The Detroit Lions are lit. On the heels of an impressive three-game win streak punctuated by the nationally televised Thanksgiving deflowering of the Eagles, the Lions are one of the hottest teams in football right now. Led by embattled quarterback Matthew Stafford, they have looked much closer to the team many envisioned coming off of last year’s eleven win season. It’s been a fun few weeks, but how did we get here and what does it really mean?
After an ugly 1-7 start, the Lions were left for dead. Forget life support, Martha Ford was already disposing of the ashes. The first eight games were a failure in every measurable way. It began with a Week 1 collapse in San Diego. A reffing disaster in Seattle sealed an 0-4 opening act. A Week 6 escape against the Bears in overtime would provide the only Lions victory in the first half of the season. In London, the Lions were a disgrace to their country in an embarrassing mauling at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. Coming out of the bye week traveling to Green Bay where the Lions hadn’t won in 24 years didn’t instill much optimism in anyone.
Yet three weeks later, we’re talking about playoffs? Seriously, I’ll have some of what Rich Eisen is drinking. In the “What have you done for me lately?” world of sports, the Lions have worked hard to erase the painful memories of the first eight weeks. Fans have a short term memory and the Kool-Aid is flowing. While it is unlikely the Lions will actually see the postseason this year, the last few weeks have shown an incredible turnaround that can be built upon. It all starts with what they’re doing better, so let’s take a look at how they’ve reached this point.
The Lions marched off of Lambeau Field with a win for the first time in almost a quarter of a century. They executed better than they have all year on both sides of the ball beginning in the trenches. The defensive line harassed Aaron Rodgers all game, pressuring the reigning MVP into uncharacteristic mistakes. Teryl Austin dialed up a great game plan defensively, mixing well-timed blitzes with press coverage that often frustrated the usually prolific Green Bay offense.
Conversely, the Lions were able to keep Matthew Stafford cleaner than they have all season in part due to simplified blocking schemes installed by new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. While under pressure now and again, Stafford wasn’t sacked a single time and was able to guide the offense to four scoring drives. Most importantly, for the first time in the Jim Caldwell tenure, the Lions played to win instead of playing not to lose. After a fourth quarter score drew the Packers within two points, the Lions stepped on their neck by driving the length of the field for a back-breaking touchdown.
Regardless of the seemingly close score line, the Lions showed continued improvement at home aginst the Oakland Raiders. Despite settling for multiple field goals due to missed opportunities and untimely drops, the Lions had little trouble moving the ball. They took the lead for good in the fourth quarter when Matthew Stafford waltzed into the end zone on a brilliant play call by Jim Bob Cooter. The Raiders were held to only thirteen points and for the second consecutive week the Lions closed out the game by driving the length of the field, this time burning over seven minutes of clock.
The Lions entered Thanksgiving with an offense embracing their new identity and a defense finally starting to find theirs. Hosting Mark Sanchez and the free-falling Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions new look offense seemingly scored at will, putting up Madden-like numbers. Matthew Stafford was at his best, putting up 337 yards to go with five touchdowns, three to Calvin Johnson, who looked more like pre-Lombardi Megatron. Led by a career day from Ziggy Ansah, the defense never let up, sacking Sanchez six times and pummeling the Eagles into submission, only allowing them to reach double digits on a garbage time touchdown after the game was well out of reach.
With the whole country watching, the Lions finally resembled the team fans hoped for all season. Many recent changes have helped them play closer to their potential. Simpler blocking schemes have helped an often overmatched offensive line hold up long enough for plays to unfold. Jim Bob Cooter understands how to tailor an offense to his player’s strengths while keeping opposing defenses honest. Despite numerous injuries, Teryl Austin has figured out how to get the most out of his defense, centering it around the playmaking abilities of young talent like Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay. This team is playing complementary football and having fun doing it.
For the remainder of this season, the Lions can continue improving on the things they have done better over the past few weeks. The offense should grow more comfortable with each passing week in Jim Bob Cooter’s system. Simpler responsibilities should help the offensive line see continued growth into a more cohesive unit, allowing time for Stafford to take more shots downfield while also opening up the run game. The team should lean on young players like Ameer Abdullah, giving them valuable experience as they will be key contributors in the coming years. Players like Kyle Van Noy should be worked into the rotation more so they can grow and receive better evaluation. Use this season to help move confidently into the next.
