20. Season in Review: Detroit Lions

Let's enter the Lions den shall we? Their Detroit sanctuary has been relatively docile and harmless quarters of late. For the past decade the Lions have lacked bite and have been unable to inspire the fear that is imperative to be king of the jungle. In fact, even tough they were road games, the Vikings, Bears and Packers probably welcomed the journeys into Detroit's Ford Field. Fans were as tame as the team on the field and wins against the Lions have been the easiest to come by in league well known for its parity and lack of 'guaranteed wins.' (Plus it is practically the only NFC North field that is playable). 

Maybe not any more. The Lions are ready to roar. In a lot of ways, the Lions have mirrored the fortunes of GM and are embodying their come back spirit. 

For years, like GM and the city of Detroit itself, the Lions were beset by bad management and poor investments. Instead of investing in alternative energy, GM bet its fortunes on the Hummer (bad idea). Instead of securing their quarterback of the future, the Lions squandered high picks and millions on over-hyped wide receivers (disaster*). 

*Not including Calvin Johnson.

Under the helm of CEO Rick Wagner Jr., GM lost 85 billion (85 Billion!!!!!! argghhh) in roughly 9 years. Around the same time, the Lions hire Matt Millen, a man with no previous front office experience, to serve as GM. His tenure mercifully ended 2 years early after similarly astounding and horrible results. During Millen's tenure the Lions amassed a 31-81 record (with a minimum 9 losses per season). The winning percentage of .277 was the third worse in football history narrowly topping the 1939-45 Bears and the 1983-89 Buccaneers

In a similar fashion to the downfall of General Motors, Millen squandered a plethora of high draft choices (GM's hybrid technology) that should have helped make Detroit more competitive. 

Millen set his sights on receivers, drafting Charles Rodgers (2nd overall), Roy Williams (7th overall) and Mike Williams (10th overall). Bust, bust and bust (at least in Detroit). Millen also spent high first or second round picks on Ikaika Alama-Francis (who?), Jordon Dizon (uh?) and Gosder Cherilus (um?)... Bust, bust and, yep, bust.

 

In fact, Millen was so good at selecting busts, he should have opened a lingerie store...

Millen was so bad, that while covering a Sunday Night Football game for NBC he admitted he should have been fired earlier than he was. Unreal. Finally, new GM Martin Mayhew took over after the 2008 season and, like General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson, Mayhew has turned the organization around. 

By investing in smart players such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Jahvid Best, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the Lions are accumulating core talent that is good enough to stand up to the hype of the new Chevy Volt. 

In fact, the Chrysler commercial featuring Eminem about the resurgence of the car industry in Detroit, could have easily been about the comeback of the Detroit Lions. They might not be there yet, but watch out NFC North, because after a decade of despair, the Lions are ready to roar.

 

Season In Review: Injuries and a slow start prevented a breakout year

Yes Detroit lost 10 games, but take a closer look at those losses. 

- They lost at Chicago by 5 (which the Lions won btw. That throw to Calvin Johnson was a catch.)

- Vs. Philadelphia by 3

- On the road to GB by 2

(3 losses to 3 playoff teams by a combined 10 points)

Then after a rare win against a much-improved St. Louis, they Lion lost to the Giants in New York by 8.

Other heartbreaking losses include:

A 3 point OT loss at home to the Jets followed by a 2 point loss in Buffalo and another tough 4 point defeat at the hands of hated Chicago. 

So to recap, the Lions lost 6 games to playoff teams, 5 of them by a combined 19 point total or 3.8 points per game. 

That is hard to swallow. It also shows that the Lions are young, unaccustomed to winning and could have desperately used starting quarterback Matthew Stafford who was injured for the majority of the season. 

Offseason Momentum: Ready to Roar

The health of Matthew Stafford is the biggest concern, otherwise the LIons could be on the cusp of a playoff berth. The most difficult final  hurdle may be playing in a tough division with 2 playoff teams -including the Super Bowl champs - otherwise there is reason to be optimistic in Detroit.

(25,00 Lions fans frantically search 'optimistic' in the dictionary to double check if such an emotion can be true). 

The Lions finally bucked their league record 25 game road losing streak on the road in week 15 against Tampa Bay (SPOILER ALERT) and proved it wasn't a fluke by staying in Florida to defeat the Dolphins a week later (come on Lions!!! NOT COOL). 

The offense was efficient, sometimes even potent, with backup Shaun Hill at the helm and Calvin Johnson was as good as ever catching 77 balls for 1,120 yards and 12 (really 13 touchdowns) while being double sometimes triple teamed. Don't discount being thrown to by a backup quarterback. Impressive.

Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh exceeded even the most inflated expectations recording 10 sacks, 66 tackles and a forced fumble.

 

The best news though, that Matthew Stafford seemed to take a huge step in his progression towards being a household name and elite starting quarterback. 6 touchdowns to only 1 interception along with 535 yards along with a 59 percent completion percentage and a 97 passer rating left Lion fans salivating for more. He only got to play in 2.5 games! 

That plus a 4 game win-streak to close the season on top of the knowledge that the draft is in good hands, and Lions fans are positively giddy for the first time since the Barry Sanders days.

(Giddy...dammit, where's the dictionary... this cant be possible...)

Offseason Anxiety: Matthew Stafford's right shoulder

Despite Coach Jim Schwartz's reassurances that Stafford's right shoulder 'will be 100 percent healthy by training camp,' everyone in Detroit is holding their breath. Their franchise quarterback has been injured for significant portions of both his first two seasons and a shoulder injury is always especially difficult to come back from. 

Another concern is the disappearance of rookie running back Jahvid Best, who after scoring Detroit's first 4 touchdowns of the season didn't find the endzone (or must success) the rest of the season. If Detroit is going to contend and win on a regular basis, the offense is going to have to be balanced... which leads me to the Lion's next concern: a wide receiver opposite Calvin Johnson. Lions fans shiver at the thought of drafting another receiver in the early rounds, but it has to happen. Its not fair to Calvin that defenses can shade both safeties and their outside linebacker to cover him. He still caught 77 passes but imagine what he could do if he had 1-1 coverage (Lions fans whistle wistfully) 

Defensively the Lions are still a mess but their are built to improve. Gunther Cunningham is a solid defensive coordinator who gets that the defensive line is key to a strong unit. Suh is a beast of a tackle that many teams are very jealous of. 

Draft Desires: Secondary, Linebackers and a receiver 

Defensively, the Lions weren't very good. They couldn't stop the run and had just as hard a time defending the pass, which is a rather nightmarish combination. Suh is their fixture on the d-line who will apply the pressure, now they have to fix the secondary. 

It seemed the Lions ran open tryouts throughout the season in the secondary given how many people they played. The only player that the Lions really are keen to keep is 2nd year pro Louis Delmas out of Western Michigan. He was caught out of position on several occasions but is still learning and should turn into a nice free safety. Calling his teammate C.C. Brown - who mans the other safety spot - a competent backup would be generous. The guy is holding down the fort until someone, anyone can take his place. Same for corner Nathan Vasher, who got burned so many times the doctors prescribed him Neosporin. Chris Houston who played opposite Vasher was decent but is about to hit the free agent market. Obviously a corner is needed. 

The two best cornerbacks in the draft won't be there: Patrick Patterson of LSU or Prince Amukamara from Nebraska. That leaves Miami's Brandon Harris as the best available. While Detroit might go after him, it will be hard not to take a long look at Texas A&M's Von Miller. Harris could be elite but is raw, while Miller, who plays outside linebacker - another position of need -  was said to have had one of the best senior weeks. 

Another possibility is trading down later in the first round and selecting Janoris Jenkins out of Florida. Not nearly as gifted as his co south-Florida counterpart, Jenkins is still a solid selection and by trading down, the Lions could bolster their depth. Same applies for CB Aaron Williams for Texas. In the second round, if safety Rahim Moore from UCLA is available the Lions will pounce. If not look for them to target local favorite linebacker Greg Jones out of Michigan State. Not only would he be a popular pick, he would be a tackling machine and a big upgrade over departing free agent Julian Peterson. Only in the 3rd round do the Lions go get there receiver. A player such as DeVier Posey would be a perfect compliment to Johnson. 

Free Agency Farewells: None that are too serious. 

Drew Stanton is a local boy and fan favorite but unless Stafford gets hurt again, he has probably seen his last days in a Lions uniform. Julian Peterson is too old and backup Bobby Carpenter filled in well for him. 

C.C. Brown is due to test the market, although thats probably fine with the Lions' brass who can't wait to get rid of him. The only player Detroit should really concern themselves with is corner Chris Houston, who really isn't that great to begin with. 

Unfortunately for Detroit, they have no cap room (if that even exists) to make a free agent splash.

Threat to the Stampede: Distant

The Colts may hear the roar, but it will be distant. The Lions will make noise in their division but that is it. The Colts don't play the Lions next fall and they won't play them in February either. Doesn't mean the Lions can't compete for a playoff spot, but the playoffs? come on... a lot of these guys are just cubs still learning how to win. 

9 wins is a definite possibility, which should be enough to make many in Detroit very happy. 

Keep Detroit Beautiful, now on to St. Louis. 


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