If I’m Lion, I’m Dyin’

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January 27, 2005
If I’m Lion, I’m Dyin’

by Bob Hulsey

If I began discussing an NFL team that wears blue and white, has spent recent top draft choices on a hot young quarterback and stud wide receivers, plays in a new roofed stadium and has spent the last three seasons improving gradually under a veteran head coach with past playoff success, you’d probably think I was talking about the Houston Texans. Of course you would, why else would you be checking out this website?

But the Texans aren’t the only ones who fit that description. The other is the Detroit Lions, a team that I frequently check the Texans against in their quest to become a playoff-caliber NFL team.

Head-to-head, the Lions drilled the Texans at Ford Field in Week 2 of the 2004 season, 28-16. They won’t play again in the regular season until 2008. That win put the Lions at 2-0 for the year while the Texans fell to 0-2. Yet, the Texans finished at 7-9 while the Lions limped to a 6-10 record after a fast 4-2 start.

Detroit plays in what is arguably the weakest division in the NFL, the NFC North. Year after year, the Lions and Bears hover below .500 while the Packers and Vikings can just keep their necks on the winning side of the ledger in an NFC that is not as strong as the AFC.

Contrast that with the Texans who play in the true "Black and Blue Division" of the AFC South (at least if you go by uniform colors) along with the typically tough Colts and Titans as well as the up-and-coming Jaguars in the stronger AFC.

So, on one hand, you could say the Lions are better or you could say the Texans are. It doesn’t really matter since both are still waiting for their first non-losing season this century.

But what the two teams have in common is what makes them more interesting to compare than what separates them.

The Lions were the dregs of the NFL in 2001, earning the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, two places behind the newborn Texans. Both chose quarterbacks. The Texans took David Carr of Fresno State. The Lions took Joey Harrington of Oregon. More than a few draftniks thought the Lions were getting the better signal-caller.

Harrington had 19 TD throws to 12 interceptions in 2004 with a passer rating of 77.5. He was sacked 35 times. Carr had 16 TDs and 14 picks with a QB rating of 83.5 while enduring 49 sacks. While Carr was the more efficient passer, Harrington found the end zone more often.

Both quarterbacks have two high draft choices to throw to. Houston used the 33rd pick of the 2002 draft on Jabar Gaffney and added 3rd pick Andre Johnson the following season. The Lions took the oft-injured Charles Rogers with the 2nd pick, right ahead of Johnson, then added Roy Williams with the 7th choice last spring. Detroit has not really been able to use Rogers and Williams together due to Rogers’ injuries while Gaffney and Johnson have certainly proved more durable and, in the short term, more productive.

Houston found a diamond in the rough with their fourth-rounder of the 2003 draft, RB Domanick Davis, who has posted two straight 1,000-yard seasons. The Lions used a first-round pick in the spring on Kevin Jones who rushed for 1,133 yards and scored six touchdowns. Both have fourth-rounders in reserve (Jonathan Wells for the Texans and Artose Pinner for the Lions).

Both teams have dipped into free agency to build their offensive lines. So, the projected lineups at the "skill" positions are set for the forseeable future. While some tweaking is expected, the two teams have established a backfield of solid young talent.

Detroit had the advantage of being an established NFL team with some valuable pieces already in place entering the 2002 draft. The Texans had the advantage of an expansion draft which netted them five defensive starters. Defense might be the real difference between the two clubs right now since the Lions in 2004 were -54 in point differential while Houston was -30, despite the +12 the Lions scored in their head-to-head duel.

Before 2004, Houston’s highest draft choice for a defensive player was Antwan Peek in the third round in 2003. But they went exclusively for defense on the first day last spring with CB Dunta Robinson and LB Jason Babin, both first-rounders. Detroit’s defense has been built more gradually with disappointing DE Kalimba Edwards (2nd, 2002), CB Andre Goodman (3rd, 2002), LB Boss Bailey (2nd, 2003), DE Cory Redding (3rd, 2003), LB Teddy Lehman (2nd, 2004) and CB Keith Smith (3rd, 2004) as first-day reinforcements. Both have augmented their defensive lines with free agents. While it still needs work, the Lions defense appears to be better set for the future than the Texans who are watching their best defenders grow old fast.

Houston Head Coach Dom Capers has a background as a defensive whiz. Detroit’s Steve Mariucci comes from an offensive mindset. It will be interesting in the next few years to watch and see which team winds up with the greater success and if either franchise has staying power as a playoff team the way the two franchises in this year’s Super Bowl have developed.

However, if anyone has a gripe about a 7-9 season in the Texans’ third year, one only needs to look at the Lions for proof that it could have been worse.

Bob Hulsey endorses the idea of calling the AFC South the "Black and Blue Division" if for no better reason than it will confuse then tick off a lot of fans in the Rust Belt.

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