Though making the playoffs this year is a longshot, the foundation for the immediate future is promising. It is important not to overreact to recent success and to continue forward with necessary changes. While things are trending up, there are many steps that must be taken for this team to reach its potential and possibly contend in the next few seasons. The Lions are not bereft of talent. With some key changes and favorable health, they can be a team very much on the ascent. It is important to recognize exactly what has been working for the Lions and who is just along for the ride. REGARDLESS of what happens the rest of this season, these are the decisions that need to be made.
Winning Staff = Winning Team
The Lions must hire a GM from outside the organization. It’s time to move on from fifty years of futility and it starts at the top. Bring in an experienced personnel executive from another team and start building towards a brighter future. Learn from past mistakes and find the best man available for the job. For now, it appears as though the team is serious in their hunt for the best possible candidate.
This season has to be Jim Caldwell’s last in Detroit. In all likelihood, the next GM will make sure it is, but Caldwell should be let go at the immediate conclusion of the season. If there is any one thing that has left Detroit mired in mediocrity, it’s the stubborn ways of their head coach. His biggest impact on this team has been letting Joe Lombardi destroy the offense for almost two years. Outside of that, he is one of the worst game managers in professional football and exudes none of the passion required to lead a football team to become the best they can. He has never had sustained success as a head coach and was not a great hire to begin with. There are many options, all of which are better than retaining Caldwell, but at the top of the list should be Adam Gase and possibly Teryl Austin. A trade isn’t out of the question if a team like Baltimore was willing to part with John Harbaugh, though anything of the sort is mere speculation.
Retain Teryl Austin. He’s going to have head coaching interviews again. Maybe he just wants more money. If that’s the case, give it to him. If he really wants to run his own team, things may get murky. Promoting him to head coach is not a bad decision but it may not be the best decision. It is fully dependent on who the Lions can bring in if they promote him compared to who they can bring in if they let him walk. The preferred scenario is to let him do what he does best and run the defense. It is a situation that must be handled carefully and with a clear plan.
Hire a great offensive coordinator. Jim Bob Cooter has done an admirable job in his given situation. That being said, this position has one person’s name on it. Tom Herman, one of the most brilliant young offensive minds in football and an expert at playing to his team’s strengths would be a home run hire. The current head coach at the University of Houston became a hot commodity after guiding the Ohio State Buckeyes to a national championship behind three very different starting quarterbacks. After being hired away from the Buckeyes, the former offensive coordinator has led Houston to an 11-1 record behind an offense scoring 42 points per game, up from 29.8 the previous year. One look at the offensive mess the Buckeyes have been this season shows just how instrumental he was to their success. Do what it takes to get him here. Coach Cooter can remain as a valuable assistant and between the two the offense should finally reach its potential.
Winning Staff + Winning Talent = Sustained Success
The foundation is set. The Lions have a talented starting quarterback, something many teams can’t say with confidence. There are playmakers on offense and the framework of a good defense sprinkled with budding stars. It’s time to finish building a complete team through careful scouting and intelligent spending. Getting the right players into place will help make everybody a little better. As it often does. it begins in the trenches.
Fix the offensive line. This is the number one priority from a player standpoint. The only way to truly fix the offense is to fix the line. The Lions have both the cap space and picks to bring in the necessary players. Through free agency, trade, and the draft, there are plenty of ways to shore up their biggest weakness. Acquire a left tackle and move Riley Reiff to right. Try to pick up a starting caliber guard and center. Combined with the current roster, a talented group of five linemen will emerge and with depth. The goal is to build the future of the offense around a line that excels at blocking. With more time throw and wide running lanes to hit, the offense will take an immediate step forward.
Offensive issues aside, defense still wins championships. With pressing needs at corner, along the line, and possibly safety, many must be addressed through the draft or free agency. Health will help the defense, but the Lions have to build depth on this side of the ball.
Draft a quarterback. If Matthew Stafford gets hurt at any point, the season is over. The Lions have to have a viable backup to groom. Dan Orlovsky is definitely not the answer.
What It All Means
The Lions are certainly not as bad as their start would indicate, but regardless of how the season plays out, they are not yet contenders. There is a strong foundation in place to which a great team can be built upon. The Lions have to be willing to make the crucial decisions that will shape the franchise for the foreseeable future. With the right staff in place, some key signings, and a good draft, this team could be headed towards a long run of success. A couple of wrong decisions, however, can set the team back many years. This offseason will go a long way towards emerging as a rebuilt franchise or remaining the same old Lions.