Lions

Surprise: Detroit Lions a Top Tier NFC Team

| by David Berri

The NBA and NFL are currently in a similar spot. The Detroit Lions have played eight games and have a record of 2-6. The Detroit Pistons have played eight games and also have a 2-6 record. With the NBA, though, the sample is considered too small to reach a definitive conclusion (although I think I am pretty sure the Pistons are not going to be great this season).

For the NFL, the sample of games played represents half of the eventual population. Yes, eight games is still not much of a sample. But we are also not going to get much more, so let’s start jumping to conclusions. 

The Lions Are Immensely Improved

As noted, the Lions are only 2-6. Last year the Lions were 1-7 after eight games. And in 2008 the Lions were 0-8 at the midpoint. So the Lions have improved, but in terms of wins and losses the improvement appears modest.

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In evaluating teams, though, we know that wins and losses aren’t the entire story. For example, the Pistons have been outscored by seven points per game. That suggests – as I indicated above – that the Pistons are not really that good this season.

The Lions, though, look much better when we consider margin of victory (MOV). So far the Lions have scored 203 points while allowing 188. In addition, Pro Football Reference tells us the Lions Strength of Schedule (SOS) ranks the highest in the NFC.  Pro Football Reference also has a measure – the Simple Rating System (SRS) – that combines MOV and SOS. And according to SRS, the Lions – with a 4.5 mark — rank 3rd in the NFC. Yes, the 2-6 Lions – according to SRS – are the third best team in the NFC.

Last season the Lions had a -14.4 SRS.  Not sure what the record is for improvement in SRS, but one suspects that a leap of 18.9 is pretty impressive.

And it is even more impressive when we consider the history of the Lions. The Lions have not had a positive SRS since 2000, or the year before Matt Millen came to Detroit with a mission to destroy the franchise. And the last time the Lions had an SRS that was as high as what we see in 2010, it was 1995 and the Lions were led by Barry Sanders; and before 1995 the last time the Lions bested the 4.5 mark was 1981 (when the team was led by Billy Sims). In sum, although the Lions are only 2-6, this is actually one of the better Detroit teams in my lifetime (and yes, that in itself is somewhat depressing).

The QB Story

When we think about why a team succeeds or fails, we often look at the quarterback position. For the Lions, quarterbacks historically struggle. And that is the same story this year. 

Matthew Stafford – the number one pick in 2009 — has only appeared in three games this season, after missing six games in his rookie season. And when he has played, Stafford hasn’t posted amazing numbers. Last season Stafford posted a 0.151 WP100 [Wins Produced per 100 plays]. Average WP100 in 2009 was 0.497, so Stafford was well below average. This season he has improved this mark to 0.315. Yes, it is better. But yes, it is still below average.

Stafford – once again – has missed most of the season. The quarterback who has taken the majority of snaps for the Lions is Shaun Hill, and he has done more than Stafford. But as the following table indicates, Hill’s WP100 of 0.391 is still below average.

Although Hill is below average, he is still posting a higher WP100 than Brett Favre (the QB with the most experience) and Sam Bradford (the QB with the least experience). Of course, quarterbacks are inconsistent (a point made in The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins). So these numbers can change (although they might).

For now, though, the top quarterbacks in the game – in terms of WP100 – are Michael Vick, Phillip Rivers, and Kyle Orton. And it appears Tony Romo does a bit more than Jon Kitna (as Wade Phillips discovered).

One last note on quaterbacks… if we look at the difference between the NFL’s metric (QB Rating) and WP100 we can see who is the most overrated and underrated. Topping the list of overrated quarterbacks is David Garrard. Eli Manning should also be seen as overrated. The list of underrated signal callers begins with Donovan McNabb and Mark Sanchez.

Again, this is football.  So these numbers will probably change. Maybe that wouldn’t happen if NFL teams played 82 games, although I suspect the interaction effects are so large in football that even with a much longer schedule players would be relatively inconsistent (by the way, intereaction effects in the NBA are much, much smaller). So if you don’t like where a quarterback is rated, wait a few more game. By the end of the season this list might look quite different (then again, maybe it won’t).

- DJ