Evaluating Detroit Lions Progress by Offensive and Defensive Rankings


Yesterday, I tried to quantify the progress the Lions have made this year and discussed whether or not it is relevant. I suggest giving it a read if you missed it since this post will hit on a lot of the same thoughts.

Today’s analysis will focus more on the team’s statistical performance rather than game result and margin approach presented yesterday. Are the Lions really making progress? And more importantly, does it matter?

The data set presented in this article consists of the Lions rankings for total offense and total defense from 2001 to 2010. Past research into the characteristics of Super Bowl winning teams (a different post for a different time!) has emphasized the point that even championship teams can have deficiencies on one side of the ball. The Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints had just the 25th ranked defense during the regular season but their offense more than compensated for their shortcomings.

Because of this example I decided to add the Lions defensive rank to their offensive rank for each year so that each year could be represented by a single point. A team with the league’s best offense and defense would have a combined rank of two (1+1=2!) and a team with the leagues worst offense and defense would have a combined rank of 64 (32+32).

The graph below charts the Lions offensive, defensive and “combined” rank from 2001 when Matt Millen took over to their current rank for the 2010 season.

One of the most obvious take-aways from the graph is the dramatic improvement in the defense. Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham have used some big time player acquisitions to break the three year cycle of defenses finishing dead last. Statistically speaking, the improvement has been more of a leap forward than a baby step in the right direction. The 2005 season was the only time the Lions finished with a better defensive ranking than the number 21 slot they currently hold.

2010 is also the only time since Millen began his reign of terror that the offense sits in the top half of the league rankings. Not bad considering their franchise quarterback has finished just one game this year. Not surprisingly, near decade best rankings on offense and defense gives the 2010 Lions a major advantage in terms of their combined ranking. The sum of their offensive and defensive ranks is currently 36, six slots higher than their previous best since 2001.

Another point that should instill our confidence in the current coaching and management team is that the defense and offense have progressed at the same rate since last year. The offense had a better starting point and therefore still ranks better statistically, but notice the similarity in slopes between the offensive and defensive lines from 2009 to 2010. The lines tended to move in opposite directions under previous coaches suggesting that any improvement on one side of the ball came at the expense of the other.

Have the Lions made progress? My answer is yes. Does it matter? We have to wait and see.

Looking at the combined ranks, we see that Steve Mariucci made statistical progress in his first and second years in Detroit. The problem came in year three when he couldn’t continue that progression and the team’s combined ranking ticked up. Jim Schwartz’s job now is to make sure the Lions continue their assent rather than letting it flatten out. The win total looks as bad or worse than many of the Lions records before it but the numbers tell a different story. As long as the stats and the record begin to tell the same story (for the better, of course) then Jim Schwartz will be fine. If things level out from here then we don’t have anything more than another Steve Mariucci. It takes little effort to coax some improvement from a team that has ranked as one of history’s worst so it is what happens from here that is important.

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