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Statistics Could Doom Lions Offensive Line In 2014

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Lions center Dominic Raiola will be looking to build off of a stellar 2013 season. Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images.
Lions center Dominic Raiola will be looking to build off of a stellar 2013 season. Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images.

I’m a statistics guy—I love numbers and I love using them to tell a story. In sports, it’s usually pretty easy. The team with the most points wins, gaining yards usually helps toward putting up more points, and so on. Every position can be scrutinized, and every player can track his own performance on the field.

Here’s why this is relevant: the Lions offensive line may have the biggest bust potential heading into 2014. The unit played exceptionally well last season—the second fewest number of sacks allowed in the NFL, opening holes for Reggie Bush and Joique Bell to make NFL history for rushing and receiving yards, and giving Matthew Stafford every chance possible to win games. There’s no question that the line will be expected to uphold that level of play entering 2014. The Lions seem in no immediate need for a lineman outside of added depth, and for good reason.

That’s all great, and I couldn’t have been happier for the linemen. They deserve all the recognition that they’ve received. What worries me, though, is a statistical principle called “regression to the mean.”

Simply put, regression to the mean occurs when a player, or team in some cases, cools down or heats up toward what is “average.” We see it all the time in sports—for example, a basketball team builds an early lead with hot shooting, but then slowly watches their opponents chip away. The team that shot well to start begins to revert back to the average by missing more shots, thus allowing their opponents the chance to come back.

Regression to the mean can also help explain the dreaded “sophomore slump,” the idea that a high-performing rookie doesn’t quite live up to his first-year success during his second season in the league. This is what worries me most entering 2014 for the Lions offensive line. Cases in point: Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle played outstanding football for the Lions in their rookie seasons last year—Warford actually won profootballfocus.com’s Rookie of the Year Award for not allowing a single sack all season. However, this “regression to the mean” would mean that both Warford and Waddle would theoretically play more like average offensive linemen, and not at their 2013 level.

I’ll give you another example: Dominic Raiola. Now, Raiola is no sophomore, but he too is coming off of what was probably the best year of his career. Considering his age, and the elite level that he played at in 2013, the Lions’ center is also a prime candidate for regression in 2014.

Those three guys not only will be expected to dominate once again by Lions coaches and fans, but will also be expecting the same from themselves. Depending on how they respond to that pressure, it could be an interesting season for the Lions offensively. The Lions are obviously hoping that Waddle, Warford, and Raiola can continue to build off of their stellar seasons, but must also be aware that success doesn’t necessary translate from one season to another.

Keep in mind, there’s no guarantee that any of those guys would show any regression to the mean at all. The Lions offensive line could end up being even better than last year, or could leak like a sieve. That’s why they play the games.

To put this in perspective, the Lions line ranked 7th in the NFL entering 2013 according to profootballfocus.com, and 4th overall in pass blocking. I think it’s more than fair to say that the Lions exceeded that ranking this year, and will likely see a jump in that rating heading into 2014. Even more impressive was that the line performed the way that they did with two rookies and with Riley Reiff in and out of the lineup. With all of the unknowns and variables involved, the offensive line’s performance in 2013 was nothing short of exceptional.

So, it is absolutely possible to keep up that level of play. Additionally, the Lions are fortunate enough to have their entire offensive line back for 2014. Keeping the unit together should help the Lions’ effort next season, for nothing else than for consistency.

The Lions offensive line will be under a lot of scrutiny next season to live up to their quality of play the last two seasons, and rightfully so. However, if for whatever reason they can’t, at least we can all blame statistics for any shortcomings.