In the NFL, there are a few times when preseason action is meaningful.
The Detroit Lions might have found one of the rare exceptions.
In August, starting offenses rarely face starting defenses, and even when they do, it isn’t under regular-season conditions. Coordinators haven’t game planned for the opposition, focusing on the players, partnerships and plays they need to evaluate.
When the first-team players are on the field, self-preservation takes away much of the intensity. In contrast, when backups take over, they often play at reckless speeds, trying to make the play that will catch the attention of the people who are about to decide their futures.
So if a good team struggles in August, it is more likely because what the coaching staff is working on, rather than a sign of an imminent collapse. At the same time, a bad team lighting things up in exhibition play is probably meaningless. The 2008 Lions, with a roster filled with fringe players trying to stay in the league, went 4-0 in the preseason as they played harder than anyone they faced.
When the other teams started playing at a regular-season level, though, the Lions still had a roster filled with guys who had more ambition than talent. The result, of course, was the first 0-16 season in league history.
Now, though, the Lions face a different situation - one where the results on the field might be an accurate portrait of things to come.
Going into training camp, the buzz about the Lions is that they were a team that lacked playmakers on both sides of the ball. The evidence through three preseason games hasn’t changed anyone’s opinion.
On offense, Matthew Stafford is still capable of putting up big numbers, but he’ll be doing it without the only No. 1 receiver he’s ever known - Calvin Johnson. Marvin Jones has shown some good chemistry with Stafford in exhibition games and training camp, but they’ve never played together in a regular-season game.
Also, as Jones will be the first to tell you, he’s not Megatron.
Golden Tate is a good No. 2 receiver, but that’s all the Lions have. They desperately need Eric Ebron to step up at tight end, but he can’t get on the field because of injuries. The running game remains a mess, as neither Ameer Abdullah nor Theo Riddick has shown themselves to ready to take over as the featured tailback.
Worst of all, even if the skill players do take a big leap forward, there’s no sign that the offensive line will be able to give them the time and space to take advantage. Stafford goes into the season with a rookie left tackle - Taylor Decker - and linemen at center and both guard spots who all earned well-below-average grades from Pro Football Focus.
On defense, there is at least a sign of hope. Two years ago, the Lions stopped the run as well as anyone in the league, and that was a big part of their 11-5 record and a rare playoff appearance. Last season, though, the two most important players on that unit were gone. Ndamukong Suh left for South Beach, while DeAndre Levy missed 15 games with a hip injury.
Suh isn’t coming back, and Levy has spent most of camp dealing with a knee problem. However, he made his preseason debut Saturday against Baltimore, and while Joe Flacco and the Ravens shredded the first-team defense, at least he was back on the field.
Thursday night’s game against the Bills isn’t likely to provide any answers - neither Jim Caldwell nor Rex Ryan is expected to give their starters more than a handful of snaps - so the first three games are all fans can use to judge the 2016 Lions.
That judgment isn’t likely to be good.