Monday, January 16, 2012

2011: the season in review

Now that the season is over, it's time to take a look back and review it in detail, both from what things seemed like at the time and how they look now.

Overall, of course, the season was a huge success.
  • 10 regular-season wins, beaten only by the '91 Lions (12-4) and the '31 Spartans and '62 Lions (both 11-3). 
  • A team-record 474 points (yes, even in points per game; the highest-scoring team playing 14 games was the '70 Lions, they of the 5-0 loss to Dallas in the first-ever NFC wild-card game, scoring 347 points). 
  • A point difference of 87, tenth-best. The best ever by a Lions team was +179 by the '34 Lions: scoring 238, giving up just 59 (in a 13-game season!). Unfortunately, they were in the wrong division. The Bears went 13-0, including back-to-back wins over the Lions to clinch the division (19-16 and 10-7), and then lost the NFL championship to New York. (The Lions would get revenge in '35, going 1-0-1 against Chicago and beating the Giants for their first NFL title.)
  • Records of almost every kind with respect to passing: Stafford's 421 completions, 663 attempts, 63.5% completions, 5038 yards, 41 TDs; Johnson's 16 TD receptions. (Johnson's 1681 receiving yards were second to Herman Moore's 1686 in 1995 ... and Moore had 27 more receptions.) Hanson's 54 extra points were also a record.
The comebacks were nice; another comeback in the wild-card game at New Orleans would have been nice, too, but it wasn't to be. Maybe next season ...

Game 1: Detroit 27 at Tampa Bay 20


At the time: A big win on the road over a 2010 playoff contender. A 17-0 run gave the Lions a lead they'd hold through a Buccaneer comeback.
Now: Unimpressive. Tampa Bay finished a lackluster 4-12 and gave up nearly 500 points, yet Detroit managed just 27 points and had to hold off a late comeback to preserve a 7-point win. Detroit fumbled four times, but was fortunate to recover all of them.

Game 2: Kansas City 3 at Detroit 48


At the time: A rout of a 2010 division winner: six Kansas City turnovers, only 116 yards net passing, a game under control from start to finish. The Lions are an impressive 2-0.
Now: Less impressive, but still solid. A 45-point win is good no matter who the opponent is. The Chiefs finished just 7-9 (and, like Tampa Bay, fired their coach), but then again, they did manage to beat Green Bay, and the Lions couldn't do that. Matt Cassel and his backups never established a good passing game, so the 116 wasn't as good as it may have seemed.

Game 3: Detroit 26 at Minnesota 23, OT


At the time: A huge comeback on the road against a division rival. The Vikings and Lions both finished 2010 at 6-10, and both had hopes for 2011. Winning in the Metrodome meant that the Lions, for a change, were the team with an advantage.
Now: Significantly less impressive. Donovan McNabb turned out to be a huge bust - or perhaps he was simply in a no-win situation. Minnesota slumped to 3-13, making this game look more like a problem for the Lions than the big win it seemed to be. Detroit's failure to move the ball in the first half, to establish a running game, and to keep Jared Allen out of the backfield would all be repeating themes.

Game 4: Detroit 34 at Dallas 30


At the time: Another huge comeback on the road; at 4-0, with three road wins, the Lions suddenly look like a playoff team. Sure, Dallas was 6-10 in 2010, but they looked pretty good at this point. Unlike the Minnesota game, this one relied on help from the Cowboys: two interception returns for TDs.
Now: About the same. Dallas went 8-8 and just missed the playoffs, but again, lack of first-half offense without turnovers to blame meant that Detroit was starting to establish a pattern of struggling early.

Game 5: Chicago 13 at Detroit 24


At the time: In a long-awaited return to Monday night, the Lions slog through a penalty-filled game to hold off the defending division champs and NFC runners-up. At 5-0, they're a legitimate Super Bowl contender, or so we think.
Now: Hard to say. Again, the offense struggled, and obviously there were discipline problems with respect to penalties that never went away, but until Cutler got hurt, the Bears were on track for the #5 seed. With that in mind, this was a significant win for the Lions even in retrospect.

Game 6: San Francisco 25 at Detroit 19


At the time: A disappointing loss. The Lions are plus-2 in turnovers and hold San Francisco to 125 yards passing, but blow a fourth-quarter lead and fail to defeat a team, like them, coming off a 6-10 season and looking for more. The loss was more painful because it was at home, and Atlanta, not San Francisco, was supposed to be the challenge following the Chicago game.
Now: More understandable, but still disappointing. Flip this game around and Detroit becomes the #5, San Francisco becomes the #3, and who knows what's different? Still, the 49ers played a truly poor game and the Lions could not take advantage of it. Stafford could not move the ball well enough against a good defense.

Game 7: Atlanta 23 at Detroit 16


At the time: Understandable. The defending #1 seed shakes off a rough start to the season and keeps the Lions at bay the entire game. Again, Detroit struggles against a good defense.
Now: Very costly and less understandable. This was the game that knocked Detroit into the spot opposite the Saints. Atlanta's defense is still pretty good, but the Falcons turned out to be Detroit's peers, and the Lions should have been able to win this one. Inability to beat contending teams made the difference between 10-6 and maybe 13-3 ... keeping in mind that they could also have been 7-9 without those comebacks.

Game 8: Detroit 45 at Denver 10


At the time: A much-needed win, moving the Lions back toward a playoff spot. Untested Tim Tebow is ravaged by the Lions' defense, giving Detroit 14 points off turnovers and failing to generate much offense himself. Denver does get 195 yards on the ground, which is a concern.
Now: The 2-5 Broncos finish 8-8, win the division, and upset a shaky Pittsburgh team in the playoffs, making this win look pretty significant. Looking back, a 4-0 start on the road from a franchise that twice spent 3 years looking for a road win ... and notching two of those wins over playoff contenders (their fifth and final road win would come against Oakland, another contender), well ... even if all the contenders were .500 teams, that's still a lot of progress.

