Where Do the Detroit Lions Go from Here?

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IDecember 23, 2013

Officially eliminated from the postseason after a fifth loss in six games, the Detroit Lions can now start focusing their attention on the many changes that need to be made to ensure a similar fate doesn't repeat itself in the future.

Any team that collapses in such brutal fashion is begging for alterations to be made, at the top, bottom and everywhere in between. Once 6-3 and in control of everything in the NFC North, the Lions now will not factor into the Week 17 proceedings in the division. 

For a team this talented, especially at key positions in today's game, the status quo just won't cut it moving forward. 

Any immediate change with this floundering franchise probably has to start at head coach, where Jim Schwartz has failed to get the Lions over the hump. He's now 29-50 over five seasons, and he'll miss the postseason for the fourth time. 

Detroit has come a long way since its 0-16 season in 2008, but more should be expected now, in 2013, and next year, in 2014. 

Unless the Ford family is completely against paying the money still owed to Schwartz over the life of his contract, it's difficult to envision the Lions going into a sixth season with him at the helm. This latest failure has been indicative of the Schwartz tenure, with inconsistency, turnovers and a lack of discipline holding back a team that should be preparing for the playoffs.  

After Sunday's 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants, which officially knocked the Lions out of the postseason race, Schwartz did his best to sidestep questions about his job security. 

“I admire this team and I’m proud to coach the team, I’m proud to stand among these guys," Schwartz said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "They’re tough, they fight and I think that’s what we’ll be concerned with.”

There's much more that the Lions should be concerned with. 

For starters, it's clear that the franchise's quarterback—25-year-old Matthew Stafford—has taken drastic steps backward, especially over the last six games. It might be unfair to pin those struggles on Schwartz, but it's just as clear that Stafford could use a head coach with an intimate knowledge of the position. 

Schwartz started coaching football at age 23 as a graduate assistant at the University of Maryland, and he hasn't coached offense at any point since. He was a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens before eventually going on to coordinate the Tennessee Titans defense from 2001-08. 

There's nothing wrong with hiring a defensive coach to run the program, but the Lions might want to think long and hard about hiring an offensive-minded head man next. Stafford needs the direction and accountability that having a strong offensive coach would bring. 

The former No. 1 overall pick is simply too physically talented to be playing as poorly as he has to end this season. 

Late Regression: Matthew Stafford Since Week 11
No.NFL Rank*
Passing Yards1,5975th
Completion Percentage52.631st
Passer Rating66.430th
Passing Touchdowns912th (tied)
W-L1-528th (tied)
*Out of 32 qualifying QBs

Over the last six weeks, Stafford has tossed a league-high 12 interceptions, and his completion percentage (52.6) and passer rating (66.4) both rank in the bottom three of quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. The Lions have scored more than 28 points just once since Week 10. 

A few weeks of those kinds of numbers can be accepted at certain points of every career, but six straight games with these obvious struggles—turnovers, inaccuracy and inefficiency—make for a scary and eye-opening span that's bordering on trend. And the problems have come when the games mattered most, which is even more disheartening. 

Remember, Stafford signed a five-year, $76.5 million extension back in July. The deal includes over $40 million in guaranteed money, so he isn't leaving Detroit anytime soon. 

Considering Stafford will be around for the long term, it only makes sense to pick the next head coach based on how that relationship will benefit the quarterback. The right hire could turn around a talented quarterback like Stafford in a hurry. 

But how much of the recent stumbles fall on Schwartz, and how much should be assigned to the players? It's a worthwhile question to ask with a collapse of this scale. 

“It’s not just Jim (Schwartz)," receiver Nate Burleson said, via Mitch Albon of the Detroit Free Press. "It’s gonna be the players, the guys wearing the jerseys. … It’s the nature of the business."

And maybe Burleson has a point. 

Stafford has been inaccurate and turnover-prone. At some point, those growing mistakes are on him. And those around him haven't been much better. 

Over three December games, all-world receiver Calvin Johnson caught just 12 passes for 193 yards and zero touchdowns. He's battled several injuries late in this season, but he's also had critical drops and very few game-changing plays. 

After rushing for 90 or more yards four times in the first nine games, running back Reggie Bush has gone over that mark just once in the last five. But he does have three lost fumbles over that span.

The Detroit offense ranks third in yards and 10th in points, but this is still a flawed outfit. 

The team's top four receivers (in terms of receptions) since Week 11 are Johnson, Joique Bell, Nate Burleson and Reggie Bush. Burleson, the veteran No. 2 receiver, has averaged just three catches during that span. 

Johnson is a once-in-a-generation talent, but it's obvious that the Lions need receiving help around him. 

Bell and Bush have combined for almost 100 receptions and nearly 1,000 receiving yards, which shows both how talented each is but also how dependent Detroit is on the two to make plays in the passing game. No self-sustaining offense should ask so much from the running backs out of the backfield. 

Burleson is averaging nearly 50 receiving yards a game over his eight appearances this season, but he's starting to fade as injuries take their toll at age 32. The rest of the cast simply isn't good enough. 

Take Sunday's loss, for example. 

Johnson caught only three passes for 43 yards. The other Lions receivers—Burleson, Kevin Ogletree and Kris Durham—caught only six passes for 56 yards. The running backs were targeted 14 times, and Bell led all receivers with 10 catches. 

That's no way to play offense, especially when your quarterback throws two picks and Bush loses a fumble. 

The Lions defense can be just as maddeningly inconsistent. With a front four as disruptive as the one in Detroit, pressure should never be an issue. But far too many times this season, offenses have gotten comfortable and moved the football against inconsistent disruption. 

Behind the defensive line, the Lions still need more talent at linebacker and in the secondary. 

However, talent doesn't appear to be the biggest problem plaguing the Lions. 

This team deals with more self-inflicted wounds than any team in football. Consistency and penalties still hurt the Lions every season. And the coaching simply doesn't do enough to mask—or better yet, solve—the problems. 

The Lions are a team built to win in this age of the NFL. There's talent at quarterback, receiver and running back, and few defensive lines have as much disruption capability. That's a winning combination in today's game. 

Now, the right moves need to be made this offseason—following another lost year—to ensure the future in Detroit moves in the right direction. A new, more adaptive coaching staff and filling in the complementary pieces should both be high on the to-do list. 


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