What Did We Learn about the Detroit Lions on Opening Day?

Posted on September 9, 2008 by


Not much.

Although fans of the Lions are currently quite depressed – and most definitely disagree with my answer — the first game really doesn’t mean anything.  Before I get to why I think this, let me first explain why I care about the miserable Lions.

I was born in Detroit in 1969.  This means I was born a fan of the Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings, and Michigan Wolverines.  All of these teams have won championships in my life, and thus, all have made me happy (at least at some point).

And then there are the Lions.  In my lifetime the Lions have won exactly one playoff game.  Consequently, for most of my life, the Lions have made me unhappy.

My family left Detroit when I was about twelve.  Since I was twelve I have lived in Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa, California, and now Utah.  As a result of my wandering ways, I have not had to personally watch the Lions make me unhappy. The poor play of the Lions tends to keep my team off of national television, and consequently, many of their losses I haven’t had to watch.

All of this has changed, though, with our move to Utah.  From what I understand, our neighborhood in Cedar City doesn’t get cable television.  At least that’s what I told my wife before I called DirectTV.  Of course my wife suspects that I made up the cable television story so I could order NFL Sunday Ticket.  In other words, thanks to DirectTV (and my understanding wife), I am now able to watch every regular season game the Lions will play in 2008.

Optimism and Disappointment in Detroit

After the Lions were the only team to finish the pre-season undefeated, I was naturally somewhat optimistic about the 2008 campaign.  Yes, I know, pre-season doesn’t mean much.  Still, when you are Lions fan, you look for hope wherever you can find it.

On Sunday the Lions traveled to Atlanta for the first game of the regular season against the dismal Falcons. Atlanta only won four games last year.  They entered this season with a rookie starting quarterback and inexperience at cornerback.  So this looked like a game the Lions – with two outstanding wide receivers (Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson) — would win easily.

Such were my thoughts when I sat down to watch this game at 11am on Sunday morning.  Unfortunately, my optimism didn’t last long.

Atlanta took the opening kick-off and then proceeded to score (on a 62 yard pass) on their third play from scrimmage.  So after less than 90 seconds, Atlanta was ahead 7-0.

Detroit could only get one first down on their next drive and were forced to punt.  On the fourth play of Atlanta’s next drive, Michael Turner ran 66 yards for another touchdown.  Now the game was less than eight minutes old and Detroit was down 14-0.

The Lions went three and out on their next drive and once again the Falcons received a punt.  This time the Falcons needed six plays to score, and after less than twelve minutes of the first quarter, Detroit was down three touchdowns.

In real time this whole series of events took less than an hour.  So in less than 60 minutes fans of the Lions everywhere became quite depressed.

To understand how depressed, you must remember that beginning with the free agent market and the draft; fans of this team generally become increasingly optimistic throughout each off-season.  After an undefeated pre-season, some fans were even talking playoffs.  Less than 60 minutes into the 2008 season, though, our thoughts once again turned to the NFL draft.

Did the First Game Tell Us Anything?

At least, that was the general sentiment expressed at my favorite website for the Detroit Lions – MLive.com.  In essence, many fans think Detroit’s season is over after the Falcons trounced the Lions 34-21 to open the season.

Of course, the players and coaches on the Lions are telling a different story.  The Lions argue that this is just one game, and there is still time to turn the 2008 season into a success (and of course, ruin our draft position in 2009).

This discussion led me to consider the following question: How much does the outcome of the first game in Detroit tell us about the rest of this team’s regular season?

To answer this question, I went to Pro-Football-Reference.com and noted the margin of victory (or defeat) in Detroit’s opening game from 1970 to 2007 (in other words, all the opening games in my lifetime).   I then noted how many games the Lions won each season after the opening game (adjusted for differences in schedule across time).  The hypothesis was quite simple.  Following what I have heard after the first game of 2008, the outcome of the first game should predict the rest of the season.  If the Lions win, they should have a winning record.  If the team wins by a wide margin, it should be an exceptional season.  Likewise a big loss means we will see many losses.

Before I get to my results, let me note a few other interesting factoids (at least, interesting to me) about opening day for the Lions:

  • In 38 opening games from 1970 to 2007, the Lions were 19-19.  In other words, prior to Sunday, the Lions were a 0.500 team on opening day in my lifetime.
  • The Lions have only opened at home 15 times since 1970.  So the Lions tend to open on the road.
  • The most common opening day opponents for the Lions are Atlanta, Chicago, and Green Bay.  The Lions have played each of these teams six times on opening day since 1970.  The latter two are division rivals, so that makes sense.  My sense is the league pairs the Lions with Atlanta so that the more popular teams have a better chance of playing each other.

Okay, enough with the trivia.  What about the issue at hand – does the outcome in the first game predict the rest of the season?

To address this issue, I regressed the Lions victory totals – after game one – on the point differential in the first contest.  The results indicate – drum roll please — that there is no statistical relationship between these two data sets.  In sum, it looks like Lions’ history is on the side of the current crop of players and coaches employed in Detroit.

So why are the fans so unhappy? I think the progression works as follows:

  1. When a team loses, it looks bad.
  2. People tend to conclude when a team looks bad, that it is bad.
  3. On opening day – when half the teams must lose – the fans of half the teams tend to think their team must be bad.  After all, that’s all they’ve seen.

Following the progression, we can see why fans of the Lions think the team is bad.  All the data we have collected so far in 2008 points to that conclusion.

More Detroit History

When we look at opening day history again, though, we once again see how little the first game matters.  The Lions have averaged 6.6 additional victories in seasons where they won the first game. Detroit has averaged 6.0 wins after losing their first game.  So to repeat the basic story, win or lose on opening day the results look pretty much the same.

And those results tell the same story.  Detroit tends to be bad.  Of course we didn’t need to see the game against Atlanta to reach that conclusion.  If we consider all of Detroit’s history – at least the dreadful history since the Ford family decided to express their hatred of Detroit by buying this team in 1964 – we have plenty of reason to think the Lions are destined for another disappointing season. 

Of course this time, though, I get to watch every miserable game.  Although that will be painful, I will once again be rewarded – like all fans of this team — with the opportunity to see the Lions make another very high choice in the NFL draft.  And that’s ultimately the game the Lions are playing.  The Fords know that maximizing the attention of Mel Kiper is all that really matters to any NFL franchise.   The Fords, the Lions, and their fans – and now readers of this blog — are just the first to figure this out.

– DJ

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