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Five questions: Detroit Lions

stafford AP

It wasn’t long ago that the Lions looked like one of the NFL’s more promising teams, as their 2011 playoff berth was fueled largely by young players who appeared to have big futures in Detroit. But just as quickly as the Lions began to show promise in 2011, things fell apart in 2012 and 2013.

Two straight losing seasons cost former coach Jim Schwartz his job, and Jim Caldwell has been hired to right the ship. It’s Caldwell’s job to take the talent in Detroit and finally mold it into a consistent winner.

That task starts at the quarterback position, and our five questions about the Lions start at the quarterback position as well.

1. Which Matthew Stafford is the real Matthew Stafford?

Stafford is a quarterback who had a 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown, 16-interception season in 2011, when he was just 23 years old. Stafford is also a quarterback who threw away a golden opportunity to win the NFC North last season, with 12 interceptions and six fumbles over the final seven games of the season, while the Lions limped to a 1-6 finish.

So which one is the real Stafford? The Lions have to hope the 2011 version returns, because if the real version of Stafford is the one who showed himself down the stretch last season, then the Lions have a fortune in salary cap space tied up in a quarterback who just isn’t very good.

Stafford’s decision making and mechanics haven’t seemed to improve, and he still looks like a quarterback who thinks his strong arm can bail him out of any situation. Caldwell’s most important task as the Lions’ head coach is to see to it that Stafford turns things around and turns that 2011 performance into the norm, and not a fluke.

2. Will contract years motivate Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley?

No team has more talent at defensive tackle than the Lions, who used back-to-back first-round picks on Suh and Fairley in 2010 and 2011. But talent alone hasn’t been enough to give the Lions the best pair of defensive tackles in the NFL: Suh can’t always control himself on the field, leading to costly penalties, while Fairley can’t always control himself at the dinner table, leading to weight problems that have made him less effective than he should be.

But there’s one big reason to believe that this is the year for Suh and Fairley: Next year is the year that both of them can cash in via free agency. Suh’s enormous rookie contract expires after this season, and Fairley’s contract expires, too, thanks to the Lions’ decision not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. The Lions believe that will result in Suh and Fairley having their best years.

So far, the results are mixed: Reports out of camp indicate that Suh looks good but Fairley is still struggling to control his weight. Suh should have a big year. Fairley still needs to prove himself.

3. Can anyone here play cornerback?

The Lions have been terrible at the cornerback position in recent years, and there’s little reason to believe this year will be any different. In fact, this year could be even worse after Chris Houston, who started 12 games last year, was released.

Detroit has to hope that Darius Slay, a 2013 second-round pick who had an up-and-down rookie season, can have a big second year. If Slay emerges as a cornerback who can consistently hold his own against opposing No. 1 receivers, the Lions’ pass defense will be in good shape. But that’s an enormous “if.”

Beyond Slay, the Lions are stuck with either mediocre veterans like Rashean Mathis and Drayton Florence, or unproven young players like Bill Bentley, Jonte Greene and Nevin Lawson. The outlook at the cornerback position is not promising.

4. Is Nate Freese or Giorgio Tavecchio the heir apparent to Jason Hanson?

Hanson was so good for so long in Detroit — he was their kicker from 1992 to 2012, setting the NFL records for most games with one team and most points scored for one team, in addition to kicking the most 50-yard field goals in the history of the league — that Lions fans forgot what it’s like to have a kicker who inspires no confidence.

They were reminded last year, when David Akers arrived and was shaky from the get-go: Akers missed two very makable field goals in a 25-21 loss in Week Two, and never fully recovered after that. Akers will not be back.

So the Lions need either Freese — a rookie seventh-round pick — or Tavecchio — who has bounced around the league but never played in a regular-season game — to step up. Freese, the first kicker the Lions drafted since Hanson, appears to be the favorite.

