Written by: JT Bowen
It feels like every season for the last few years, and really over the past five or six decades, we like to get our hopes up high for something to change for the Lions in the upcoming season.
The current ‘dead period’ in the NFL timeline, as many call it, is the premier gap in the calendar for fans to convince themselves that their team of choice should find success or even contend for a championship in the next season. And Lions fans, myself included, certainly fall victim to the annual practice of proceeding under false hope.
Before I assert my case as to why the Lions legitimately have a chance to turn things around after a hellish two years in the Patricia era, I’m going to leave a word of caution: The Lions are, simply put, the Lions. For the better part of a century, Detroit has been a laughably mismanaged and underperforming franchise. Every couple years, we get our hopes up too high, that if the cards fall the right way and the team stays healthy that a playoff berth isn’t too lofty, and the Lions invariably come up short, each and every time. Say what you will about injuries and players not ‘buying in’, Patricia has not been good enough in, and though there were upgrades to the roster, nothing looks dramatically different enough to suggest a massive turnaround.
Honestly, and it pains me to say this, I would be surprised if the Lions won more than seven games this season. They have an unproven coaching staff, a grueling schedule, and, most obviously, are a historically inept and underprepared team that gives us no reason to get our hopes up.
However, there is validity in feeling like this might be the year they can put everything together. I genuinely feel that this roster is capable of competing in the NFC North this year, and that they could surprise some people. But after buying in last year that they could win the division and subsequently getting my hopes crushed, I’m not going to make the same mistake twice in a row.
Again, there are legitimate reasons to be excited about this team, and after last year’s absolute mess, the only direction is up. With that being said, let’s examine a few of the reasons that Detroit could just maybe turn some heads this year.
#1- A Healthy Matthew Stafford
This is probably the most obvious factor that could spur improvement from last season. Stafford, after a lackluster 2018 campaign, bounced back in the first half of last year, throwing for 2,498 yards and 19 touchdowns in the first eight games. Of course, he unfortunately went down with injury and missed Week 10 and on, as the Lions lost every game from there on out. However, Stafford was enjoying an outstanding year, on pace for nearly 5000 yards and almost 40 touchdowns, squashing any lingering questions about his viability going forward.
Despite Stafford playing at a very high level for the first half of the season, the Lions sat 3-4-1 in the games he started, which isn’t great. But, as has been the case for his entire career, the Lions’ ineptitude on defense and lack of a run game (partially attributed to Kerryon also getting hurt), plus some questionable officiating in a critical matchup against Green Bay, made Stafford look like the issue.
Though 3-4-1 isn’t ideal, all of the games but one that Stafford played in went down to the wire. The Lions nearly defeated the eventual champions in a stellar performance for #9, and if it weren’t for a monumental collapse against Arizona, the Lions could just have easily been 5-3 before Stafford went down.
And that’s not even taking into account the terrible defensive effort in another close game against Oakland, which Stafford played excellently in, or the aforementioned back-to-back hands to the face penalties that undoubtedly aided the Packers in victory.
The only game that Stafford played in that the Lions were handily defeated was against Minnesota, and yet again, it was certainly not his fault, as he threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns — the shoddy defense, once again, screwed him.
At the end of the day, no, Stafford wasn’t perfect, and regardless of how close the game was, it’s tallied as a loss. And barring a massive improvement on the defense’s side, the Lions will continue to lose close games in spite of Herculean efforts by their quarterback.
But Stafford, after an extended period to rest and recuperate, especially with uncertainty regarding training camp and the season’s start, should be back to 100% by Week 1. Broken back bones are no joke, but Stafford’s as tough as they come, and it would be surprising to see him miss time in 2020 unless a freak injury takes place given his durability across his career.
If Stafford plays all 16 games last season, the Lions win more than three games. Stafford’s presence as a leader and skill to captain an offense single-handedly guides this team, and though I doubt they make the playoffs this year, a healed Stafford would be the reason they do. Expect him to bounce back in a big way, regardless of the team’s overall success.
#2- Key Offseason Additions
If Detroit is to find any level of success next season, the players added through the draft and free agency will be integral.
Not a super bold claim, obviously, but truthful nonetheless. Detroit overhauled their defense at all three levels, and made major strides to improve their offense, and the talent added will be critical to any real jump in the win totals.
In my eyes, it begins in the secondary, which was among the league’s worst last year. The most notable move is trading away Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, but trading next to nothing for a capable coverage safety in Duron Harmon, adding a replacement in free agency in Desmond Trufant, and selecting Jeff Okudah third overall more than makes up for the loss.
In the front seven, despite losing Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson, the Lions were able to effectively plug the holes with nose tackle Danny Shelton and Bears standout Nick Williams, as well as adding versatile linebacker Jamie Collins. Additionally, Detroit improved at JACK linebacker after cutting Devon Kennard, selecting edge rusher Julian Okwara to bolster a pass rush that needs all the help it can get.
And offensively, while Detroit probably declined in talent on the offensive line by losing Rick Wagner and letting Graham Glasgow walk, they signed a young right tackle with room to grow in Hal Vaitai, selected two promising guards in the draft that can compete for starting roles immediately, and splurged on a top RB talent in the draft, selecting Georgia’s D’Andre Swift at the top of Round 2.
