Tomorrow the Detroit Lions will start their 87th NFL season in Indianapolis against the Colts.
The Lions are coming off a topsy-turvy 7-9 season after having won 11 games the previous year and coming within one bad call of winning their first playoff game in more than two decades. There’s some reason for optimism in 2016.
That’s right: optimism. Here’s why:
1) The Lions have a fairly soft schedule to begin the season, facing only one team that won more than it lost last year in the first six weeks of the season. That’s the Packers, a team they beat on the road last year for the first time since George H.W Bush was president and nearly beat at home had it not been for The Miracle Pass by Aaron Rodgers. Otherwise they have the very beatable Titans, Bears, and Eagles (who give up a ton of points), as well as the Colts and Rams, two teams the Lions have beaten in recent seasons. The season should get off to a nice start for Matthew Stafford and his offense, as the Colt are fielding a defensive unit that’s decimated by injury.
2) The Lions have some home-cooking early in their schedule. Yes, the team gets out of the gate with two of their first three on the road, but then after facing Rodgers and the rival Packers in Green Bay, the Lions are at Ford Field for three straight games through week #7. Those three home games are against the Eagles, Rams, and Redskins, all very winnable games.
3) The Lions play well with a hangover. The last time they went into a season after losing a superstar (Barry Sanders in 1999) the team started off 2-0 and 6-2 and went on to the playoffs. Sure, they will miss Calvin Johnson, but the receiving corps is still very good and Stafford’s strong arm will surely find them.
4) Head coach Jim Caldwell knows offense. During his tenure with the Colts under Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy, Caldwell worked his way to the position of offensive coordinator through hard work and expert knowledge of NFL offensive play. In his first two seasons in Detroit he’s had to adjust to having fewer weapons than he was used to. But he’s still managed to go 18-14 even though he’s had to shuffle personnel. Now that he’s had some time to work with Stafford, I suspect 2016 will be the year the Detroit offense starts to purr more dangerously, especially now that OC Jim Bob Cooter has had time to sharpen his plans.
5) Ironically given his pedigree as an offensive specialist, during Caldwell’s tenure the Detroit defense has played with passion. In ’14 they ranked second in the NFL and last year even though they suffered some losses in personnel, they rebounded after a rough start. Over the second half of the season in 2015 the Detroit defense surrendered 19 points a game, good enough to help the team go 6-2 and nearly claw into the playoffs.
6) Say what you will, Matthew Stafford is a talented quarterback, who at age 28 is entering the prime years of his career as an NFL player. When he’s had a decent cast around him, Stafford has often looked brilliant. At other times, admittedly, he can make poor decisions. But those mental lapses are fewer and fewer. His raw ability is now fortified with a more seasoned approach as a field leader. He’s less of a gunslinger now. I expect a great season from Stafford, who has topped 4,000 yards in the air in each of the last five seasons.
7) It’s about time. The Lions have suffered far more than any team should. They’ve had a winless season, heartbreaking losses, weird calls go against them, freak injuries, and been ruined by rudderless leadership. But still, they find a way to get us back to our TV sets to watch them each Sunday. Even last year’s team, which came out 0-5 and 1-7, played inspiring football in November and December. For a franchise that has exactly ONE PLAYOFF WIN in the last 40+ years and remains one of the only teams to never reach a Super Bowl, hasn’t the time come to exorcise the demons? Please?
I’ll predict a 10-6 record and a wild card spot for the Lions. What do you think?