ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There were two versions of the Detroit Lions last season: the scrappy, plucky, fourth-quarter comeback bunch that soared to a 9-4 record, and the beat-up, fading team that failed to win another game with quarterback Matthew Stafford limited by injury and bowed out in the wild-card round.
Locally, folks I spoke to here aren't quite sure what to make of them. Will they discover a run game? Will the defense be better? Can they compete with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who generally rule the NFC North?
Nationally, it seems fewer skeptics abound, with the Lions generating some hype as the club on the move, perhaps even a sleeper Super Bowl candidate. For now, I'm probably somewhere in the middle -- although if all the money and energy spent to upgrade the offensive line and secondary pay off, Detroit could find themselves 9-4 again with a chance at a different finish -- and second-year general manager Bob Quinn isn't shying away from some rising expectations.
"I feel that buzz and I think it started last season," Quinn said. "We finished up 9-7 and bowed out in the playoffs after one game in Seattle, and our quarterback was injured for the last part of the season. And I think that had something to do with it. He battled through it and he was tough as hell, but honestly it did affect him a little bit, and it affected our team, too. But it was a credit to him that he wanted to battle through it and play through things.
"So, I like the buzz. I want the fans to not only locally but nationally to be excited about our team, because I think we have a competitive team, and we want to build on last year's record and hopefully take that next step."
Quinn has worked quickly to address key needs and improve the overall depth of the team, but it's difficult to spend much time around this squad and not consider certain factors beyond any general manager's control -- most notably, health. Stafford, one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL whether people want to embrace that or not, looks beyond sharp in camp and is fully recovered from his painful and cumbersome finger injury. But the most dominant player on the other side of the ball, pass rusher Ziggy Ansah, was almost never himself last season due to injuries and is currently on the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury. Oh, and Detroit already lost starting tackle Taylor Decker for several months as he recovers from labrum surgery.
If Detroit is going to take another step toward a Super Bowl, it will require more balance on offense, and a vastly improved run game (it ranked third-worst in the NFL at 81.9 yards per game a year ago). To that end, the Lions paid handsomely to attract right tackle Rick Wagner and right guard T.J. Lang in free agency. Quinn also traded for tackle/guard Greg Robinson, a former top draft pick of massive size and some talent who was a bust with the Rams. The signing of tackle Cyrus Kouandjio last month could prove sage as well; he's also been something of a bust, though evaluators I know liked his Buffalo film from last year.
It's going to take more than Stafford slinging balls all over the field and orchestrating comeback after comeback for the Lions to go deep in the playoffs.
"I think so," Stafford said when asked if we should expect better production on the ground. "Obviously, we had a good start last year, and then some injuries really hurt us. You can never predict those. ... But if we stay healthy I think we've got a better chance of being better on the ground."
"If you take that first part of the season, we were leading the division at one point," Quinn said. "So, we're hoping to stay healthy. That's one of the most important things, and I think coach (Jim) Caldwell does an amazing job of managing that with the practice schedule and all the stuff we're doing in the training room and weight room."
The pass defense must improve markedly.
Detroit allowed opposing quarterbacks to post an NFL-high 106.5 passer rating last season, with 33 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, and that's been an offseason focus. Of course, having Ansah back as a 20-sack threat would make life miserable for any quarterback on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and Quinn gambled on corner D.J. Hayden (a former top-10 pick of the Raiders who was something of a bust; notice a trend here?). The focus on defense continued in the draft with the selection of punishing linebacker Jarrad Davis in the first round (he's already earning accolades throughout the building) and corner Teez Tabor in the second round. Value free-agent signing Akeem Spence has been an early bright spot as well, improving the outlook for the front seven.
"They have an opportunity," Caldwell said of what appears on paper to be a better group of defensive backs, "and we'll see who is the best."
There was a sense of urgency to the offseason transactions, and Quinn's biggest deal yet still awaits. Contract talks with Stafford on a megadeal that will undoubtedly crack $25 million per season have been cordial and fruitful, and Detroit is committed to keeping the former first-overall pick deep into his career.
"We're working toward it," Quinn said. "We're not putting any time frame or timetable on it. These are complicated deals to get done, but we've had great conversations going back and forth and my goal is to get it done as soon as possible, but we're not putting a finish line on that just yet."
"I hired an agent for a reason, so he can deal with that," Stafford said. "And honestly when I'm here I don't ever talk about it, and I don't ever get asked about it, except by the media."
Stafford was playing at an MVP level at the time of his injury, and I have no reason not to anticipate that same degree of production in 2017. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has quickly established himself as one of the best in the business, and that passing game alone will keep the Lions in a lot of games. If Quinn's additions click, the Lions might go deeper into January this time around.