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.