Reggie Bush is key for the Lions offense to succeed in 2013.
The Detroit Lions' transformation from perennial loser to NFL contender was supposed to be complete last season. In typical Lions' fashion, they failed to deliver a season resembling anything but an utter disappointment.
The Lions offense never got going, and their defense was porous; and don't even get me started on the special teams. They finished 4-12, and whatever optimism the Martin Mayhew/Jim Schwartz era had generated, vanished.
The Lions are back to square one in 2013. Expectations are low, and that might not be a bad thing.
The underdog is a familiar role for them, except now, they actually have the weapons to make teams pay for taking them for granted.
Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are young, talented and capable of dominating performances.
Together, they put the Lions in a great position to rebound from the failure of 2012; but they're not the only reason.
Grantland.com's Bill Barnwell recently wrote that, out of all the losing teams in 2012, the Lions have the best shot of making the playoffs this season.
He cited their awful record in close games, difficult schedule, low fumble-recovery rate and turnover differential as the reasons the Lions will rebound this season.
Odds are the Lions will improve in each of those categories, and that alone will account for a handful of additional wins.
Barnwell makes some good points, but there are more obvious factors that play into the Lions' favor this year as well.
Here are five reasons the Lions will make their fans proud in 2013.
With Logan gone, it's addition by subtraction for the Lions' special teams.
It's an understatement to say that the Lions' special teams fell apart last season. The truth is, that unit failed, on a historic level.
The Lions gave up two 105-yard kick off returns and two punt returns for touchdowns in two consecutive weeks. That's four touchdowns that shouldn't have happened.
The impact of the special teams' collapse cannot be understated when you consider that the Lions lost both those games, against the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, in Weeks 3 and 4, by only 10 points combined.
The Lions should have won both of those games and started the season 3-1.
Giving up four return touchdowns was bad enough, but Stefan Logan's performance simply compounded the problem. He made costly errors and provided absolutely no spark returning kicks and punts.
The Lions are determined to not let the special teams cost them more games, and, on paper, the changes they made should help tremendously.
Last year's coach, Danny Crossman, is gone. The Lions replaced him with Jon Bonamego, a well-traveled and high-energy coach who is known to get the most out of his players.
The Lions also added coverage ace Montell Owens, who played for Bonamego last season in Jacksonville. Owens told freep.com's Dave Birkett that Bonamego is a "phenomenal coach" and added, "when he coaches, when he speaks, guys listen."
Bonamego and Owens will improve the special teams unit from day one, but they're not the only additions the Lions made.
Fifth-round draft pick Sam Martin appears to be the real deal and will upgrade the Lions' punting game.
Finally, no matter who the Lions choose to handle returns—Steven Miller, Patrick Edwards, Reggie Bush, or Michael Spurlock—he will be better than Logan.
Perhaps this year, the Lions' special teams will help them win games, not cost them victories.
The Lions hope that Delmas can stay healthy this season.
It seems like, every year of the Schwartz era, the Lions secondary entered the regular season with expectations of greatness, and every year, those expectations were shattered by repeated injuries to their most important players.
Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey, Chris Houston, Bill Bentley and Jacob Lacey all spent significant time on IR last season.
Yet, unlike other years, the secondary wasn't the weakest link.
Don Carey, Ricardo Silva and Jonte Green proved that they are valuable and can fill in without causing a significant drop in talent.
The good news is all those players will be back, and the injured players will be healthy by the time the regular season comes around—keep your fingers crossed for Delmas.
The better news is that the Lions didn't rest on their laurels. They added Glover Quin and drafted Darius Slay. These additions not only will dramatically improve the talent of the secondary, but they will also prevent another rash of injuries from derailing the season.
The Lions have real depth in the secondary now. If one player goes down, it won't hurt as bad. If no one goes down, the Lions could have one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
Schwartz knows he messed up last Thanksgiving Day.
It goes without saying that Lions head coach Jim Schwartz made some mistakes last year. Most egregious was the flag-throwing incident on Thanksgiving that likely cost the Lions a victory against the Houston Texans.
