2011 was a historic year in Detroit—the Lions were no longer a joke. That's right, everyone. Those Lions. The Motor City Kitties had become the Comeback Cats. Pro Bowl quarterback Matthew Stafford led the Lions to a 10-6 record and the Lions' first playoff appearance in a dozen years.
Despite all that the young Lions accomplished, it's not all roses in Allen Park. The Lions didn't quite live up to the expectations of their 5-0 start in 2011-2012. The Lions managed to go 10-6 in what ended up being one of the most up-and-down years of any team in recent memory.
When it's all said and done, fans will look back on this past season as the turning point for the Lions franchise. Here are five things the team must do this season to bring the long-suffering Lions fans their first Super Bowl championship.
As Matthew Stafford goes, so go the Detroit Lions. He is to the Lions now what Peyton Manning was to the Indianapolis Colts in 2002. Stafford's 5,038 passing yards and 41 TD's not only destroyed the Lions' franchise record books, but made him the youngest player to ever break the 5k mark.
The math points to one inarguable truth for the Lions: Stafford is the man here. That's why the Lions' record improved so drastically last season. That's why they invested in Riley Reiff and Ryan Broyles with their first two draft picks. He is the key ingredient in the Lions' recipe for success.
If the Lions are to be Super Bowl contenders in 2012-2013, Stafford needs continue to develop as quarterback.
Ndamukong Suh might have been the biggest disappointment for Lions fans last year. Not only did he underperform following his outstanding rookie year, he proved to be a distraction with his antics on and off the field as well. As bad as the Thanksgiving Day stomping fiasco and his speeding-induced car accident were, Suh's defiant attitude with the media only exacerbated the problems.
Suh is a huge cog in this organization. If the Lions are going to build on their success from last season, Suh needs to return to his rookie form on and off the field. Lions fans loved him because he was a bad ass, and he played like one. That needs to happen again this coming season.
The 2012 draft class might be the most criticized class in GM Martin Mayhew's tenure. After disappointing performances by top picks Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure and Titus Young last season, it is extremely important to get some major contributions from top picks in this year's draft.
Riley Reiff is the future left tackle on the offensive line, but this year he should push Gosder Cherilus for the starting job at right tackle. Ryan Broyles, the most maligned pick of the 2012 draft, should push Nate Burleson and the hotheaded Titus Young for snaps opposite of Calvin Johnson. Third-round pick Bill Bentley should slot into the Lions' poor secondary, opposite of starting corner Chris Houston.
If these rookies can make contributions to the team this season, the Lions will be poised to improve on last season's first-round exit in the playoffs.
The Lions passing offense was prolific last season, but the running game left much to be desired. Both the coaching staff and fans had high expectations when the Lions selected Mikel Leshoure in the second round of the 2011 draft, hoping he could be the physical complement to the lightning-quick Jahvid Best.
However, after both backs suffered early season-ending injuries, the Lions running game went nowhere, averaging only 95.5 yards per game (29th in the league). If the Lions are going to make a run to the Super Bowl they will need one of their running backs to prove they can handle the NFL load.
While the Lions will never be a ground-and-pound team with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, they need to be able to establish the run. An effective running game will only make Stafford and Johnson deadlier, as well as help the defense stay off the field.
The Lions defense looked poised to be one of the nastiest groups in the league heading into last season. That proved to be the case—sort of. The Lions defense had a loud bark but missed the bite, as it placed in the bottom third in the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed.
Much like the running game, the Lions defense will never have to be great while Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are on the field. However, it needs to get more consistent contributions from names like Louis Delmas, Stephen Tulloch and Nick Fairley if the team is going to improve in 2012.
If the Lions defense can push itself to be a top-15 defense next season, the team should be a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
If last year proved anything about the Lions as a team, it's that they are not a fully realized group yet. This team proved to be immature on both sides of the ball in front of the nation. That Monday Night Football game against the Saints was embarrassing for the fans and the team.
The lack of maturity hasn't improved in the offseason, as CBS Sports has reported Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure and Johnny Culbreth have all been arrested. This is an organizational issue. Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew need to get through to the team and they need to make it clear that professionalism is directly related to winning in this league.
This is a key step for the team, as they will never realize the dream of bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Detroit until they grow up.