With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Next up: The Detroit Lions.
What went right
Offensively, that conversation starts with one of the league's best wide receivers: Calvin Johnson. He ranked fifth in Football Outsiders' value-per-play metric, behind DeMaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Anquan Boldin, Eric Decker and Antonio Brown. If there's one knock against the physically imposing Megatron, it's that the sometimes loses focus. He caught just 54 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, and according to ProFootballFocus.com, Johnson had a drop rate of 10.6 percent, good for 32nd in the league (Larry Fitzgerald was the best, dropping just 1.2 percent of the balls thrown to him).
Rookie guard Larry Warford, drafted in third round out of Kentucky, was a pleasant surprise in 2013. Not only did he start all 16 regular-season games, Warford was largely dominant, so much so that PFF named him their offensive rookie of the year ahead of more conventional choices like Keenan Allen or Eddie Lacy.
"Of every guard in the league who we graded on every single play, Warford would finish fourth out of all of them," PFF explained last month. "Positives in every area with no sacks allowed in pass protection and just four penalties called on him all year. While others experienced peaks and valleys, Warford was a model of consistency, grading out positively in all but three games."
Then there's Matthew Stafford, who is probably best remembered for generally atrocious decision making and some ill-timed, off-balance, game-changing interceptions. Yes, the Lions' franchise quarterback needs to tighten up his fundamentals, but he also has one of the best arms in the NFL and doesn't lack the confidence to make tough throws into tight coverage.
This is both a blessing and a curse.
Stafford was 12th in Football Outsiders' QB efficiency, and he was ninth in PFF's rankings. He finished with 4,650 passing yards, 29 TDs and 19 INTs, which is partly a function of playing pitch-and-catch with Megatron, but also a testament to Stafford's abilities. That said, he'll need to show marked improvement if the Lions are going to be taken seriously in the NFC North.
Defensively, Ndamukong Suh was a dominant presence on the Lions' d-line and he's reportedly joined Jay Z's Roc Nation ahead of negotiations for what will be a lucrative second contract. Other bright spots included defensive linemen Willie Young and C.J. Mosley, as well as linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy.
What went wrong
Let's start with the 6-3 record through the first half of the season and subsequent implosion down the stretch. The Lions finished 1-6, including embarrassing losses to the hapless Giants and Vikings in their final two games. Still, heading to Week 15, Detroit was atop the division fully in control of their playoff destiny. Then a confluence of Stafford mistakes, poor execution on both sides of the ball and suspect coaching reminded us all that this was still the Lions.
The second-half slide led to Jim Schwartz getting canned, which like it or not was the right move. Yes, Schwartz is the man responsible for taking that winless 2008 bunch and getting them to the playoffs three years later. But he's also the guy who managed just one winning season in five years on the job.
And then there's Stafford who, despite all the god-given ability, continues to struggle with the nuances of the position that separate the truly great players from those who stumble through a 10-year career never living up to the hype.
If one game embodies why Stafford is so infuriating to watch, it came in the Week 15 Monday-night loss to the Ravens. It was an opportunity for Stafford to quiet his critics on national television but by the time it was over, the fourth-year quarterback was 18-of-34 for 235 yards with one touchdown and three second-half interceptions. The loss not only dropped the Lions out of the NFC North lead, they fell to third in the division thanks to the Packers' comeback win over the Cowboys, and the Bears' victory over the Browns. A week later, Detroit's postseason hopes would officially be dashed.
This interception in that Week 15 game serves as a metaphor for all that is wrong with Stafford's game.
- Sidearm pass. Check.
- Heavy traffic. Check.
- Linebacker staring right at you. Check.
- Receiver with no real chance to even get a hand on the pass. Check.
We're guessing this didn't help:
Matthew Stafford's GF weighed in on fans booing---then some dude dropped the greatest tweet ever. pic.twitter.com/57drmfRsXD— World of Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) December 23, 2013
Calvin Johnson is the reflexive choice here but we're going with Ndamukong Suh. According to PFF's rankings, he was second only to Gerald McCoy among all defensive tackles in total efficiency. Suh was a truly disruptive force in the backfield though his reputation as a dirty player likely played a part in him being flagged nine times. Still, he managed five sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 54 quarterback hurries.
