The Hot Corner: Are the Lions for Real? And a bit on V-Mart and AP…

I promised it last week – we’re looking at the Detroit Lions today, and I’m damn happy to be doing it after their win over Miami.

Football’s a strange, fickle thing.  All sports are, really.  You go into the season, every team down on paper looking great or not great, and conclusions are drawn.  Then a funny thing happens – they actually start playing games.  Sometimes those prognostications turn out… sometimes they don’t.

The Lions have looked good on paper for awhile.  Every year for at least four years has been a year of hope for a beleaguered fanbase hungry for… anything.  Success came in 2012 with a playoff appearance, albeit a mercilessly short one.  But that was a young team, still only 4 years removed from the NFL’s only 0-16 season; the loss was expected, a growing pain before better things came along.  But those better things didn’t come along.  Instead, the team became aggressive and undisciplined, perfectly reflecting a coach who (I believe) preached those things behind closed doors.  Jim Schwartz wasn’t a bad coach; he was the absolute right coach for the 0-16 Lions.  But he was not the guy to take them to the playoff promised land.

I didn’t like the Caldwell hire.  I still don’t.  I think Caldwell is fatally bland in his style in a league that rewards a certain amount of moxie.  Caldwell, however, brought in two very worthy up-and-comers to be his coordinators, and they’ve done wonders.  Teryl Austin, the defensive coordinator, in particular, should receive praise upon adulation upon praise this offseason if the Lions continue to do so well.  Joe Lombardi, the offensive coordinator… well, the jury’s still out there.  The offense has been up-and-down, and the players (especially Stafford) still look like they’re adapting to the scheme change.  And, of course, the Lions haven’t fielded a fully healthy offense since Week 1 or 2.

That last part, in particular, gives me an insane amount of hope.  You see, I’ve thrown caution to the wind – I’m drinking the Honolulu Blue & Silver Kool-Aid.  I’m gulping it this year.  Because the Lions look exactly like a Super Bowl winner right now.  Go back through the last several winners – none of them were flawless midseason teams (sorry Denver).  They all looked good, though – but they all needed to take one more step, to find their groove.  This Lions team is 7-2 and has yet to find their groove.  Sure, they’re spot-on defensively, but they have an offense capable of putting up big points that has underperformed so far.  No one’s looking at them yet and realizing that if the offense starts to really click, this team becomes an immediate juggernaut.  Not only that, but this team looks mentally poised for it – they’re all hungry; they’re tired of being doormats, tired of the losing.  They’re excited.  They’re amped.  They don’t seem to think they deserve to win; but they do expect to win.  This is a huge mental leap, and it’s where this season’s luck is going to play huge – they know they can win in the last two minutes when they have a chance to.  Sure, they’ve gotten lucky – but guess what?  All good teams, all Super Bowl winners, snake a few lucky victories in the season – and they learn from them, get an edge from them.

The next three games are big for the Lions.  The Cardinals in Arizona, then the Patriots in Foxboro, then the Bears for Thanksgiving on a short week.  The Arizona game in particular looms large – it’s the meeting of the NFC’s surprise #1 and #2 teams; the winner of that game makes a statement and takes firm hold on the conference 1-seed.  Playing the Brady-led Patriots at Foxboro, well, that’s always a measuring stick of a game.  And Thanksgiving… well, it’s our annual Super Bowl Substitute.  It’s a big game for the fans.  If the Lions can come out of that stretch 2-1 – for a season line of 9-3 – they’ll be golden, with their final four games (not necessarily in this order) against Tampa Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, and Green Bay.  The hope is that the Week 17 matchup in Lambeau will be meaningless for playoff seeding (and that we’ll win anyway).

But make no mistake – this looks like an ascendant Lions team, their flaws aside.  And what flaws I’m seeing, besides the logic-defying kicking problems, seem limited to adjusting to a new scheme and getting everyone healthy.  These early season injuries, though?  The Lions are winning in spite of them, and better now than later – they could field an entirely healthy team in January, and if they do, and if that scheme has settled in and Prater is hitting FGs… well, this team could go all the way.  I’ve never said that about the Lions and felt completely confident about it, but I am now – this is a team that looks like a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and I’m all in.

So, Victor Martinez re-signed with the Tigers.  Who knew?  I wasn’t expecting that.  I guess he must like the team; he is one of the big clubhouse leaders, to be sure.  And the money’s big.  But still, I feel like other teams pursuing him might be better long-term World Series contenders than the Tigers are.  But if the Tigers can add a couple more guys and solidify things, they can still make a good run in 2015.  But we said that about 2014, too, and that didn’t happen.  Still, the re-addition of V-Mart is a huge boost to the lineup and Cabrera in particular, as even if Victor’s numbers return to reality, he remains a potent .300/.300 switch hitter who’ll ensure Miggy sees good pitches.

I have to think they’ll go get Torii Hunter back now.  Even at $5M for one year, it just makes sense if they’re going to make another hard push in 2015.  The outfield prospects aren’t ready yet, and the market isn’t great.  Pick up Torii for another year and give Collins and Moya both a chance to prove themselves or platoon with him.

So this Adrian Peterson seems to be coming to a finale.  What a frustrating thing.  I mean, as a Lions fan, not seeing AP in the Vikings’ backfield is great.  But from a sheer reality perspective, I’m still stunned at what a mess this became.  Part of it was the timing with the Ray Rice incident, and part of it is Minnesotan sensibilities, too, but still.  I feel bad for the guy; he switched his kid and ended up in a mess.  He didn’t know better; it seemed clear that it was how he was raised, and what was expected from a father.  I thought it was a great opportunity for education and tolerance, but things swung the other way.  I just can’t help but think “hey, how is he supposed to know better if no one ever taught him”?  It’s a lot like the Michael Vick situation, in that Vick was only doing what he thought was perfectly normal and acceptable.  Outside of his community, it wasn’t; but he had no way of knowing that, just as AP had no way of knowing.  I doubt Chris Spielman or Leslie Frazier was sitting AP down for parenting lessons.  But maybe they should have been, and I wish the NFL and the Vikings had decided to do that as their course of action.

Now we have an awkward waiting period, as the league is going to decide on AP’s fate now that he pled out to a misdemeanor charge.  That’s pretty bogus, especially since they’re pushing it back to after this weekend.  Why not now?  I’ll tell you why – because I don’t think the Vikings want to face the PR of having to choose to play him or not.  The players and fans will welcome him back, I think, but the organization seems done with him.  They have a pretty nice built-in low cap hit if they cut him this offseason; even without this child abuse scandal, it seemed a very possible course of action, especially after drafting McKinnon.  Now?  It seems all but assured.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wylfs are whispering in Goodell’s ear right now, telling him to draw this out, to make sure they don’t have to face that choice.  They’d rather him rot on the commissioner’s exempt list rather than risk him playing and rushing his way back into the hearts of fans, then facing the PR flak of cutting him.  As it stands, if he doesn’t play again this year, I don’t think there’ll be much reaction to cutting him in the offseason.  He’ll just be looked at as another Randy Moss-ish figure in Minnesota sports history; immensely talented, fun to watch, beloved, but misunderstood and departed too soon.