Just as the popular conceptions of their home city go, the Detroit Lions are an outdated relic from an era gone by. Both have been squeezed financially by changing economic situations in their respective realms, conditions that have forced each to compete with antiquated setups for too long. The Lions had the misfortune of being catastrophically terrible under incompetent management for many years, and although they were finally placed in a situation where they could recover from that burden, their opportunity came at precisely the wrong time in history. Jim Schwartz's team is perpetually pinned to the backs of their head coach and his three best players, and when they're not all up to the task, heartbreaking losses like Thanksgiving's loss to the Texans seem to ensue far too frequently.
The new era of these Lions came of age at the very tail end of the last collective bargaining agreement, a deal that pushed rookie salaries to the brink of professional sanity. Running counter to the rest of American sports, where rookies are often drastically underpaid and represent the largest value proposition in each respective sport's marketplace, NFL rookies were making exorbitant sums of money before ever playing an NFL down. When the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft and signed him to a six-year deal, the $41.7 million that he was guaranteed from the deal was a record total. Not a rookie record. Not a quarterback record. An NFL record. Stafford has turned out to be competent at worst, but seventh on that list of record contracts at the time was the $31.5 million guaranteed to JaMarcus Russell, who went first overall the previous year while residing in a similar guarantee neighborhood with Tony Romo and Peyton Manning. Economic studies showed that the first overall pick was actually the least valuable selection in the first round.
The good news is that the league's new CBA, implemented for the contracts signed by players taken in the 2011 draft and beyond, actually provides a relatively reasonable framework for valuing rookies. Andrew Luck will make $22.1 million guaranteed for four years, a deal that strikes a balance between the ridiculous guarantees of yesteryear and the league minimum salaries bestowed on baseball draftees during their first three years in the majors.1The bad news, though, is that the Lions were the last team to be truly hit by the loser's curse of perennially grabbing top-five picks under the old CBA. The rookie contracts of Detroit's big three — Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh — produced about $108 million in combined guarantees on the day they were drafted. If a team like the Colts had three top-five picks in three years today, those picks would only cost about $60 million in guarantees and have far less onerous terms at the end of the (shorter) contracts
. When the final year of Johnson's deal tied the Lions up with a $24 million cap hold this offseason and threatened to create a situation in which the Lions wouldn't have been able to franchise2 Johnson the following year, they were stuck with no leverage and forced to give Megatron a deal that guaranteed him $60 million, a 20 percent jump on the guaranteed cash given to previous record receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The extensions that Stafford and Suh are likely to receive in the near future will likely be of similar size, guaranteeing Detroit's stars around $180 million while preventing the Lions from building up the rest of their roster. Because those three players take up such a disproportionate amount of Detroit's cap, it's incumbent upon them to produce at a high level every time out. Johnson showed up on Thursday, but Suh, Stafford, and their head coach weren't quite as impressive.
If you had the sound turned on Thanksgiving morning during that Lions-Texans game, you undoubtedly heard Phil Simms gushing about Stafford's ability to throw from virtually a sidearm slot, an arm angle that Stafford used on most of his passes on Thursday. Combined with a propensity for making throws off of his back foot, Stafford's been able to release passes quickly, compensating for a lack of traditional windup with his raw arm strength.3 Unfortunately, in doing so, Stafford sacrifices accuracy, especially on deep passes. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are both noticeably down this year, and with Megatron around, league-average just isn't enough.
Stafford mixed big plays on Thursday with disappointing misses. His most notable impact, however, was when he failed on a pair of subtle plays that often get lauded as ones that skip the stat sheet. During the fourth quarter, Stafford failed to protect his seven-point lead by making a pair of situational blunders. In each case, his offense was facing a third-down play from the Houston 36-yard line. An incompletion would give the Lions the option to take a 53-yard field goal, one that would be on the very edges of Jason Hanson's functional range as a kicker. A short checkdown, even one that didn't have a prayer of turning into a first down, would have been enough to create a reasonable field goal opportunity for the veteran Lions kicker. Outside of a turnover, the worst thing Stafford could do was take a sack that pushed the Lions out of field goal range and forced them to punt. Amazingly, that's what happened both times, with J.J. Watt producing huge sacks on both occasions. Had Stafford picked up even four yards on either of the two third-down plays, the Lions would have been able to take a 49-yarder that Hanson would have had a prayer of hitting, one that would have pushed them up 10 points and forced the Texans into full-on desperation mode. Instead, the Texans were able to get the ball back on punts in each case and scored on their second drive, tying the game up at 31-all. It was a huge mental mistake, one that significantly harmed Detroit's chances of keeping their lead.