5. How good a coach is Jim Caldwell?

In Caldwell’s first year as an NFL coach, he took a Peyton Manning-led team to the Super Bowl. In Caldwell’s third season as an NFL head coach, he took a Peyton Manning-less team to a 2-14 record and was promptly fired. Now Caldwell is getting a second chance in Detroit.

The good news is that Caldwell’s reputation for working well with talented quarterbacks meshes with exactly what the Lions need: He might be just the guy to get Stafford on track.

The bad news is that Stafford is not Peyton Manning, and the only two seasons Caldwell has had success as a head coach, he had Manning as his quarterback. (In Caldwell’s only other stint as a head coach, at Wake Forest from 1993 to 2000, he went 26-63.)

If Caldwell can get the Lions back to the playoffs, he’ll deserve Coach of the Year consideration. But that’s a tall order in Detroit, which has just one playoff berth in the 21st Century.

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27 Responses to “Five questions: Detroit Lions”
  1. thestrategyexpert says: Aug 15, 2014 12:50 PM

    Just to play devil’s advocate and worry about a horrible season since there’s not much to worry about if things go well, but if this team misses the playoffs and Stafford doesn’t look too good, then will they stick with the same coaches and plan for the next season, or will they get an entirely new coaching staff or just a revamped plan, or just somebody new to help Stafford who would still need help in that scenario, or move on from Stafford?

  2. ariani1985 says: Aug 15, 2014 12:52 PM

    I am still laughing at the beat down they gave turd bay on turkey day!

  3. thepftpoet says: Aug 15, 2014 12:59 PM

    The Lions will take 2nd place in the division, and maybe get a wildcard spot.

    The Minnesota Vikings will win the division by week 15.

  4. daytonaken says: Aug 15, 2014 1:05 PM

    From a Ravens fan, thank you Lions for giving Jim Caldwell this opportunity!

  5. cometkazie says: Aug 15, 2014 1:05 PM

    At least it should be entertaining.

  6. packerbackernj says: Aug 15, 2014 1:07 PM

    Stafford with the right system and coach can be quite successful. The “target calvin johnson 200 times” offense works well in fantasy football.

  7. misterseahawk says: Aug 15, 2014 1:09 PM

    Why even play this season, Detroit? Its Seattle and no one else this season. Sorry, but Stafford is no Russell Wilson.

  8. rikalicious1 says: Aug 15, 2014 1:09 PM

    its Detroit, god love em but they could go winless and I bet Caldwell stays. If they extended Schwartz beyond this year, they aren’t going to be paying three coaches? Matt Millen and Martin Mayhew didn’t even have to do acceptable accountable work to keep their positions. Caldwell had Manning and potluck. He learned from this lesson to have Stafford backed by potluck. If Stafford goes down it will be time to look forward to the draft.

  9. tommymomoney says: Aug 15, 2014 1:13 PM

    Jim Caldwell isn’t a qualified head coach. He only gets jobs because he’s close with Dungy. Lions fans will soon find out.

  10. purpleguy says: Aug 15, 2014 1:13 PM

    Seems to be more questions on this team than some of the others in the NFCN, and by that I don’t mean the team is bad or anything (for example, there’s no question my team’s QB sucks), but more is Stafford capable of hitting the next level? Can Suh control himself? Will Fairley get his act together? Can the DBs, megatron and Bush stay healthy? Is Caldwell any good without Manning? The Lions are a complete wildcard — they could be 11-5 or just as easily 7-9.

  11. doe22us says: Aug 15, 2014 1:14 PM

    Peyton Manning getting coaches hired since 99.. anyhow the problem is Stafford men, that interception against the Ravens was as bad as they come. If he hasn’t changed his habits, yeah you will see some moments of brilliance and moments that leave you scratching your head.

  12. dino2997 says: Aug 15, 2014 1:24 PM

    Stafford has two wins against teams with a winning record. That’s it! Just two wins yet all of the blame is placed on the last coaching staff.

