Seattle offensive line, the latter being the only real Seahawk weakness. In a disappointing year from Ansah, the Lions haven’t made waves in the pass-rush department, but a breakout day from the fourth-year defensive end could be a difference-maker today.

It’s going to be a long and loud afternoon in Seattle, where a wintry mix has been in and out of the forecast. It will be tough sledding for these battered Lions. Here’s hoping they find a new gear and, once again, give their fans a reason to celebrate in January.

Stafford at the century mark, in context

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The 2016 Detroit Lions are doing kind of okay! Week Seven is in the books, and they’re 4-3, including a win over the probably good Eagles. In a week of very bad professional football, the Lions’ game-winning drive provided a rare highlight on Sunday. I insist you enjoy it again:

Because the NFL media corps is an insatiable monster, Sunday and Monday found everyone except Skip Bayless launching the Matthew Stafford MVP campaign:

Sunday was Stafford’s 100th NFL game, leading one writer to tabulate a long thread of historical statistical notes, the catchiest of which is the list of quarterbacks’ passing yards through their first one-hundred career games:

  1. Stafford: 27,890
  2. Dan Marino: 27,064
  3. Kurt Warner: 26,097
  4. Peyton Manning: 26,008
  5. Aaron Rodgers: 25,616

Not unimpressive company. As with Carson Palmer’s headline-grabbing passing milestone last month, though, this accumulative distinction requires some context, Continue reading

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

Calvin Johnson is only 3/4 done

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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.

Detroit Lions Morning-After Jam

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The overhead view is of me in a maze,
and you see what I’m hunting a few steps away.
And I take a wrong turn and I’m on the wrong path,
and the people all watching enjoy a good laugh.

Embarrassed with failure, I try to reverse
the course that my tread had already traversed.
So doing the trauma engulfing my dream
invaded through what was an unguarded seam.
The torrent of helplessness swept me away
to the cavern of shame and the hall of dismay.
Inside me a voice was repeating this phrase:
“You’ve lost it, you’ll never get out of this maze.”
You’ll never get out of this maze

Happy Thanksgiving from ALDLAND

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Happy Thanksgiving, ALDLAND readers. Without presuming that you need any help entertaining yourselves today, here are a few suggestions to enhance your holiday festivities:

We are thankful for everyone– over six thousand of you in 2015 alone– who stumbled by this virtual space in the past year. Have a wonderful day, and get off the dang computer!