Game 9: Detroit 13 at Chicago 37


At the time: A humiliating blowout that put Green Bay out of reach and began to put the Lions' playoff possibilities in question. A series of poor decisions by Stafford and Detroit's special teams gave the Bears all they needed to secure a much-needed win.
Now: Not so bad considering the Bears' trajectory at the time. Keeping in mind that 14 points came from interception returns and 7 from a punt return, it certainly wasn't the defense that was at fault. Still, we see the same problems that we saw earlier: inability to move the ball against a good defense, and bad decision-making leading to points for the other team.

Game 10: Carolina 35 at Detroit 49


At the time: One horrible quarter-plus followed by two-ish quarters of very impressive offensive football. The Panthers' defense was as bad as advertised, but the Lions gave up way too much and should not have had to mount such a comeback.
Now: Somewhat understandable given the Panthers' 6-10 record, but turnovers and special teams (the only two returns for TDs the Lions gave up in the kicking game happened during these two games) put Detroit in a spot they shouldn't have been in.

Game 11: Green Bay 27 at Detroit 15


At the time: Missed opportunities. Turnovers and penalties. The Lions slowed the Packers enough to give themselves chances to win, but failed to take advantage when they could, and thus endeth the shot at a division title. Some of it could be blamed on injuries, but that was only on defense: the offense, other than at RB, was basically untouched.
Now: Just the same. All six Detroit losses came against playoff contenders: most losses were like this one, where you could see this was an improved Lions team, but also that they were simply not good enough to win these games. The absence of Louis Delmas made the secondary a concern, and guys like Alphonso Smith and Chris Harris played roles they really weren't good enough to play. Maybe that put too much pressure on the offense, but then a winning team can pull out games like that. Detroit, in 2011, did not.

Game 12: Detroit 17 at New Orleans 31


At the time: Better than Indianapolis-New England? Maybe not. Three second-quarter touchdowns put the game out of reach: the Lions couldn't cover the Saints' receivers and couldn't pressure Brees.
Now: No different. New Orleans showed they were clearly better, at least better than a Detroit team with a banged-up secondary. Even looking at this as a throwaway game for the Lions (odds of winning in New Orleans? low), at some point, you'd like your team to play well against an elite team, and it never really happened for Schwartz.

Game 13: Minnesota 28 at Detroit 34


At the time: Again, the Lions have to hold off a weak opponent in Ford Field. A missed face-mask call means Detroit forces a fumble on the final play to preserve a win; the Lions are plus-6 (!!) in turnover margin but struggle all game to move the ball. Is the offense going to be strong enough to get the Lions into the playoffs?
Now: Worse than at the time. This should have been a rout, but the offense produces just 20 points, and the defense gives up 269 yards rushing to a team that was one of the worst in the NFC. Perhaps this game showed the need to upgrade at both tackle positions: neither Backus nor Cherilus can hold off speed rushers well enough to move the ball effectively, and that's on a team with a QB who threw for over 5000 yards.

Game 14: Detroit 28 at Oakland 27


At the time: A dramatic comeback, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat yet again, and on the road in a hostile environment against a playoff contender. Calvin Johnson's monster game keeps Detroit in the driver's seat for a wild-card spot.
Now: A little less impressive given Oakland's face plant against San Diego, but still ... while the defense was wholly unimpressive, the offense did just enough to make up for it, and several teams rode that mix to a home playoff game (New England, Green Bay, New Orleans).

Game 15: San Diego 10 at Detroit 38


At the time: The Lions seal a playoff spot by rolling the Chargers, knocking San Diego out of contention. Up 24-0 at halftime, Detroit can just cruise to a win.
Now: A little more impressive given San Diego's win over Oakland in Week 17, and perhaps also because it was a win they needed to lock up a wild-card spot. Those wins aren't always easy for teams that aren't used to the playoffs.

Game 16: Detroit 41 at Green Bay 45


Now: Inexplicable. With several key players resting, Green Bay forced the usual array of turnovers and penalties that have been characteristic of Lions' losses. Instead of a game at New York or Dallas, the Lions get another trip to New Orleans, and that one ends about as well as you'd expect.

Wild-card: Detroit 28 at New Orleans 45


Now: Pretty impressive, given that in their first meeting, the Saints dunked the Lions right away and wouldn't stop until the lifeguard came over and yelled at them. Detroit actually led at halftime, 14-10 – 10 points for the Saints in one half! – and trailed only 24-21 at the end of three. New Orleans converted three fourth-down opportunities, and those made the difference: the Lions never forced a punt. In addition to OT, Detroit must upgrade at CB and SS. The NFL is a passing league, so you have to have a secondary that either makes big plays (GB) or simply doesn't allow you to make them (Hou, Bal). Another year of experience for Suh, Fairley, and Avril (who must be re-signed) should also help.

Overall, 10-6 and a playoff spot is a big step up, and for the first time since maybe the '50s, the Lions also have a legitimate reason to look for improvement beyond this. They have young talent at QB, WR, TE, DE, DT, and FS, and with healthy RBs and an improved OL and secondary, they could challenge for the NFC crown next year.

Schwartz and Mayhew deserve a lot of credit for what they've done, particularly with respect to Stafford. It's just one season at this point, but there is a huge difference between the way he was playing this year, even in the last two games, and how he played in previous seasons. With another year under his belt, and with a full training camp ahead of him, he should be posting some solid numbers in 2012 as well.

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