The Detroit Lions have spent years treading water. They stay afloat just enough to keep the fans from abandoning ship, yet the team isn't going anywhere. The Lions have just completed a season far worse than their "average" seasons. There were flickers of hope, but as a lifelong Lions fan, I want to know what is holding them back from getting that coveted Super Bowl win, or even an appearance? Why can't the Lions win?
A Little Lions History
During the lion's share of the 1950s, Detroit was a powerhouse in the NFL. They won three championship titles, competed in a fourth title game, and had some of the greatest players in the sport. When the 1957 season concluded with a roaring triumph over the Browns, 59-14, no one thought the Lions would go on to become one of the most middle-ground franchises in history. They've made the playoffs only 12 times in the last 60 seasons, often as a wild card. They have only made it past the first round once. With all this in mind, let's take a look at the situation and see if we can come to a solution to the Detroit Lions Super Bowl drought.
Most Recent SeasonThe Detroit Lions finished the 2019-2020 season at a dismal 3-12. There were sparks of hope throughout the season, but the Lions weren't able to beat their average season record. Their average season since 1967, when the Super Bowl was implemented, has been a disheartening 7-9. They don't do much better when they are on the winning side of the record. The average winning season record since 1967 is 9-7. This isn't a winning record that will get the team a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. This record often leaves the Lions scrambling to make it as a Wild Card. So, what should the Lions change to have a better chance at the playoffs and ultimately a Super Bowl?
Cowboys and Indians...and Packers too.Stiff competition could be one of the biggest reasons the Lions haven't made it past round one of the playoffs since 1967. This isn't something they can change. The ability of competition is out of the team's hands, but it will be examined nevertheless. A little before the time of the Super Bowl, the 1962 team rivaled the 1957 team in terms of aptitude and prowess, but the Packers went 13-1 that season, to the Lions' 11-3, and at that time only one team from each division made the playoffs. Bad luck for a decent Lions team. Since that year, of the 12 years that the Lions have made the playoffs, wild card or not, they have been dropped by the Redskins three times and the Cowboys twice. That's over 41% of their playoff appearances hindered by these two teams. However, the Lions barely have a 50-50 regular-season record with any team currently in the NFL. The Lions have a 50% or less historical record with 26 teams in all. Three others are very close to this percentage. The only team the Lions have ever been truly better than lucky against is the Cleveland Browns, and what is that actually saying? Beating the Browns is like beating your little brother. It's fun to win, but it's not really showing anyone your ability.
OwnersIn the current NFL era, most team owners are involved heavily with the team, and it's usually one big family. However, the Fords are a private family and mostly keep to themselves. Without this family-like tie to the owners, the team is missing a key element. Many of the Lions' competitors have a bond with owners that encourages a win. The antiquated organization of the Detroit Lions ownership could be a considerable hindrance to the team's ability to win.
Quarterback - The Lions have waited many years for a quarterback to match the goals of the team. They finally acquired Matthew Stafford in 2009. Stafford has thrown an average of 3,729 yards per year in his time with the Lions. That average is significantly decreased by his first year in the NFL when he threw 2,267 yards in 10 games, his 2010 season when he only threw for 535 yards in 3 games, and finally this year when he racked up 2499 yards in 8 games. If you exclude those 3 years of play, Stafford averages around 4,465 yards per season. He is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL not to win a playoff game, yet!
Coaches - Perhaps this is where the Lions have had the least luck in recent years. The plague of "bad" coaches has been long and worrisome. Since 1967 the Detroit Lions have only had one coach with a winning record. Joe Schmidt, who coached from 1967 to 1972, won 43 of 84 games. The next closest winning coach was Wayne Fontes, 1991 Coach of the Year. Fontes held an overall record of 66-67. When a Coach of the Year doesn't end his tenure with a winning record, something is fundamentally wrong. Perhaps this isn't a reason the Lions can't win, maybe coaching is a symptom of a more significant issue.
Lack of hope for players - Where good players' talent is wasted? Imagine being drafted by the Lions. You would probably think, "I'll never win on this team, so why try?" This likely isn't the case for Barry Sanders, Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, or Golden Tate, who is being traded to the Eagles. These are all great players who have reached great heights as part of the Lions organization, but they weren't or aren't members of playoff-caliber ensembles. Why? Coaches? Or perhaps its bad draft picks.
Bad Drafts - Being in the middle of the pack won't earn you an excellent spot for draft picks. The Lions had to have the worst season in modern history to secure Matt Stafford in 2009. However, these middle-of-the-road seasons aren't helping. Conceivably, the Lions should look to do much worse if they want to get better. That's not to say that draft picks aren't getting work done. Draft picks could be a vital factor in the Lions issue and aren't something easily remedied.
First Half TeamThey just can't finish! The Lions often fall apart in the second half. Imagine what kind of talk the coach giving in the locker room. Perhaps conditioning is a problem? Whatever the issue, the team just can't play for a full game. If they get a big enough lead in the first half, the Lions can usually hold on for the win, but if it's a close game, a loss can be expected. This has to be addressed by coaching staff for the team to move beyond its current mediocre level.
Stats Point to Weakness
Penalty yards, turnovers, and sacks...these are the areas that definitely need to be considered as reasons for the Lions lifetime lack of Super Bowl achievement. Detroit has spent many seasons on the upper half of penalty yards. This season, though better than average, still ended in misery. The Lions have even had many seasons when they have had half as many penalty yards as they did rushing yards. This is a step forward, half step back dilemma. Though you make progress this isn't a way to make the playoffs. How can you expect to be better than moderate if you are always middle of the pack or worse in penalty yards? No matter how good a team is, it's hard to overcome multiple mistakes.
The Lions also faced a deficit of 28 sacks on the season compared to 43 by their opponents against them this season. The same goes for turnovers. The Lions had more than double the turnovers compared to opponents 31 to 15 respectively. This includes both fumbles and interception.
At the end of the season, the Lions always end up high on the list for penalty yards per game, as well as in passing and fumble turnovers, and sacks. The Lions will not be able to have a winning season if they don't get these numbers under control. I believe this is the number one reason for failure each season.