  13. suhperbowl90 says: Aug 15, 2014 2:17 PM

    “Stafford has two wins against teams with a winning record. That’s it! Just two wins yet all of the blame is placed on the last coaching staff.”

    Misleading and hilariously unfair stat for QB’s when this is LITERALLY a team sport to succeed in.

    That’s almost as hilarious as the notion that Russell Wilson led the seahawks to the superbowl last season.

  14. hyzers says: Aug 15, 2014 2:19 PM

    The Lions went 1-6 in the last 7 games last year. Every one of those games they held a 4th quarter lead. They went 4-2 in the NFC North. There are a lot of good reasons the Lions should make the playoff this year. I don’t know why losing Chris Houston is looked at as a negative. He was unequivocally terrible last year.

  15. colv says: Aug 15, 2014 2:23 PM

    Payton’s QB coach was not Caldwell or not anyone else, it was his father and years of his dedicated study of the game and position that has led him to be an elite QB.

  16. colv says: Aug 15, 2014 2:28 PM

    I’m hoping Caldwell does well with Stafford, he made a difference for the Ravens during their SB run, not so much in 2013, I’m not sure where he fell in the list of issues the Ravens offense suffered thru for the first time under John Harbaugh and Flacco. I expected a course correction by the Offensive Coord, but, it didn’t happen. Seemed Like OC was stuck in neutral. Again, here’s hoping Jim has a successful year for his team and fans. .

  17. avr29 says: Aug 15, 2014 2:32 PM

    I really hate that the blame is lumped onto Stafford. Until last year, the o-line struggled with pass pro, and there isn’t a reliable between-the-tackles runner on the team. They’ve also had issues finding someone, anyone to be a receiving threat other than Megatron. They signed Tate and drafted Ebron, plus they have Bush. And if you watch the picks from last year, maybe half of those are on Stafford. Remember the Bucs game where Megatron catches it cleanly, has it punched out by the DB, and it was picked to end the game? Let’s not act like Stafford is just throwing it around into triple coverage all the time.

  18. calvinthegreat82 says: Aug 15, 2014 2:43 PM

    Year Lg Tm W L T Playoffs
    2013 NFL Detroit Lions 7 9 0
    2012 NFL Detroit Lions 4 12 0
    2011 NFL Detroit Lions* 10 6 0 Lost WC
    2010 NFL Detroit Lions 6 10 0
    2009 NFL Detroit Lions 2 14 0
    2008 NFL Detroit Lions 0 16 0
    2007 NFL Detroit Lions 7 9 0
    2006 NFL Detroit Lions 3 13 0
    2005 NFL Detroit Lions 5 11 0
    2004 NFL Detroit Lions 6 10 0
    2003 NFL Detroit Lions 5 11 0
    2002 NFL Detroit Lions 3 13 0
    2001 NFL Detroit Lions 2 14 0
    2000 NFL Detroit Lions 9 7 0

    2 seasons above .500 in 14 years, Lions a horrid and pathetic franchise.

    How does an NFL team go 0-16, lol….garbage, absolute garbage!

  19. jghs38 says: Aug 15, 2014 3:11 PM

    Haha, Fairley has problems at the dinner table! That really made me laugh, even though it is a serious problem for him. As a lions fan, I agree with some of the points made here, hopefully we can overcome some obstacles.

  20. pc1976 says: Aug 15, 2014 3:42 PM

    Indy didn’t go 2-14 just because Manning was gone – Manning covered up the growing holes that started after Dungy left and Caldwell took over. He rightfully fleed a sinking ship.
    Oh well, at least Caldwell redeemed himself in Baltimore last year.

  21. deltaoracle says: Aug 15, 2014 4:31 PM

    I’m glad that some of the Heidi boneheads post on articles other than those about Green Bay. It lets other fans see what Packer fans have to endure on a consistent basis.
    Lions’ passing offense will be scary in one way; their pass defense will be scary in another way.

