Matthew Stafford and the Lions hope a new coaching staff and new offense will help get them back to the postseason
Jim Caldwell believes he was brought to Detroit, replacing the fired Jim Schwartz last winter, to win a championship. And not two or three years down the road, either. “I believe the time is now,” the Lions’ new head coach announced at his introductory press conference. Time ran out on his predecessor, though, as the Lions coughed up a division lead and a shot at Detroit’s first home playoff date in 20 years by losing six of their last seven games in confounding fashion. Now the pressure’s on Caldwell and his revamped staff — particularly offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi — to harness Matthew Stafford’s potential at quarterback and demand accountability from a talented roster that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way in 2013.
The Lions doubled down on their investment in Stafford last summer, signing the former No. 1 overall pick to a three-year, $53 million extension that runs through 2017. But after his erratic play down the stretch helped turn a 6–3 start into a 7–9 finish, essentially giving away the NFC North title, much of the team’s offseason decision-making seemed to revolve around the franchise quarterback.
Stafford, entering his sixth NFL season, already owns most of the Lions’ franchise passing records. And after some questioned his durability early in his career, he has started 49 consecutive games, including the Lions’ lone playoff berth in 2011. But Stafford’s 14 turnovers and a 54.4 percent completion rate in the final seven games last season raised new concerns about both his decision-making and his mechanics. “The good news is that he’s not broken,” Lombardi says. “That much is clear.”
What’s also clear is the Lions are intent on helping him succeed. A year after signing all-purpose back Reggie Bush to bolster the offense, they went out and added receiver Golden Tate, a free agent coming off a career-best season with Seattle.
Then the Lions spent the No. 10 overall pick in the draft on an athletic, pass-catching tight end. Lombardi envisions the same role for Eric Ebron in Detroit as the one Jimmy Graham fills in the Saints’ offense, while former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew returns as more of an in-line blocker and safety valve. The Lions brought back Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree, and still are hoping Ryan Broyles can return from a third ACL surgery in three years. Sixth-round pick T.J. Jones, a sure-handed route technician, has a real chance to be the slot receiver.
All of them, of course, are complementary pieces to Calvin Johnson, who had another hugely productive season despite playing much of 2013 with knee and finger injuries that required offseason surgery. Ideally, more receiving help will mean less punishment for Megatron, too.
Bush will continue to work in tandem with Joique Bell. The pair became the first teammates in NFL history to top 500 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. And a young offensive line that was one of last year’s bright spots returns intact. Guard Larry Warford showed Pro Bowl potential in his first season, while 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff held his own at left tackle. The Lions believe they’ve solidified the right tackle spot with long-levered LaAdrian Waddle, who started eight games last year as an undrafted rookie. Dominic Raiola is back for a 14th season at center, but the Lions drafted his likely successor in Travis Swanson.
The Lions made strides on defense in 2013, ranking first in the NFL in both third-down and red-zone defense. But they were 28th in sacks and 21st in forced turnovers, and with few changes in personnel, they’re counting on marked improvement.
A suspect secondary remains exactly that, especially after the front office balked at adding a potential starter there on the first two days of the draft. One projected starter at cornerback was expected to be Chris Houston, who endured a confidence-sapping finish to last season marred by a toe injury that required surgery in May. The team, however, decided to cut its losses and released Houston in June, a little more than a year after signing him to a five-year, $25 million contract. The other starting corner, Darius Slay, will try to rebound from an up-and-down rookie effort. No surprise, then, the Lions brought back aging vet Rashean Mathis, who played better than Houston and Slay last season and ended up making 13 starts. Bill Bentley proved himself a capable nickel back but has yet to prove he can stay healthy enough to be counted on. Rookie Nevin Lawson is a scrappy, tough candidate to play inside as well, while Jonté Green and Chris Greenwood are 2012 draft projects entering make-or-break years in Detroit.
The Lions did add one new piece to the secondary in free-agent strong safety James Ihedigbo, who played for new coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore. He’s a solid run-stopper to complement versatile Glover Quin, but depth behind them might be a concern.
Austin’s new scheme will feature a different look from the front seven. The wide-nine technique is gone, though one defensive end still will be asked to pin his ears back and rush the passer from the open side opposite the tight end. Presumably, that’ll be Ziggy Ansah, who had eight sacks in 12 starts as a rookie. Devin Taylor, a rangy 6'7" athlete, also fits into the plans after making big strides as a rookie. Jason Jones, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, is penciled in as the other starting end. But inside is where the strength of this defensive line is, with All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and former first-round pick Nick Fairley.
One way to improve the sack total is with blitzing linebackers, and that’s one reason the Lions traded up to snare BYU’s Kyle Van Noy in the second round of the draft. A big-play machine in college, Van Noy should win the starting strong-side job over Ashlee Palmer, who’s better suited as a backup and special teams ace. Sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch holds down the middle, while DeAndre Levy — coming off a breakout season (six INTs) — handles the weak-side duties.
Detroit used its final draft pick in May on Boston College’s Nate Freese, who went 20-for-20 on field-goal attempts as a senior. That completes an overhaul in the kicking game, as the Lions spent a fifth-round pick in 2013 on punter Sam Martin, who ranked 10th in the NFL in net punting as a rookie. Tate excelled as a punt returner in Seattle, but the Lions finally found a game-breaking special teams threat last season in Jeremy Ross. He took over the job at midseason and was one of the NFL’s best return men in the second half, highlighted by his two-TD effort — one kickoff, one punt — in a snowstorm in Philadelphia.
Most coaching changes come with a grace period. And Caldwell’s quiet leadership and even-keeled approach will be welcomed. But in Detroit, there’s an urgency to win now. And with so much salary cap space tied up in a handful of stars, the roster is largely set. The onus is on Stafford and the new staff to make this an elite offense, and a playoff team.