As each NFL team is officially eliminated from postseason contention, the Eye on Football crew will whip up a review of that team's 2012 season. Today, we look at the Lions. For more of our End of the Road series, click here.
What went wrong
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Unlike a year ago, when the Lions finally lived up to their potential (not to mention the offseason hype), the 2012 version couldn't get out of its own way. But even the 10-win team from last season wasn't without flaws, chief among them: playing from behind. The problem lingered. Instead of mounting furious fourth-quarter comebacks in 2012, this Lions outfit found itself 1-3 before it got to October.
The Lions clawed back to 4-4, but the fix was only temporary; Detroit lost five in a row and was officially eliminated from the playoff race after its Week 14 loss to the Packers. They're guaranteed to finish last in the division and will be below .500 for the 11th time in 12 years.
While there has been plenty of arm-waving about quarterback Matthew Stafford's sometimes sloppy mechanics, his occasional inaccuracies aren't why the Lions are 4-9. It's the defense, which has been well below average. According to Football Outsiders, the unit ranks 24th overall, 24th against the rush and 19th against the pass. The lowlight had to be the Week 13 loss to the Colts that ended -- fittingly -- on an Andrew Luck game-winning touchdown pass as time expired. Fix this group, and 2013 should look a lot more like 2011 than 2012.
What went right
The obvious answer: Calvin Johnson. The less-obvious answer, especially given all the bellyaching about the footwork and the delivery: Stafford. He's on pace to crack 5,000 passing yards for the second straight year. And while his touchdowns won't approach last year's mark (17 vs. 41), his 60.4 completion percentage is the second-best of his NFL career. In terms of total value, Stafford ranks fifth among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. Only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers are ranked higher. So there's that.
Other bright spots: running back Joique Bell is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and is third on the team in receptions; if wideout Ryan Broyles can stay healthy, he'll give Stafford another weapon; defensive tackle Nick Fairley has 5.5 sacks and is finally playing like a first-round pick; kicker Jason Hanson is ageless, awesome.
Coach Jim Schwartz's job is safe, though some will question if he's too lax with his players. General manager Martin Mayhew has taken some criticism as well, despite having relatively successful draft classes. Knucklehead wide receiver Titus Young was told to stay away from the team facility before the Lions finally put him on injured reserve. It's not clear if the Lions are willing to bring him back despite his immense talent. The club will also have to decide if it wants to devote a nontrivial part of its salary cap to defensive end Cliff Avril, not to mention more than 20 other unrestricted free agents (including Hanson, T Gosder Cherilus, S Louis Delmas, CB Chris Houston, CB Pat Lee, KR Stefan Logan, DT Corey Williams, and RB Kevin Smith).
With the defense being the team's weakest link, and the likelihood that a lot of players on that side of the ball won't be back in 2013, it makes sense that Mayhew will address that unit first. NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have Detroit taking Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o with the seventh-overall pick. Meanwhile, ESPN's Todd McShay, described by the Detroit Free Press as the WWL's "junior draft guru," has the Lions taking Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. McShay calls cornerback the team's biggest need, which causes the Free Press to note "Does McShay know it's not the Lions' policy to draft something they need?" Fair enough.
2013 will be…
… A lot like 2011 if the Lions can shore up the defense. And while Stafford has been mostly solid, he could stand to work on the little things. We know it's cliched at this point, but you'll never see Brady throwing sidearmed off his back foot for no good reason. Finally, and most importantly: Schwartz needs to make it clear that nonsense won't be tolerated. If that means cutting a player like Young then, well, he'll need to be cut. It's hard enough to win in the NFL when there aren't silly distractions.
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