Honorable mention goes to Larry Warford followed by Megatron.
Jim Schwartz earns this honor for his inability to get the most out of one of the league's most talented rosters. For what it's worth, Schwartz says the team's shortcomings weren't solely Stafford's fault.
"We were 2-6 over the last half of last season, and when you're 2-6 nobody is feeling good about their performance, whether you're the head coach, the quarterback or a defensive lineman," Schwartz told WGFX-FM radio recently. "But it's a team game and I wouldn't pin it on one Matt Stafford. Matt's an outstanding quarterback."
So there's that.
What's happened since the end of the season
For starters, Schwartz was fired. Conventional wisdom had Ken Whisenhunt as the right guy to replace him -- he has an impressive track record working with franchise quarterbacks from Ben Roethlisberger to Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers -- but Whis bolted for the Titans because, among other things, they offered more money.
The Lions went with Jim Caldwell, most recently the Ravens' coordinator who also coached Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. And while the hire is about as far from "sexy" as you can get that's not necessarily a bad thing. The man who recommended Caldwell in Indy, former Colts coach Tony Dungy, thinks that he'll be exactly what Stafford needs.
"I know what we talked about when we got to Indianapolis is they had a very, very explosive offense and we talked about keeping that explosiveness but not being a high-risk team and taking care of the football and knowing how to manage the end of the game," Dungy told DetroitLions.com last month about Caldwell.
"Once Peyton (Manning) really understood what Jim was trying to do, he went from a very explosive player to a guy in 2004 who threw 49 touchdowns and (10 interceptions) and that's what I think you're going to see from Matthew.
"You're going to see him learn that you can be explosive and not be high risk and that there are times when you manage the game and win the game, by not only what you do, but by what you don't do. I just think for a young quarterback, he'll really blossom under Jim."
Impending free agents
Former first-round pick tight end Brandon Pettigrew leads a lengthy list of notable free agents, followed by backup quarterback Shaun Hill, defensive end Willie Young, kicker David Akers, wide receivers Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree, cornerback Rashean Mathis, and restricted free agent running back Joique Bell.
Free agency gameplan
According to Spotrac.com, the Lions are approximately $5.3 million over the 2014 salary cap, which means financial rejiggering will be needed to keep some of the aforementioned free agents. Last week, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi hinted that Pettigrew is exactly the type of tight end that fits his scheme.
“I think it's important to have a guy that can block at the point of attack. That's important,” Lombardi said, via the Detroit Free Press. “And then you want a guy that can be a pass receiver, so you're always looking for those well-rounded guys. But again, I've never been in the mode of I wanted to find exactly what this player is and then you have to go find him for me. Go find the best player you can.”
Bell, who quietly had a strong 2013 campaign, should also be in the Lions' offseason plans. As a restricted free agent, the team could chose to slap him with a first- or second-round tender, which would only cost $2.9-$2.0 million in 2015.
The Lions have the No. 10 pick in May's NFL Draft. And despite all the success Suh and the front seven had, particularly against the run, the defense ranked 21st against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. The secondary was particular concern, which explains why NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Brugler has Detroit taking former Michigan St. cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round.
Brugler's colleague, Rob Rang, has the Lions going with former Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. And in his first mock draft of the offseason, CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco, like Brugler, likes Dennard.
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2014
This all comes down to how well Stafford and Caldwell can work together in the coming months. If Dungy is right and Stafford is amenable to fixing the little things to differentiate himself from run-of-the-mill NFL quarterbacks, he could be special.
And perhaps we're making too much of Stafford's late-season comments about the idea of working with a passing coach this offseason but his response was telling.
"Probably not," Stafford told a reporter in late December. When asked why, he added, "I don't know. Just not something I'd feel would be my style (or) beneficial to me, I guess."
Hopefully, those sentiments have changed because the Lions are only going as far as Stafford take them.
Predicted record: 9-7