Parity, turnarounds and the case of the Detroit Lions

One of the frequently-cited merits of the NFL is its supposed parity. There’s often substantial change in how teams do from year to year, and with a hard salary cap and a short season that can further emphasize the role of randomness (although even long seasons don’t remove the role of randomness entirely), fans of most NFL teams tend to have substantial hope going into the season. There is some reason for that, as we have seen plenty of notable quick turnarounds over the years, including the Miami Dolphins going from a 1-15 2007 season to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth in 2008.

However, there are other franchises where attempts to return to success have taken much longer. The most notable case may be the Detroit Lions, who became the first NFL team ever to go 0-16 in 2008. They fired president and general manager Matt Millen midway through that season and axed head coach Rod Marinelli at the end of the year, along with most of his assistants.

New general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have been in place since then, but the improvements have been more gradual than what the Dolphins saw; the team went 2-14 in 2009 and 6-10 in 2010. Ty Schalter of The Lions In Winter said the Lions haven’t necessarily been on the wrong track, though; quick turnarounds like the Dolphins’ can happen, but they may be the exception rather than the rule and they may have their roots in random chance rather than anything particularly impressive.

“The parity of the NFL certainly makes it possible for turnarounds like the Dolphins from ’07 to ’08,” Schalter said. “I often say that there are a few consistently great teams at the top, a few consistently poor teams at the bottom, and about 25 franchises that are barely different. The margins are so small that just random variance can swing you from 6-10 to 10-6 and back quite quickly. It’s true that major, dramatic, worst-to-first turnarounds are possible in the NFL — but it cuts both ways. If you catch lightning in a bottle, it doesn’t stick around for long.”

Schalter said even that Dolphins’ turnaround carried its problems, and it wasn’t as permanent as fans would have liked.

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“Those 2008 Dolphins didn’t really jump from worst to first,” he said. “They jumped from ‘worst’ to ‘one of 25 in the middle’ and variance smiled upon them; a very similar Dolphins team turned in consecutive 7-9 years in 2009 and 2010. The Dolphins’ leaders took all the praise heaped upon them to heart — ‘running the Wildcat’ went from being a brilliantly adaptive solution to a personnel problem, to something they stubbornly clung to, whether or not it was working.”

Schalter said parity does allow for immediate turnarounds, but they may come at the expense of building for the long-term.

“So, is it reasonable to hope any given team could pull off a quick turnaround? Sure, but be careful what you wish for,” he said. “The Falcons’ recent history is a great example. In 1996, the Falcons were 3-13. They hired Dan Reeves and went 7-9 the next year, then 14-2 and to the Super Bowl. Then they averaged 6.25 wins over the next five seasons. They hired Jim Mora, Jr., and immediately went 11-5. They wouldn’t have another winning season until they hired Mike Smith in 2008, who pulled off another 4-12/11-5 turnaround. The Falcons ‘caught lightning in a bottle’ three times in 11 seasons, and didn’t actually achieve stable success until the last one.”

“If you, as a fan, want your team to have consistent success, I suggest you root for them to have leaders (front office, coaching staff) that consistently make good decisions … the rest will fall in place.”

Schalter said the high role of randomness in the NFL means teams’ records often aren’t indicative of their quality, so not all “bad” teams are created equal.

“Every team has their own challenges to face,” he said. “There’s a big difference in perception between a team that’s consistently awful, and a team that’s just had a bad year — and in the NFL, sometimes perception fuels reality. A great example of this is the recent Seahawks: They went to the Super Bowl after the 2005 season, and won their division every year from 2004-2007. When they went 4-12 in 2008, their fans generally viewed it a bump in the road for a solid franchise — despite turnover and turmoil on and off the field.”

Those kinds of beliefs aren’t always accurate, though, and the 2009 Seahawks would eventually finish 5-11. Schalter said their previous success may have deluded management into believing big changes weren’t necessary despite obvious problems. Sparked by the NFL’s parity and the purported chance every team has, many fans bought into that line of thinking as well.

“When the Lions and Seahawks were about to play in 2009, I spoke to some Seahawks fans and bloggers who told me that the game was ‘not winnable’ for the Lions, and that the Seahawks ‘were not a 4-12 team,'” Schalter said. “I couldn’t figure out where all the swagger came from, until I started to realize that this whole parity thing builds in hope — fans of almost every team believe they can do it every year, regardless of what they just did last year … unless their team is one of the few true bottom feeders. It takes a long, slow descent to the bottom, and a long time down there, before fans and media and players and organizations give up hope.”

The Seahawks’ fans were right in that particular instance, though, as they beat Detroit 32-20. It’s perhaps easy to see why they were so confident, too, as the Lions’ 0-16 2008 season certainly marked rock bottom. Schalter said it’s ironic that things went so badly under Millen, as his hiring in 2001 represented an attempt to build for the long term.

“The frustrating thing about the Lions is that Matt Millen was the Fords’ all-in attempt to build a consistent winner,” he said. “They were the poster child franchise for worst-to-first-to-worst turnarounds throughout the 90s, and giving the keys to Millen was their vision for turning the Lions into a consistent winner. Unfortunately, Millen just didn’t put the time in to be an effective personnel man, and he didn’t have the executive-leadership gifts the president and CEO of a billion-dollar company must have.”

