Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Decision 2012: Lions or Bears?

Asking around, you'll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't view the Green Bay Packers as the NFC North's clear favorite going into the 2012 season. But ask someone who will be creeping in the Packers' shadow in second place, and you'll find yourself in an all-out warpath of bickering, condemning and hatred.

Mlive's latest version of "Ask Anwar" begins with two Lions fans complaining about the Bears getting too much hype in the offseason. ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert's weekly chats have been dominated by smack talk between Detroit and Chicago. Lions fans are offended by the media's infatuation with the 2012 Bears. Bears fans are sickened by the pompous Lions fans who are way too excited over their one playoff berth.

At the crux of this debate are two key issues: which team was better in 2011, and which team improved most in the offseason? So let's answer those questions.

Which team was better in 2011?
To most Lions fans, the answer seems obvious. The Lions finished with two more wins, a postseason berth and scored over 100 points more than the Bears. Advantage Lions. But the answer is far more complicated. 

One way we can analyze which team was better is by looking at the head-to-head games between the two. In the first game, the two met in Detroit for the Lions' first home Monday Night Football game since 2001. The game was tight for the entire duration, with the Lions coming out on top after two big offensive plays. Both teams played incredibly well (especially Jay Cutler, who was running for his life the entire game). However, the Lions were aided by a wildly enthusiastic crowd who helped force NINE false start penalties. The Lions still looked like the better team that day, but hardly in a decisive manner.

The other head-to-head matchup came in week 10. The Lions were thoroughly mauled by the Bears, 37-13. In what was a seemingly essential game, it was surprising to see the Lions drop a game so decisively. Of course, the main defense by Lions fans was that Matthew Stafford had recently suffered a broken finger, and his play clearly showed he had not fully recovered. This point, however, was clearly refuted by Stafford himself. The truth is likely somewhere in between. Stafford's four interceptions cannot all be blamed on his finger, but at the same time, he wasn't playing like the kid who had only previously thrown four total interception all season. The Bears were clearly the better team that day, if for no other reason than the fact that they made fewer mistakes. 

Head-to-head matchups don't really seem to give us a clear conclusion. When both teams are playing their best, the Lions came out on top. But they also had a clear home-field advantage. We also saw that the Lions were probably much more prone to making mistakes, but an injured Stafford exacerbated that issue. Since the Lions finished with a better record, we can use that as a tie-breaker, right? Well, not exactly.

After the second matchup between the two, both teams stood at 6-3 and with nearly identical records in the tie-breakers. So here's a closer look at the two teams as they stood after week 10.

Lions: Points For: 252; Points Allowed: 184
Bears: Points For: 237; Points Allowed: 187

At the time, Football Outsiders had the Bears at 9th in DVOA while the Lions ranked 14th.

Any way you slice it, the teams were just about dead even. Then the rest of the season happened. The two teams clearly diverged.

The Lions went 4-3 down the stretch, while the Bears stumbled, finishing 2-5. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Jay Cutler was lost for the season in week 11 with a broken wrist. From there, the Bears lost to the Raiders by five, the Chiefs by seven, and the Broncos by three (in OT). With Cutler healthy, it is hard to imagine the Bears dropping all three of those games.

In fact, looking closer, we can see the exact impact losing Cutler (and Matt Forte later in the season) had on the team. Before Cutler went down, the Bears averaged 26.8 points a game. After he went down, the Bears averaged 14.2(!!). In none of those six remaining games did they ever reach the average amount of points a Cutler-led offense scored. Still not convinced? Well, the Bears were averaging 332.9 yards per game with Cutler under center. With him on the sidelines? 283. 

Meanwhile, the Lions squeaked out miracle games against the Vikings and Raiders. 

What I'm getting at is the Lions were much closer to a 9-7 team than they were an 11-5 team. Of their six losses, only two felt truly winnable: at home against the 49ers, where the Lions were a few inches short of stopping the Niners on a game-deciding fourth down conversion and the season finale against a second-string Packers team. However, the Lions could have easily lost games against the Cowboys, Vikings (twice), Raiders, and Panthers. 

And the Bears were a much better team than their 8-8 record suggests. Had Cutler not gone down, there's no way Chicago drops five of their final six games. Injuries are obviously a part of the game, but if Lions fans are going to use the broken finger excuse for the second Bears game, they have to admit that losing Cutler probably cost the Bears at least 1-2 game, likely more. And if Bears fans are going to complain about losing Cutler, they, too, have to admit that Stafford's injury hurt the Lions' chances that day in Soldier Field.

Now I'm not going to make any definitive statements about which team was better last year, because it's impossible to prove. But it's clear that both sides of the debate have valid points, and it's too close to say unequivocally.

Which team improved most in the offseason?

Again, the answer seems obvious when looking at things from the outside. The Bears made headlines in the offseason for their acquisition of star wide receiver Brandon Marshall and solid depth running back Michael Bush. The Lions made headlines in the offseason for all the wrong reasons. Countless arrests resulted in public embarrassment and the loss of a starting cornerback. 

Of course, the answer isn't as simple as that.

Both teams have glaring issues that were not addressed this offseason. The Bears had a lot of pass protection issues last year. Last season, they were sacked 49 times last year (fifth most). The positive spin the Bears have put on this issue is that they have improved their pass protection through addition by subtraction. Dropping offensive coordinator Mike Martz and transitioning to a more balanced offense will mask this deficiency, so the claims go.

The Lions secondary is the black eye they are trying to cover up. Already an issue going into the offseason, matters weren't made any better when projected starter Aaron Berry found himself in trouble with the law and eventually without a job. There's no doubt that this is the one part of the Lions' roster that actually took a step back from last year, but like the Bears, Lions fans are hard at working trying to calm the storm. Enter: Bill Bentley. Word out of camp is that Bentley is reeking havoc all over the field. That's relieving news for Lions fans, but it shouldn't calm all fears. Though they'll never admit it, Lions coaches are likely losing sleep over the fact that they may be starting a third-round rookie at cornerback week one of the 2012 season. And the depth at the corner and safety positions is terrifyingly slim.

While it appears the Bears have made a few more additions to improve this years' roster, that is not the only factor in deciding whether a team will improve or regress the following season. One of the most overlooked issues is progression of returning players.

Some of the Bears' key players are reaching the tail-end of their careers, including Brian Ulracher (age 34) and Julius Peppers (32). In fact, the average age of their projected starters* on defense is 28.5. Meanwhile, the Lions' key players on defense (Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, etc.) are hitting the peaks of their careers. The average age of Lions defensive starters is 26.7. On offense, the Lions are actually a year older on average (28.5 to 27.5), but at key positions (WR, QB and RB) the Lions are younger and improving more.

So, again, the conclusion is inconclusive. The Bears have added more weapons this offseason, while the Lions spent the offseason fine-tuning the weapons they already had. Both teams are poised to make a playoff run this season, and there's no clear leader for second place in the NFC North. Lions fans feel victimized by the media because of the offseason antics, but the truth is the Lions were benefactors of an injured Cutler last year and still have some major concerns. Bears fans complain that they are being overlooked because of Cutler injuries last year, but the truth is the Lions took it to them with a healthy Cutler and the Bears still have questions on offense. Both teams are great candidates for wild card spots in the 2012 season but neither team has a clear better shot than the other.

*To determine projected starters, I used ESPN's current depth chart for both the Lions and Bears

No comments:

Post a Comment