Going Inside the Numbers to Ponder Detroit Lions Progress

The Lions are playing competitive football, few would argue with that. Some fans are content with competitive football for now while others dismiss it as meaningless since it isn’t leading to wins. Proponents of the former point to progress they see with their eyes while proponents of the former use the fact that most NFL games are decided by a touchdown or less to argue that wins are all that matter.

Which side is right?

I decided it was time to dig into some of the actual numbers with the help of two good friends, pro-football-reference.com and Microsoft Excel. I sifted through ten painful years of results and compiled the total number of losses and the number of losses by more than seven points for each season. I took these totals and converted them to percentages on a per game basis and a per loss basis to get a feel for the Lions’ competitiveness in terms of their overall schedule and more specifically in the games they have lost.

The graph below displays the results described above. The blue line is the percentage of games played that resulted in losses by more than seven points. The red line is the percentage of losses that have been by more than seven points. The difference might seem subtle but stripping the wins out of the red line data set yields at least one significant observation (hint: 2007).

The Raw Data:

Season Coach Losses L by > 7 % of games % of losses
2001 Mornhinweg 14 6 37.50% 42.86%
2002 Mornhinweg 13 6 37.50% 46.15%
2003 Mariucci 11 7 43.75% 63.64%
2004 Mariucci 10 4 25.00% 40.00%
2005 Mariucci/Jauron 11 6 37.50% 54.55%
2006 Marinelli 13 5 31.25% 38.46%
2007 Marinelli 9 7 43.75% 77.78%
2008 Marinelli 16 12 75.00% 75.00%
2009 Schwartz 14 12 75.00% 85.71%
2010 Schwartz 10 4 33.33% 40.00%




Why simply playing competitive football is a sign of progress:
While the notion that most football games are decided by a touchdown or less is true league-wide, it hasn’t necessarily been the case for the Lions. The most conservative way to quantify “most” is anything above 50%. Using that conservative standard it should be noted that the percentage of Lions losses that have come by more than a touchdown has exceeded 50% in five of the past ten seasons. Dismissing what the Lions are doing compared to typical results league wide requires a short memory; the Lions have been below league average for quite some time. Getting to the point where they fall in line with what is happening around the league is a step forward.

Jim Schwartz’s tenure as coach can’t be viewed in a vacuum. While he is responsible for the here and now it should be evaluated based on his starting point. At the far left side of our graph we have the beginning of Marty Mornhinweg’s tenure in which he took over for a team that went 9-7 the year before. Optimistic mediocrity ensued culminating in the point where our red line meets our blue line. The two lines can only meet under one scenario: when the number of losses equal the number of games played. The devastation is shown not only in the fact that the two lines meet but that they meet so near the top of the graph. 2008’s 0-16 season played out with the Lions losing a staggering 75% (12 of 16) of games ending with the Lions down by more than a touchdown. The Lions not only lost every game, they weren’t even competitive in doing it.

This brings us to Jim Schwartz. The graph actually looks even uglier in his first year as coach than it did during the 0-16 season. The changeover in coaching staff combined with the beginnings of a roster overhaul produced two wins but an even higher percentage of losses coming by more than a touchdown. Not a great start, but just a start nonetheless. Adding a second year of data for Schwartz shows a dramatic improvement; the Lions are finally back to being part of the rule as opposed to the futile exception.

Why simply playing competitive football is not a sign of progress:
Life in the NFL is all about winning, competitive doesn’t cut it. While the graph shows improvement over the last couple years it doesn’t do anything to distinguish this year apart from the Mornhinweg and Marinelli years. The data points for this year are looking very similar to 2001 and 2006, those certainly weren’t years that served as stepping stones to any place the Lions wanted to be and this year may not be either.

A percentage of games that results in a loss by more than a touchdown of 30% makes for five losses that weren’t even close. Add in a few other losses that were close games and the entire season is shot pretty quickly.

It’s a bottom line business and the Lions are still failing.

What it means from here:
Jim Schwartz have to make sure that adding 2011 to our data set continues the downward trend (It feels wrong to want “downward” but when losing in the basis downward is actually upward!). The best way to decrease your percentage of games that result in losses by more than a touchdown is to win more games. Obvious, I know, but important. If the trend continues then Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew are the right guys in charge. If this graph continues on and looks much like it has for the past ten years then these aren’t the right guys and it will be time to find someone else.

At the beginning of the post I asked which group of people was right. I suppose the best way to decide on that is to first choose your frame of reference. I side with those that see competitive football as a sign of progress when viewing this team in relation to the Lions teams of the past couple years. I side with those that only look to wins and losses when viewing this team in terms of the rest of the NFL. Any progress this team has made is not evident where it counts but that doesn’t mean won’t in the future. As much as it pains me to say, we need more information and at least one more year of time before drawing any firm conclusions on the current coaching staff and management.

Other interesting observations from the data:
-2007 seemed like a pretty good year when you look at the Lions final 7-9 record compared to the other records they’ve finished with since 2001. The only problem is that they probably weren’t as good as their record indicated. Notice that the red data point is higher than the corresponding point for the 2008 season. That’s right, the 2007 Lions were actually less competitive than the 0-16 team when you consider the games that each team lost!

-An argument could be made that the 2004 team that finished 6-10 was the most competitive Lions team of the past decade.

-Matt Millen may have doused the Lions organization with gasoline but Rod Marinelli lit the match.

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Tags: 0-16 Detroit Lions Jim Schwartz Losing Marty Mornhinweg Matt Millen Rod Marinelli Steve Mariucci

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