Calvin Johnson (left), is having a career year, but the Lions have struggled
In 2011, the Detroit Lions surprised many by winning their first five games en route to a 10-6 record and a trip the NFC playoffs. They were subsequently ousted by the New Orleans Saints in the wild card round but entered this year with great playoff expectations.
What a difference a year makes. As of post time, the Lions are 4-8, with road games against Green Bay and Arizona left, and the season finally ending at home against Atlanta and Chicago. This dramatic reversal of fortune has led many to believe that last season was a fluke.
What went wrong?
1. The Lions' problems began early in the year with special teams struggling greatly, particularly when kicking the ball. They gave up four returns for touchdowns in two games, a punt and kick each against Tennessee and Minnesota. They also have given up an interception and a fumble recovery for touchdowns as well.
2. The Lions were very successful in overcoming fourth-quarter deficits in 2011, including four that eclipsed double-digit deficits. This year, they have already been the victim of four comebacks, two of which have come in overtime losses. Coaching miscues have played a part in at least two, with a thrown challenge flag giving Houston a touchdown that would otherwise have been overruled, since the play would have been reviewed anyway. Some say that running the ball excessively late against Indianapolis cost them a win as well.
3. The Lions were very quiet in free agency this off-season, signing only Jacob Lacey, formerly from Indianapolis. They didn't address issues on the defensive side of the ball, which has led directly to giving up close games late.
However, all is not lost in Motown. There have also been several bright spots for the team:
1. The Lions boast the number one passing attack in the NFL, and that is partly due to the return of a running game. Granted, they are only rushing for just over 100 yards per game, but that will help open up the passing game. Still, quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson are a potent combination that causes match-up nightmares for opposing defenses.
2. Of the Lions' eight losses, only one was by greater than a touchdown (at Minnesota 11/11). Each loss has come down to the final possession, but several have been losses where the team failed to make plays. Still, the Lions could easily be 8-4, rendering this article moot, had something happened differently. That comes as small comfort to many, but it does show potential.
3. The team is relatively young (aside from Jason Hanson, of course), and while they can often be undisciplined, particularly off of the field, they are still a talented group of athletes.
But how do the Lions fix these problems? Here are three ideas:
1. Draft and sign defense, particularly in the secondary. The talent, while able to survive in the NFL, is not enough to keep the team moving in the right direction. Most of the focus in the off-season should be to repair a much-maligned unit. The offense has not been the weak point of the team, but a signing to add depth wouldn't hurt.
2. Instill a proper sense of discipline. The Lions have had a number of off-field issues, and they have earned a reputation on the field as a team that plays dirty. DT Ndamukong Suh and WR Titus Young Sr. have been the most obvious examples, with Suh getting fined for an alleged groin kick on Houston QB Matt Schaub on Thanksgiving, while Young has all but been kicked off of the team for complaining about not getting enough targets, though the official word is that he's been placed on injured reserve for a lingering knee issue.
3. Replace ineffective coaches. Many fans, myself included, have called for Schwartz to be fired, but his coordinators, particularly on defense and special teams, are mostly to blame for miscues. Some fans want offensive coordinator Scott Linehan fired as well, but given the effectiveness of the offense, that may do more harm than good in the long run.
The bottom line is that as of right now, the Lions are staring down the proverbial barrel of another losing season unless they win out somehow. However, the record of the team can be misleading because they are not playing up to their fullest potential. If the front office addresses the appropriate issues, this team could easily be a legitimate playoff contender for years to come. However, this is not their year. So stay positive, Lions fans. They're not playing well for now, but their future is a bright one.