Some have argued that just as success can breed success, failure can breed failure; poor records can make a team a less-appealing destination for free agents, spawning further issues. Schalter doesn’t buy that, though, and instead attributes the problems of the Millen era to simple mismanagement.

“I don’t believe in ‘curses’ or ‘diseases’ in franchises,” Schalter said. “Even during the worst of the Millen years, the Lions were still able to attract free agents — they just didn’t get the right ones, or use the ones they got well.”

Schalter said despite the problems of the Millen era, the mood in Detroit wasn’t all that bad after 2008, though. The depths the Lions sunk to motivated team officials to do a necessary complete overhaul, which they might not have done otherwise. The sense almost immediately was that rebuilding was going to take time, however.

“After the horror of 0-16, it was almost a sense of relief — Millen was already gone, and Marinelli was immediately canned,” he said. “There was hope the Lions would ‘clean house,’ bring in a new top executive like the Patriots’ Scott Pioli, the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert, or even Bill Parcells (who’s been rumored to be fascinated by the challenge of fixing the Lions for years). Instead, the Lions promoted from within. I think that squashed the hope for worst-to-first. The way the Lions went about their hiring process, and the coach that they hired, calmed a lot of fears about it being another disaster, but it took a track record of solid, logical moves before people really bought in to the top leaders.”

Having good coaches and executives in place is necessary in Schalter’s mind, as simple chance can spark a quick turnaround, but strong leadership is necessary for long-term success.

“A franchise’s recovery is still based on two things: the talent on the field, and the coaches’ ability to maximize it,” Schalter said. “The Falcons are a great example, again: after the [Jim] Mora regime melted down, Bobby Petrino had the most disastrous half-a-season as head coach in recent memory. The Falcons couldn’t possibly have been more broken. Yet, they hired two great decision-makers in [GM Thomas] Dimitroff and Smith, and the results were both immediate and lasting.”

He’s pretty confident in the cast the Lions have put in place, and attributes some of the less-than-stellar results so far to simple bad luck, such as quarterback and first-overall draft choice Matthew Stafford’s recurring injury issues.

“Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew are both extremely competent guys, and they’re trying as hard as they can to obtain lasting success as quickly as possible,” Schalter said. “Rumor has it that Leslie Frazier didn’t get the job because he told them he’d need at least five years to turn the Lions around; they knew it could be done much more quickly. Yet, they’ve been extremely judicious with their free agent money, getting stopgaps where they need stopgaps, and making major investments where they need to make major investments. I love their approach to team building — and believe me when I say, if Stafford had played every snap last year, they’d have won more than six games.”

Despite his injuries, Schalter still thinks Stafford is the right man to helm the Lions’ turnaround.

“Matthew Stafford is the real deal, and this is his team,” he said. “I’m completely, utterly confident of that.”

Schalter said the new management team’s made some solid moves beyond drafting Stafford, particularly in the selection of their coaching staff and the change in their draft philosophy.

“I think the strongest decisions the Lions have made have been in the coaching staff. Not only was Jim Schwartz a perfect hire, (defensive coordinator) Gunther Cunningham and (offensive coordinator) Scott Linehan have done excellent work. They’ve also taken a brilliant approach to drafting, we call it ‘BATFAN,’ Best Available Player That Fills A Need — that often leaves us scratching our head on draft day, but singing their praises during the season.”

That doesn’t mean they’ve been perfect, though.

“The only real clunker of a draft pick the Lions have made is WR Derrick Williams, a third-round pick who’s barely seen the field in two years — and not because of injury, just because he can’t hack it,” Schalter said. “I also questioned their decision to make Matthew Stafford ‘compete’ for the starting job against Daunte Culpepper in his rookie year, making him work with the twos all summer and preseason, only to hand him the starting reigns in Week 1.”

Schalter said one positive is that although winning seasons haven’t come yet, there’s a different attitude around the team. He said that’s been reflected in the different attitudes draft picks have shown. Those like Stafford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions’ two first-round picks in 2009, came into a tough situation on a team that had gone 0-16 and probably felt they had to change things around themselves, while 2011 draft picks like Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley have been less concerned with the Lions’ record.

“Players like Stafford and Pettigrew felt intense pressure to come in and make an impact,” Schalter said. “They’ve successfully changed the culture. Nick Fairley didn’t say a word about going to a perennial loser team, just about the ‘honor’ to play with guys like [Ndamukong] Suh and [Kyle] Vanden Bosch.

With that changed culture, strong leadership and an influx of new talent through the draft and free agency, hopes for on-field success are high in Detroit (provided there even is an NFL season this year).

“The expectation amongst Lions fans is that they will make the playoffs this year, or at least have a winning season,” Schalter said. “They were a bad call away from 7-9, and minutes away from winning several more – all this with mostly Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton at quarterback. All of the historically-bad streaks have been broken, all of the demons have been slayed. The talent and staff are in place for a winning season, all that’s left is for a season to happen. If Stafford stays healthy, they go 10-6.”

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