The move puts an exclamation point on a flurry of early offseason moves that have included re-signing left tackle Jeff Backus to a two-year, $10 million deal, extending the contract of receiver Calvin Johnson (making him the highest-paid player in the league and at the same time freeing up $9 million in cap space), as well as freeing up close to another $16 million in cap space for 2012 by restructuring the contracts of quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Nate Burleson and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh.
They also made the smart play by not overpaying to retain the services of cornerback Eric Wright, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.
The Lions wanted to bring Wright back, but only at the right price. Once the Buccaneers decided to overpay for Wright, the Lions were content to bow out, and smartly so.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has done an excellent job digging out from the wreckage of the Matt Millen era.
The Lions roster has gone from a league-wide laughing stock to one of the most talented in the NFL.
Now, to take the next step and seriously challenge the Green Bay Packers for supremacy in the NFC North, not to mention leap frog over teams like the Giants, Falcons, 49ers and Saints (though they could possibly be mortally wounded after Goodell’s bounty punishments…) in the NFC, the Lions must do two things better overall—play better in big games and keep their composure in those games—and it starts with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
Schwartz is an emotional guy. This is no secret.
Unfortunately, his emotion can manifest itself in ways that are both a benefit and a detriment to his team.
On the positive side, there’s the way obvious connection he has with many of his guys. During the press conference announcing Tulloch’s new deal, came close to crying, saying:
I get a little choked up because I've known Stephen since he was 20 years old. He came in as a fourth-round draft pick and I've seen him (grow). It's like a son, or a neighbor, or a cousin, and you see him develop throughout his career. I couldn't be more proud of this day for him. To see the hard work and the perseverance it's taken him to get to this point. I need to step off this podium before it's too much.
You can see the video here. He's clearly the kind of coach players love to play for.
However, as the old adage goes, a team becomes an extension of its coach when they are on the field. The Lions spent the 2011 season on a wild ride, often falling behind only to stage furious comebacks. Many of these resulted in dramatic victories.
Who will win the NFC North?
Schwartz’ Lions did not fare so well against playoff teams.
Losses to the Falcons, 49ers, Saints and Packers (twice) all shared at least one similar component. Each of those games featured some kind of meltdown from either Schwartz or one of his players. Obviously the two most famous instances were the post-game handshake between Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and the Suh stomping incident on Thanksgiving.
Now, I have no problem with a head coach showing some fire.
There’s something to be said for your players seeing how passionate you are about the game and about your team. But Schwartz takes things to an almost comical extreme and it gives tacit permission for his players to do the same.
It would be one thing if Schwartz' outbursts had no effect on the game. But occasionally, that line gets crossed, as it did in the Week 17 matchup with the Packers, a game Detroit wanted to win so as to avoid a trip down to the Superdome, Schwartz was so enraged by an apparent touchdown pass being ruled incomplete—he called a timeout so he could yell at the referee.
Needless to say, the Lions could have used that timeout prior to halftime, but Schwartz found it more important to throw a "hissy-fit."
That's not to say he doesn't have cause when he flies off the handle at officials or goes after Jim Harbaugh. The officials screw things up. Harbaugh can be a jerk. But he simply must find a way to control himself better in the heat of the moment.
This Lions team has all the talent in the world. Yes, their secondary is still a weak-point. But they have the most important pieces for success in the modern game—a quarterback and a pass rush.
If Schwartz can get a handle on his volatile temper and set a better example for his team in pressure situations, the Lions should be better equipped to handle adversity and be able to keep their emotions in check when things start to go against them.
Pull out a few of the types of games against elite competition that got away from them last year and the Lions have an excellent chance at challenging not only the Packers, but the entire NFC and making it to Super Bowl XLVII.