On Thanksgiving, the Lions dominated the Packers and looked like heavy favorites to win the NFC North. By Christmas, they had already been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That’s how quickly things fell apart for the Lions last year.
Will this year be different? Maybe, with the firing of head coach Jim Schwartz and the hiring of head coach Jim Caldwell. But what will be even more different is that the Lions can’t count on the rest of the NFC North being as weak this year as it was last year. In 2013, the Packers won the division with an 8-7-1 record, which meant the 7-9 Lions weren’t far back. But in 2014, the Lions will probably have to be quite a bit better to be in NFC North contention.
The good news is that Caldwell, plus the arrival of receiver Golden Tate and first-round tight end Eric Ebron, should make the offense better. The bad news is that many of the same questions remain about quarterback Matthew Stafford, and there are questions about the defense and special teams as well.
Overall, those question marks outweigh the clear positives, and the Lions look like they’ll miss the playoffs for the 14th time in the last 15 years.
In theory, the passing offense should be a major strength. Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL. The arrival of Golden Tate gives the Lions the best No. 2 receiver they’ve ever had across the field from Johnson. Ryan Broyles, if he can ever stay healthy, has the talent to be a good No. 3 receiver. If Eric Ebron has the kind of rookie year the Lions expect him to, few teams will have a better trio of pass catching tight ends than Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. The Lions also have a trio of running backs who can make plays in the passing game with Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick. Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have a lot of experience coaching good passing teams. There’s a lot of reason for optimism.
So why is the passing offense only a strength in theory? Because in practice, the Lions never know what they’re going to to get out of Matthew Stafford. Is he the quarterback whose brilliant 2011 campaign to the Lions to the playoffs? Or is he the quarterback who threw the season away last year? In the final six games of the season, Stafford had 11 interceptions and six fumbles, and his bad play was the biggest reason the Lions lost their lead on the division. If Stafford plays in 2014 like he did in 2011, the Lions’ offense will be in great shape. If not? Not.
The offensive line, which entered last season with some big question marks, actually looks strong now. Larry Warford was an excellent guard as a rookie last year, and LaAdrian Waddle was a pretty good rookie right tackle. They should both be even better this year, and as left tackle Riley Reiff continues to develop, the Lions have the makings of an offensive line that could be strong for years to come.
The Lions’ defensive line looks like a strength as well. It had better be, after they invested high first-round draft picks on Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Both Suh and Fairley are heading into the final seasons of their contracts, which should have them motivated for big seasons. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both had good years for the Lions last year and are back this year, and overall the defensive front seven appears to be in good shape.
The Lions’ biggest weakness this year will be the same as their biggest weakness last year, which was the same as the biggest weakness that got them knocked out of the first round of the playoffs the year before and has been a weakness for many, many years in Detroit: Their cornerbacks can’t stop anyone.
In fact, after cutting Chris Houston the Lions may be even worse at cornerback this year. Veteran Rashean Mathis will join with some combination of youngsters Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and Jonte Green to make up a cornerback group that may be the worst in the NFL. If there’s any good news it’s that the Lions have a pair of pretty good veteran safeties in Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo (who came over from Baltimore along with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin), and sometimes good safeties can hide some lousy cornerback play.
The rushing offense may also be a weakness for the Lions. Reggie Bush is capable of making spectacular plays, but he’s also capable of losing yardage by trying to do too much, and his fumbling became a serious problem for the Lions last year. Joique Bell is a tough runner in short-yardage situations but doesn’t have breakaway speed.
Special teams have been a significant weakness for the Lions in recent years and may be again this year, although there were some signs late last season that the Lions were starting to turn things around in the kicking game.
The biggest change is the firing of Jim Schwartz (and most of his staff) and the hiring of Jim Caldwell (and a mostly new staff). The best news about Caldwell is that he has a history of working well with quarterbacks and may be the man to get Matthew Stafford on track. The bad news is that Caldwell’s reputation for working well with quarterbacks stems largely from his time with Peyton Manning, and Stafford is no Peyton.
The Lions’ secondary will look different this year with two starters, safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston, now gone. But considering that the Lions’ secondary stunk last year, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and new defensive backs coaches Tony Oden and Alan Williams need to make the new-look secondary a lot better than last year’s secondary.
Detroit didn’t have a lot of cap space this offseason, which is why it didn’t make a lot of moves in free agency. Safety James Ihedigbo and receiver Golden Tate are two starters who arrived in free agency this year, but the Lions simply couldn’t afford to make as many changes as they would have liked.
The Lions will probably break camp with veteran Rashean Mathis joining Darius Slay, last year’s second-round draft pick, as the starting cornerbacks. But they’d love it if one of the other young cornerbacks, like 2012 third-round pick Bill Bentley and 2014 fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson, could push for a starting job in training camp.
A kicker competition isn’t the most exciting thing that can happen in training camp, but the battle between Giorgio Tavecchio and seventh-round draft pick Nate Freese will be very important for the Lions, who still haven’t found the right replacement for the long departed Jason Hanson. If Tavecchio or Freese can emerge as a good kicker this season, that would go a long way toward shoring up the special teams.
The Lions have enough talent on both sides of the ball that it’s not out of the question that they could make the playoffs. The best-case scenario is that an offense led by a resurgent Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate gives Detroit one of the most formidable passing attacks in the league, and that a motivated Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley lead the way on a ferocious Lions defense. If everyone plays up to his potential, the Lions could make a lot of noise in the NFC North.
But the Lions have rarely played up to their potential. If Jim Caldwell helps Stafford develop as a first-rate quarterback the Lions can make the playoffs, but more likely they’ll be somewhere around where they were last year, in the seven-win range.