"I liked them before they were good."
"I saw them at the Silverdome."
"Germane Crowell was so much cooler than Calvin Johnson."
They're Green Day after they were played at every high school dance. They're the Clash rocking the Casbah. They're the Kings of Leon getting all emotional. They're the Black Eyed Peas after Fergie. They're Metallica after they cut their hair.
The Lions sold out. And more than just games. Not the hapless team no one took seriously. They're a good team now. And with that comes expectations of staying good, a strange experience for Lions fans and all those who hopped on the bandwagon. And yet with anything that becomes successful comes the backlash.
After all, haterz gonna hate.
And right now, everyone seems to be hating the Lions. And it's because they're good. On a national level, their success last season is being seen as less than authentic. 'The defensive line is overrated.' 'No way Calvin Johnson can reproduce last season.' 'The Bears would have made the playoffs instead of the Lions last year if they didn't get so injured.' '
They're no longer the feel-good underdogs. Now they're a real football team. For the first time since 1999 they made the playoffs. And for the first time since 2000, they had a winning record. Next thing you know, they'll be trying to shut down Napster.
As so many indie bands have found, once there are expectations, it becomes a lot harder to follow-up on your success. If they don't make the playoffs this year, it'll be a disappointment.
Don't. Stop. Believing.
At least that's what the Lions would have you believe. Yes, Calvin Johnson put up ridiculous numbers. And Matthew Stafford did manage to stay healthy for the first time ever. And yeah, the defense has holes. But why couldn't they be just as good as before? It's not like they particularly overachieved. If anything, they disappointed.
Coming into the year, Ndamakong Suh was made out to be the greatest thing ever. There was no running game to speak of after Mikel LeShoure was out for the season after a training camp injury and Jahvid Best was concussed (again), leading to an improbable comeback of running back Kevin Smith, which was just about as likely as director Kevin Smith having a big comeback.
The Lions scored the fourth most points in the league last year, but that broke down to being fourth in passing yards and, um, 29th in rushing yards. The defense wasn't a whole lot better, giving up the 10th most points. To win, the Lions had to score more than the other team (you know, just like every other team in the league) but they couldn't count on a defensive stop when they needed one. They just had to keep scoring. And for the most part, they did.
The Lions started 5-0, including two games decided by four points or less, the type of games the old Lions were known for losing. But looking at the Lions wins and losses from last year, all of the losses came against teams they probably should have lost to. There weren't too many surprise victories. They were a very good team, but as the playoffs against the Saints showed, they just couldn't hang with the truly great teams in the league.
But you can't write off any team with Stafford and Johnson on it. The Lions will score with any team in the league. But how they will actually fare this season will come down to a couple keys.
1. Players gotta play. There are few team more top-heavy than the Lions. Matthew Stafford established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league last season. But it's hard to forget his past as one of the most fragile humans alive. This preseason he's already had a scare with his throwing hand. If he were going to miss any time, that would be pretty much it for the Lions. Same goes for Calvin Johnson. And the Lions need to have a running back just because that's how football generally works. One of the three backs the Lions have will have to run the ball and none have shown the ability to actually stay on the field and do it. The defense fell apart when Louis Delmas went down at the end of the year. And then there's Suh. He can't step on anyone this year. And collectively as a team, they should probably stop getting arrested and suspended. Depth isn't something the Lions are full of.
2. Someone needs to be a running back – the Lions are excellent at throwing the ball, as anyone with talent like Stafford and Johnson should be. But defenses hardly have to worry about them doing anything else. LeShoure could be the guy the Lions have been looking for. He's a hard runner who doesn't get a concussion every time he is touched, but is already suspended for the first two games of the year. Being able to establish the idea of a running game makes the Lions a much more complex team to face.
3. The defensive line needs to step up – the way the D-line was talked about going into last year, you'd think they were the USA in wars before Vietnam (U-S-A! U-S-A!). They didn't exactly drop the A-bomb on opposing quarterbacks like expected. But they weren't bad either, in particular Cliff Avril continued making a name for himself as one of the best pass rushers in the league. But with a secondary as poor as the Lions, they need to find ways to keep the quarterback from throwing the ball wherever they want. Otherwise the Lions might end up having scores similar to the Pistons this year. And that's never a good thing.
While the possibility for a letdown is certainly there, the fact that the Lions are capable of letting fans down is an achievement in itself. It won't be easy with the Packers and Bears in the division. But settling for merely good would be a mistake. The team is loaded with talent. And less than the playoffs would be a failure this year. | RDW