Tuesday, August 03, 2004

What a playmaker means...

So one topic with the Lions that I've bene meaning to discuss is how little difference there really is in the NFL between the so-called "Great" teams, and a team like the Lions. When push comes to shove, a single player making a single play can make a huge difference in the fortunes of an NFL team. The teams are really that even. We look at statistics and analyze the death out of them to say this team is so much better than this team, but it really misses the point - that even in statistical mismatches that the games are often as close as a single touchdown.

Take the Lions last year - a 5-11 season. In that season, they had 11 games out of 16 that were up for grabs in the 4th quarter. Forget statistics for a minute and follow this arguement. In 11 of those games, only one or 2 plays would have been enough to secure a victory. Take for example, our first game against Minnesota - we lost 23-13. This game was probably the most symbolic of what I'm talking about. Minnesota outgained the Lions 414 to 302. But 205 of Minnesota's yards came on only 3 plays - a 61 yard run by Moe Williams, a 72 yard pass to Randy Moss, and a 72 yard pass to Kelly Campbell. Minnesota also intercepted 2 passes in the end zone in the 4th quarter, and held the Lions out of the endzone on another series when they had 1st and goal on the 1. Minnesota got the big plays, Detroit didn't get even the small ones. Yet the stats and the score look like a much more lopsided game than how the actual game played out.

There are numerous other examples of how big plays, or the lack thereof, can change the outcome of a game. The Lions were within a touchdown in the 4th quarter in both Denver and San Francisco, and couldn't come up with the play to put them over the top. They had a 4th and 2 from the Chicago 3 yard line in the 4th quarter at Chicago and couldn't score. The Vikings scored 17 4th quarter points to beat the Lions in Detroit 24-17. Against San Diego, they had 4 straight incomplete passes from the SanDiego 33 yard line in the final seconds of a 14-7 loss. Against Carolina, the Lions D and Special Teams got them back into the game in the 4th, and then couldn't close the deal, committing penalties that kept Carolina's O on the field.

In all fairness, the Lions also won several games where their opponent had a clear cut opportunity to win in the 4th quarter. Oakland got to within a TD, but the Lions scored on their next possession to make the final 23-13. The Bears game was only a 12-10 win, and the Lions kicked a Field goal with 44 seconds left to get that margin. Likewise, the Packers led 14-13 going into the 4th quarter before giving up 3 field goals to make the final 22-14. The Rams were down 27-20 going into the 4th and couldn't make a play, losing 30-20.

The one thing that is common in nearly all of those games is that either team could have won, had a single player on a single play stepped up and made a big play. The so-called "great" teams always have someone who seems to answer the challenge and does exactly that. How many times has Jerry Rice caught a slant pass, made a move, and ended up in the end zone on what should have been a short completion? How many times did Emmitt Smith break a big run off and score a clinching TD? We all know the superstars for being able to do exactly that - make a game-changing play.

Detroit had 2 Playmakers on the team last year - Dre' Bly, and Charles Rogers - Rogers only for the first 5 games though. They may have 3 more this year in Roy Williams, Kevin Jones and Joey Harrington. This monumental change in the ability of the team to make plays could have a monumental impact on the victory total of this team. When you think about it, they were 4-7 in close games last year. The addition of Jones and Williams and the maturation of Harrington could a) make a few of those wins not so close, b) make a few of the not close losses become close, and c) make a few of the close losses become wins. It's not that far off from happening, especially when you get into the minutae of each game and see how simple things could change the outcome. How many dropped passes last year will be caught this year? How many stupid penalties last year won't happen this year? How many new big plays will emerge? We won't know until these things actually happen, but Based on the additions to the team, chances are good for a significant improvement...