You often hear announcers talk about those plays as something mysterious and unquantifiable, but the truth is that they're just as easy to count as any other. I had anecdotally referred to Sam Bradford as the king of those sacks-out-of-field-goal-range for a while now, even calling them Bradfords, but Stafford taking two of them in the fourth quarter of one key game made me question myself. Was Stafford really the king of those sacks? I went back and used the wonderful Pro-Football-Reference.com play index to figure it out. I took every quarterback's passes from 2000 to 2012 (not including Sunday's games) and analyzed what they did in two-score games4 on third down between the 25-yard line and the 36-yard line of the opposition.
As it turns out, Stafford doesn't have a track record for taking that sort of sack. In fact, his two sacks in the fourth quarter were the first time he'd ever taken such a range-defeating sack as a pro, having managed to avoid them in his previous 31 third-down dropbacks. Bradford was way up there, thanks to five sacks on just 32 dropbacks; his 15.6 percent takedown clip was the second-highest rate for any passer with 30 dropbacks or more on third down in field goal range, trailing only the statue commonly confused for Ben Roethlisberger:
Player Dropbacks Sacks Sack Rate
Ben Roethlisberger 128 22 17.2%
Sam Bradford 32 5 15.6%
Michael Vick 76 11 14.5%
Kordell Stewart 37 5 13.5%
Marc Bulger 84 10 11.9%
Vince Young 42 5 11.9%
Alex Smith 62 7 11.3%
David Carr 63 7 11.1%
Kyle Boller 54 6 11.1%
Kyle Orton 56 6 10.7%
Chad Pennington 75 8 10.7%
The quarterbacks on the other side of the coin were a group of people you would expect to avoid the sack through sheer talent (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning) and a few that you would mostly be confused by (Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, Brian Griese). Josh Freeman currently has gone 45 passes in that situation without being sacked once, an impressive feat that's unlikely to continue happening forever. With the evidence for Stafford consisting of one game of misadventures, I'm still calling this one a Bradford.
Suh's calamity was more sinister. Having earned a two-game suspension by stomping on Packers guard Even Dietrich-Smith during last Thanksgiving's festivities, Suh attracted notoriety this year by seemingly reaching out and kicking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin as Suh tumbled to the ground. While appearing to be an accident upon first view, each shot and angle of the kick made it look worse and worse. At the time of writing, rumors are swirling that Suh will be suspended Monday for the second consecutive year. Lions fans have tried to defend Suh's kick as accidental, but at what point do we all agree that this isn't a coincidence? How many other players have visibly stamped on an opposing player while trying to leave the scene over the past two years? How many have "accidentally," unexpectedly delivered a rolling koppo kick to the groin of an opposing quarterback? How many have done both? It hardly seems fair to chalk up both incidents to mere chance.
The real disappointment came when Schwartz threw the challenge flag on a bizarre touchdown run by Justin Forsett. You've seen the play by now. Forsett's knee clearly goes down, the referee never sees it and allows Forsett to score, and Schwartz instantly throws the challenge flag out, incurring a 15-yard penalty while wiping out the guaranteed review from the booth.
Of course, the rule is dumb. The spirit of the rule was to avoid giving coaches a way to badger referees into talking to them while their assistants got extra time to look at replays upstairs, but the application here was clearly small-minded and insipid. It's also the referees' fault for failing to notice that Forsett was down. That's all fair, but even after all of it, Schwartz fails at his job by throwing the flag and costing his team the review. He has to know the rules and act accordingly. While the rule is disappointing, it's not exactly obscure, either: Falcons head coach Mike Smith received a similar penalty last weekend for throwing the challenge flag on a Cardinals fumble recovery that was then never reviewed. Forsett's touchdown ended up being enough to get the game pushed into overtime, where the Texans and Lions each traded missed field goals before the Texans finally grabbed a game-winner.
Schwartz admitted after the game that he knew the rule and had a mental lapse, which seems to coincide with the lapses exhibited by two of his three star players. Although Johnson remains arguably the best receiver in football, Stafford's taking a step backward and Suh's reliving his discipline nightmare from a year ago. Detroit's season may already be done at 4-7, but Schwartz needs to get more out of his Big Three to get them back into the playoffs in 2013. The Lions simply don't have a way to succeed if he doesn't, and if Schwartz can't, the Lions are likely to try to find somebody else who can get their stars to live up to their price tags.http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/867 ... ek-12-news