  22. rl7911 says: Aug 15, 2014 4:31 PM

    After watching how bad Chicago looked against one of the worst teams in the NFL last night, it’s going to be Detroit and GB fighting for the division.

  23. deags15 says: Aug 15, 2014 6:52 PM

    Incompetent is the best word that describes Caldwell. He’s the only coach I know of that calls TO’s for the opposing team. And it wasn’t just once that he called a TO but twice and in the same season with Peyton Manning looking dumbfounded on the sidelines. The Lions are however playing a weak schedule starting with the Panthers and Giants but regardless I have to predict they will lose them both. I’m also pretty sure they will start the season 0-3 and before losing to the Jets in week 4. I honestly can’t see them being better than their 1-7 finish from a year ago.

  24. jollyjoker2 says: Aug 16, 2014 12:50 AM

    some how that coaching staff has never been crisp and I dont’ see it changing.

  25. banky74 says: Aug 16, 2014 3:18 PM

    calvinthegreat82 says: Aug 15, 2014 2:43 PM

    Year Lg Tm W L T Playoffs
    2013 NFL Detroit Lions 7 9 0
    2012 NFL Detroit Lions 4 12 0
    2011 NFL Detroit Lions* 10 6 0 Lost WC
    2010 NFL Detroit Lions 6 10 0
    2009 NFL Detroit Lions 2 14 0
    2008 NFL Detroit Lions 0 16 0
    2007 NFL Detroit Lions 7 9 0
    2006 NFL Detroit Lions 3 13 0
    2005 NFL Detroit Lions 5 11 0
    2004 NFL Detroit Lions 6 10 0
    2003 NFL Detroit Lions 5 11 0
    2002 NFL Detroit Lions 3 13 0
    2001 NFL Detroit Lions 2 14 0
    2000 NFL Detroit Lions 9 7 0

    2 seasons above .500 in 14 years, Lions a horrid and pathetic franchise.

    How does an NFL team go 0-16, lol….garbage, absolute garbage!

    ========================

    My God man, give Detroit a break. Those people are living in Mad Max times.

  26. sportsfan18 says: Aug 16, 2014 7:17 PM

    banky74 says:
    Aug 16, 2014 3:18 PM
    calvinthegreat82 says: Aug 15, 2014 2:43 PM

    Year Lg Tm W L T Playoffs
    2013 NFL Detroit Lions 7 9 0
    2012 NFL Detroit Lions 4 12 0
    2011 NFL Detroit Lions* 10 6 0 Lost WC
    2010 NFL Detroit Lions 6 10 0
    2009 NFL Detroit Lions 2 14 0
    2008 NFL Detroit Lions 0 16 0
    2007 NFL Detroit Lions 7 9 0
    2006 NFL Detroit Lions 3 13 0
    2005 NFL Detroit Lions 5 11 0
    2004 NFL Detroit Lions 6 10 0
    2003 NFL Detroit Lions 5 11 0
    2002 NFL Detroit Lions 3 13 0
    2001 NFL Detroit Lions 2 14 0
    2000 NFL Detroit Lions 9 7 0

    2 seasons above .500 in 14 years, Lions a horrid and pathetic franchise.

    How does an NFL team go 0-16, lol….garbage, absolute garbage!

    ========================

    My God man, give Detroit a break. Those people are living in Mad Max times.

    0 1
    Report comment

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    OK, here is a break for the Lions fans…

    From 2004 to 2013, those 10 seasons, the Oakland Raiders lost MORE games than the Lions did…

    Even with the Lions going 3 & 13 in 2006, 0 & 16 in 2008 and 2 & 14 in 2009.

    That’s not enough of a break for the Lions fans?

    OK, the Raiders were last in attendance in 4 of the past 5 yrs and were like 3rd from the bottom in the year they weren’t last.

  27. pc1976 says: Aug 19, 2014 4:28 PM

    As someone from the UK who chose to support the Lions, the 5 questions I constantly ask are why? why? why? why? why? The correct answer is always #20

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