He obviously let his emotions get away from him. Unfortunately, that's been the story with Schwartz over the years. His sideline tirades, his postgame dust-up with Jim Harbaugh and his routine destruction of headsets all speak to his lack of emotional control.
He's an emotional guy, but that's not likely to change. What's worse about the flag-throwing incident was his failure to know the rule, even if it was a ridiculous one. There's no excuse for that.
To his credit, Schwartz admitted to freep.com that he's been learning on the job the past four years. When hired in 2009, he was a first-time head coach, so it's understandable that there would be a steep learning curve.
That's especially true when you consider the talent-barren wasteland that was the Lions' roster. For three years, he managed to show steady improvements—and even overachieved in 2012. Then it all came crashing down in 2013.
As I said, he had a big role in that crash, but he'll be better this season. He's too smart not to learn from his prior mistakes. He also knows that his job is very likely on the line.
That won't change the way he coaches, or his defensive philosophy, but it might make him take pause during crucial game situations to consider all his options, instead of hurling the nearest object he can find in the general direction of a referee.
Bush was a key addition for the Lions this offseason.
The Lions would love it if Jahvid Best could resume his career and achieve the NFL stardom he was so clearly headed for, before concussion-related injuries sidelined him.
Unfortunately, that doesn't look like it's going to happen, at least not in Detroit.
The Lions released Best on Wednesday, according to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, bringing a sad end to the running back's career in Detroit.
The Lions had already moved on, sort of. They added Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell over the past two years, but neither have the skill set to replace Best.
So this offseason, the Lions made it a priority to find someone who could.
In fact, they identified the best free agent available who fit their need, Reggie Bush, and were determined to sign him.
They were successful, and, in March, Bush agreed to a four-year, $16 million contract. Since then, fans and media alike have marveled at the potential he brings to the Lions offense.
Bush even talked up the offense, telling ESPN:
There's no excuse for us not to be a top-three offense, even No. 1. We have all the guys here of that caliber to be a top-ranked offense. It's up to us now, putting in the work. We have the guys here to be able to win a Super Bowl.
While most offseason Super Bowl predictions are usually met with eye rolls, Bush has a point. The Lions have the talent on offense to dominate, and he certainly fills a huge need.
With his ability to be a rusher and receiver, he will create a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and take some of the heat off Calvin Johnson.
He will fill Best's role in the offense, running some plays between the tackles, but primarily catching screens or short sweeps around the outside, but his ability to break off long runs is what the Lions offense was missing the most last year.
It remains to be seen if Bush's prediction will ring true, but one thing is almost certain: The Lions offense will be more dynamic with him in the fold, and their chances of returning to the playoffs improve dramatically.
Ansah and Taylor's length will add a new dimension to the Lions defense.
The Lions enter 2013 with an entirely unproven group of defensive ends anchoring their pass rush. Gone are Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Lawrence Jackson.
That much turnover is enough to cause anxiety among the Lions faithful; however, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Their replacements might actually be better suited for success in the NFL.
The Lions intentionally targeted pass-rushers of a certain body type. Players with exceptional height and arm length were coveted, and the Lions were successful in getting three of them.
Jason Jones was a free-agent signing, and Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor were drafted in the first and fourth rounds, respectively.
All three players are over 6'5" and have arms longer than 35 inches.
Granted, these three players are unproven. Jones has been in the league six years, but has never collected more than five sacks in one season. Ansah and Taylor are considered raw, even for rookie standards.
No matter, length and athleticism can cure a lot of deficiencies, and the Lions pass rush will be stronger than last year.
Long arms give DEs better leverage to shed blocks as well as better range to disrupt plays—by grabbing the quarterback or knocking down a pass—even when they're still engaged with a blocker.
According to Mlive.com, the Lions' defensive linemen were near the bottom of the league last season with just nine batted balls. The Houston Texans had 37.
I'm not saying the Lions' new-look pass rush will approach that number, but they will improve upon nine.
In fact, the Lions' DEs should improve in all categories. They're younger, more athletic and fit the mold of what makes an elite pass-rusher in the NFL today.