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Wojo: To be better than .500, Lions have lots to prove

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Marvin Jones Jr., left, and Kenny Golladay

Allen Park — The formula has withstood the test of time. When assessing a Lions season, you start with 8-8 and move the record up or down based on a variety of factors, always with a wary nod to the franchise’s tortured (and torturing) history.

So let’s do a little math and figure out where this team is headed. The Lions appear to be modestly improved, talent-wise, scheme-wise, coaching-wise, yet few people outside Detroit believe it. Their over-under victory total in Vegas has hovered around 6.5 and nobody — quite literally nobody — has them winning the NFC North. Most prognosticators peg them for last, behind Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota, usually in that order.

Generally, media outlets rank the Lions between 20th and 30th in the league, and I assume much of that downgrade is tied to Matt Patricia’s wobbly first season. It’s not an exaggeration to call Sunday’s opener at Arizona, against a rookie coach (Kliff Kingsbury) and a rookie quarterback (Kyler Murray), the biggest game of Patricia’s young head-coaching career. No way can the Lions repeat the 48-17 first-game disaster against the Jets and rookie Sam Darnold, right?

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The number-chewing website FiveThirtyEight gives the Lions a 22-percent chance of making the playoffs (24th-best odds) and a 12-percent chance of winning the division. In its annual ranking of the top 100 NFL players, USA Today lists one Lion, cornerback Darius Slay at 86.

Obviously, there’s plenty of data to support a non-playoff stance for the Lions. They were 6-10 a year ago. Their new offense under Darrell Bevell showed little in an 0-4 preseason. I could revisit all the historical markers – one playoff victory since 1957, etc. – but that would be needlessly cruel and probably meaningless.

So let’s inspect the relevant factors, begin at 8-8 and start adding and subtracting.

Overall talent. The Lions made key acquisitions — Trey Flowers, Mike Daniels, Justin Coleman, T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Danny Amendola — and didn’t lose much, except for Golden Tate, traded during the season, and the oft-injured T.J. Lang and Ziggy Ansah. You could argue every position group except the offensive line and secondary is better, or the same. Verdict: Add one win, 9-7.

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Coaching. It’s not that Patricia is considered a poor head coach. It’s that no one knows yet, and one season showed more flaws than strengths. By all indications, Patricia has adjusted his hard-driving style, and the hope is, players will respond better than they did early last season.

“I think he definitely changed the way he’s done some things,” GM Bob Quinn said. “I think he’s taken a lot of input from the players. Very reflective. Very honest with himself.”

Part of that reflectiveness led to the change at offensive coordinator. Replacing Jim Bob Cooter with Bevell should be a significant upgrade, but it might take a while to see the full effect. Verdict: Subtract one win, back to 8-8.

► Schedule. You can be freaked out by the first six games – at Arizona, home to the Chargers, at Philadelphia, home to Kansas City, at Green Bay, home to Minnesota – and assume the Lions will start no better than 2-4. But it’s actually the six games against their rivals that are daunting. The NFC North, arguably, is the toughest division, and if they don’t split those six, they got no chance. Verdict: Subtract one win.

 Matthew Stafford. Entering his 11th season, he looks healthy and rejuvenated, after a brutal year dealing with a back injury and his wife’s illness. Here’s what people need to understand about Stafford: He’s never been the Lions’ sole problem, but for too long, the franchise considered him the sole solution. Not anymore. With Kerryon Johnson and Bevell’s emphasis on the running game, Stafford should be more effective, if less prolific. Verdict: Add one win.

► Receivers. Amendola essentially replaces Tate, and Marvin Jones Jr. is healthy again. With Kenny Golladay and tight end Hockenson, the Lions have big targets. But do they have big play-makers? Compared to the elite teams, not the same. Verdict: Subtract one win.

► Defensive line. It should be a top-five unit, with size and talent across the board, from Damon Harrison to A’Shawn Robinson to Romeo Okwara to Da’Shawn Hand to Daniels to Flowers. This group should dominate games single-handedly. Verdict: Add two wins.

► Defense’s back seven. Linebacker Jarrad Davis is a productive leader who could be slowed early by an injured ankle. Outside of Slay at one corner and Quandre Diggs at safety, the Lions don’t have proven difference-makers back there. Verdict: Subtract one win.

► Offensive line. The left-guard spot is troublesome, with Kenny Wiggins and Joe Dahl taking turns. Center Frank Ragnow could blossom and left tackle Taylor Decker should rebuild the promise he showed early in his career. The right side of Graham Glasgow and Rick Wagner has to stay healthy because the Lions aren’t deep. Verdict: Subtract one win.

Lions offensive guard Frank Ragnow (77) celebrates with Lions running back Ty Johnson (38) during the preseason.

► Turnovers. The Lions didn’t do a good job forcing them last year, finishing 31st with only seven interceptions. An overlooked category like this can explain a lot. The Lions collected a takeaway on only 7.3 percent of their defensive drives, also 31st. The Bears, who won the division at 12-4, forced turnovers on 19.1 percent, best in the league. Statistics like that generally trend toward the mean. Verdict: Add one win.

► Special teams. The Lions have a great kicker in Matt Prater and a fine punter in Sam Martin. The Bears have one of the worst kicking situations in the league, with someone named Eddy Pineiro currently taking a spin. Verdict: Add one win

► Backup quarterback. Stafford is amazingly durable, with 128 consecutive starts, but often has played hurt, and not always effectively. At some point, football fate suggests the Lions will have to go to their backup, and Josh Johnson is playing for his 13th team in 12 seasons. Could he manage his way to one victory? Maybe. Two? Doubt it. Verdict: Subtract one win.

Add it up and subtract it down and where do the Lions end up? Ah, 8-8.

That sounds about right until they prove us wrong, even though, remarkably, they haven’t finished exactly 8-8 since 1999.

They haven’t won their division in 26 years but can take solace in knowing 22 teams since 2002 have leapt from worst to first. It’ll take some tricky math, and a whole lot more, for the Lions to travel that path.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski