In the last three seasons, the Lions have finished 10-6, 4-12 and 7-9. That disappointing 2013 outcome, a collapse from a strong 6-3 start to the season, resulted in the end of the Jim Schwartz coaching era.
Almost all of the starting lineup returns intact. Many of the key pieces are in the primes of their careers, which means the new coaching staff has a lot to work with. Remember, this is a team coming off a season where it held a fourth-quarter lead in 13 of its 16 games, including the final five losses.
It's hard to tell exactly how the first year of the Jim Caldwell regime will turn out, but there's a pretty clear best- and worst-case scenario for these Lions.
It's time to set the bar high.
There is enough talent on both sides of the ball, and star power in key positions, for this team to win the NFC North and a playoff game...or two.
How do the Lions get to that point?
Getting the offense and defense to play at or near peak potential at the same time is the short answer. That's true of every team.
The longer answer breaks down into three primary facets:
- Matthew Stafford gets consistent
- The defensive playmakers make plays
- Good health
Because the injury variable is unpredictable across a roster, it's best to just hope for the best. The other two points here are absolutely up to the players themselves, however.
Stafford is the key to the offense. In Joe Lombardi's offense, the quarterback is given more responsibility and more freedom to thrive. Drew Brees has become a record-setting passer for the New Orleans Saints in this very offense.
The offensive line play is quite good; Matt Miller recently ranked Detroit's line sixth in his Bleacher Report rankings.
Running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are coming off a season where they became the first teammates in NFL history to each accumulate 500 yards as both runners and receivers. Depth at back is strong too, with spring star Theo Riddick and former feature back Mikel Leshoure.
Calvin Johnson is almost inarguably the best wide receiver in the league today. Free-agent signing Golden Tate dramatically upgrades the No. 2 spot over Kris Durham. Rookie Eric Ebron offers a new dimension as a hybrid wideout/tight end, too.
In short, if the rest of the offense plays to reasonable expectations, Stafford could have a monster season.
To do so, he needs to ditch the lazy mechanics that plague him from time to time. Stafford must show more sustainable fire and passion, too. Often he simply walked off and didn't seem troubled by a series where his errant throws produced a three-and-out.
If Stafford can emulate Brees, both as a passer and as a leader, this Lions offense has record-setting potential. That would equal at least 12 wins and a home playoff game, as well as the ever-elusive NFC North title.
Of course, the defense will also have to continue the strong play from the end of last season.
What's that, you say? The defense actually played well? But the national media tells me it was hot garbage!
Detroit fielded a top-10 defense over the final six weeks of the 2013 season. Check out these impressive numbers, derived from Pro-Football-Reference.com, over that period:
|Opponent||Rushing Yards||Passing Yards||Points Allowed||First Downs|
|New York Giants||41||238||23||15|
Extrapolate those averages out for a season.
- The 108.3 rushing yards per game would rank 13th
- The 185.3 passing yards per game would rank second
- The 293.6 total yards per game would rank second
- The 20.5 points per game would rank seventh
Other than the second half of the snow-covered game in Philly, and one 85-yard toasting of now-departed Chris Houston in the Tampa Bay game, Detroit's defense was downright stingy down the stretch.
Even with a little regression as the team adjusts to new coordinator Teryl Austin's more aggressive scheme, this defense can carry the Lions on days when Stafford and the offense just aren't clicking.
Now factor in more sacks and created turnovers, neither of which the Lions did particularly well over that impressive run. Playmakers like Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy and Ezekiel Ansah can make the defense even stronger by making impact plays and flipping more games.
If both the offense and defense play up to potential at the same time, there is absolutely no reason these Detroit Lions cannot finish 12-4 and win at least one playoff game.
We've probably seen the floor for this team already. Unfortunately, it's the last impression the loyal fanbase has of its Lions.
That would be the collapse at the end of last season, dropping six of the final seven. What's scary is that almost all the blame falls to just one side of the ball.
As noted above, Detroit's defense played quite well down the stretch. Unfortunately the offense devolved into an inefficient, turnover-plagued mess.
|New York Giants||3||2||-1|
Going minus-15 in six games from Weeks 11-16 does not equate with winning football. Both the offense and defense are at fault here, and that must change if the Lions are to improve.
Another factor that doesn't compute to winning is playing poorly in the fourth quarter, but that's where Detroit struggled a year ago, too.
Fourth-quarter pass defense was a big thorn in the Lions' paw. When it mattered most, Detroit could not get the job done.
Here are the pass defense season splits by quarter, again courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com:
|Quarter||Completion Percentage||Yards/Attempt||TD||INT||Sacks||QB Rating|
The pass rush evaporated and the coverage wilted at the same time. If that doesn't change, it's going to be real tough to get up off the 2013 floor.
Then there is the health aspect. The Lions downgraded at backup quarterback in going from Shaun Hill to Dan Orlovsky, so any time missed by Stafford could be devastating.
Likewise, the first Green Bay game last year, a punchless 22-9 loss, proved that the offense grinds to a halt without Calvin Johnson.
Fortunately the depth across the rest of the offense is pretty strong. Yet, the Lions would almost certainly struggle to win any games without both Stafford and Johnson on the field.
The defensive depth isn't as strong. While the starters form a pretty solid unit, the depth chart falls off precipitously behind it. That is especially true in the front seven.
Should Suh or Nick Fairley, the impact tackles Detroit heavily leans upon to disrupt opposing offenses, miss extended time, it would declaw the Lions defense.
It's even more dire at linebacker, where the starting trio of Stephen Tulloch, Kyle Van Noy and Levy must stay on the field. A reserve corps of Tahir Whitehead, Ashlee Palmer and perhaps Julian Stanford offers but a tiny percentage of the potential that the starters bring.
The worst-case scenario would be a lethal mix of all those downers:
- Stafford doesn't improve, and the complex new offense sputters
- The turnover ratio stays firmly in the red
- Injuries and ineffectiveness dampen the potentially great defensive front
- The defense continues to give up big plays at inopportune times
The negative momentum from the end of last year could bleed into 2014. Losing the opener on Monday Night Football to the visiting New York Giants could cripple any positive buzz, and the Caldwell era could very well plummet this franchise right back into the depths of the Schwartz era.
It's not a pleasant thought, but these Lions have a floor of finishing 5-11 and in last place in the highly competitive NFC North.
This is where a legendary quote from a famous Detroit native is appropriate.
The late Casey Kasem always ended his broadcasts with "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars." Acknowledge the potential for the floor, but push as hard as possible to raise the roof.