Burn me once, burn me twice — yeah we know that one — but burn my 55 times? 55 — as in the number of years it’s been since the Lions have won a NFL championship.
Despite the overall disappointment that they’ve delivered to their long suffering fan base, last season, the Lions’ Ripkenesque streak of futility took its’ first major turn in the right direction in at least a couple of decades. Ironically, optimism surrounding the team isn’t at an all-time high as concerns of the Lions’ secondary and running game, holdouts and brushes with the law and the perceived “inevitable” regression of Matthew Stafford have been the topic of discussion surrounding this team.
While the questions surrounding the season are completely justified — they’re not necessary. The Lions aren’t a team that’s built cosmetically. We’ve been told they’re being built from the ground up for the long haul all along by GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. It’s evident in the way they draft and in their free agent signings and it will lead to some tough decisions. Cliff Avril is a good, not great, defensive end that is flourishing thanks to a loaded surrounding cast on the defensive line. While Matt Millen would have lobbied William Clay Ford to rename Ford Field to Avril Field to keep him, Mayhew knows that Avril is a luxury the Lions can’t afford past this season. It stinks that the Lions will lose a young talent, but in the salary cap era of sports, it’s a way of life and Avril has no place in the Lions future. Forcing him into it would cost the Lions a better player down the road.
The concern about the defense is justified — unless you look at the list of the teams below the Lions in the total defense ranking for 2011. The New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New England Patriots, and Green Bay Packers were all ranked lower than the Lions 23rd ranked defense. The defenses for those fellow playoff teams aren’t nearly as questioned as the Lions’ defense. If the Lions need it to, it will do as it did last year and their offense will be their best defense in 2012 — simply outscoring their opponents. But it’s not like the defense is a total liability, the defensive line is stacked with castoffs with new life like Lawerence Jackson and Everette Brown and late draft picks Sammie Hill and Willie Young providing exceptional depth behind Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams and Avril. While the initial news of surgery for the defenses’ most underrated player—Louis Delmas—caused panic among the Lions’ faithful, it appears now that he’ll be ready for the opener vs. the Rams. The defense has question marks, but it’s not the total abomination that you’re being told it is.
Of course, by far the two biggest cogs to a successful machine in Detroit isn’t a second tier running back, a scrap heap cornerback or even a temperamental defensive tackle. It’s their two best players — their quarterback and wide receiver. If Stafford and Calvin Johnson stay healthy, the Lions will win. There’s no reason to believe that Stafford isn’t a top young QB in the league — 5,000 yard seasons don’t accidentally happen — and despite the Madden Curse talk, Johnson is the top playmaker in football. While a Super Bowl win — or maybe even a playoff win — won’t happen this year, the Lions aren’t a fluke. They’re finally being built the right way.