On paper, it would be a lie to say Detroit doesn’t look improved at most positions. Quantifying how much each added player positively (or negatively) impacts the team’s overall success is nearly impossible, and we won’t be able to gauge whether the moves the Lions made really affected the team until the season, but for right now, feeling good about some of the sweeping roster changes is completely justifiable.
#3- Individual Improvements for Young Players
Another fairly obvious development, but one that can immensely improve the team as a whole.
For me, it starts with the #8 overall pick in 2019, tight end TJ Hockenson. Hockenson’s opener against the Cardinals was one of the best individual game I’ve seen from a Lions pass-catcher in some time, and flashed his game-breaking ability to work the seams as a safety blanket for Matthew Stafford.
However, after Week 1, Hockenson never came close to matching his production, and ended the season on IR after suffering an ankle injury against the Bears.
Safe to say, it was a pretty disappointing rookie season for the former Hawkeye, totaling just 367 yards and 2 TDs. But tight end is a notoriously difficult position for first year players, as George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and even Rob Gronkowski, among many others, struggled mightily in their rookie seasons.
Hockenson, though, especially in that first game, showed what he can bring to this offense. Even with Hock as a non-factor for most of the other games Stafford played in, the offense was great. Adding a healthy and consistent Hockenson makes it downright scary.
There are a number of other players, additionally, that are primed to take a step forward. Jahlani Tavai, who was probably overdrafted with overly high expectations, had his share of rookie struggles, but overall demonstrated that he can be a capable NFL starter. Regardless of how big his role is with Trufant, Okudah, and Justin Coleman ahead of him, 2019’s fifth-rounder, Amani Oruwariye, was one of the best corners in the class last year, and excelled down the stretch. Kerryon Johnson has shown in spite of injuries that he can be a solid back, and with D’Andre Swift in the fold, should be less heavily relied on and be able to stay healthy. Tracy Walker had a quietly great 2019 campaign, and Duron Harmon can help further mentor Walker into a star at safety while also helping Will Harris improve, whatever his role may be. Da’Shawn Hand was great as a rookie and hopefully can recapture his form while staying healthy, and Frank Ragnow should only continue to grow into a top center in the league. Though Julian Okwara should replace Kennard as the starting JACK, even Austin Bryant will look to find his footing as a rotational pass rusher.
And if you’re bold enough, you can hold your breath that Jarrad Davis could maybe, with the guidance of Jamie Collins, finally turn a corner and improve his coverage, or even excel in a role more suited to his skill set.
Sure, some of these players will be hampered by injuries and not take as great a leap forward as we hope. But it would be surprising if this group of players didn’t largely improve as a whole, and their individual developments will be instrumental to any positive change.
#4- Lack of Improvement across NFC North
This is purely speculation. We have no idea, and won’t know until a few games in, how good the three other teams are in this division. But looking at their rosters, none look markedly better, which could close the gap between them and Detroit.
It would be fairly shocking to see Green Bay fall off hard after a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship. But just last season, the reigning divisional champions took a massive step backward (Chicago), and we can only hope the Packers face the same fate.
Granted, Green Bay is a totally different scenario, with a Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm, but after a dismal draft that netted zero new receivers and probably pissed of Aaron Rodgers, along with a free agency that didn’t do much to enhance the team, they’re far from a lock to repeat as champion.
Minnesota, while they had a very solid draft, lost a lot of key contributors due to cap space. Picking up Justin Jefferson and Jeff Gladney is great, but for a team built to contend, losing Everson Griffen, three starting cornerbacks, and Stefon Diggs probably outweighs the departures. As good as Kirk Cousins was last year, I still don’t think he’s a guy that can lead a team to a Super Bowl (not that Matt Stafford is either), and I don’t believe the Vikings, while probably the favorite to win the division at this point, are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the North.
Oh yeah, and there’s Chicago—how could I forget? The Bears’ struggles at quarterback bring me nothing but joy, as they traded up to select Money Mitch, who had his fifth-year option declined, while passing on two potential greats. Nick Foles now enters the fold, but after an uninspiring season in Jacksonville and being historically inconsistent, should he manage to capture the starting job over Trubisky (tough ask, I know), he’s at best a marginal upgrade. Simply put, the Bears should field another great defense, especially after adding Robert Quinn and Utah corner Jaylon Johnson in the draft, but if whoever’s starting at QB isn’t good enough this season, Chicago may slip out of relevancy and hit the reset button.
Now, this isn’t to say Detroit is better than any of these franchises right now, because they’re not. But the two teams that made the playoffs last year and the 2018 divisional champion did little this offseason to massively improve their teams or strengthen their grip on the division, which could potentially allow Detroit, after an eventful offseason, to lay their claim.
#5- A Win-Now Mandate
A narrative I feel like is being somewhat pushed under the rug is the fact that both Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia are quite literally playing for their jobs right now. There is perhaps no front office more firmly upon the figurative ‘hot seat’ than the Lions, and after two disappointing campaigns under the incumbent regime, a huge step forward seems like the only way they last beyond 2020.
Coaching or generally managing every game like your last isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. Just a few years ago, and while this is very different circumstances, Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, clearly on his last legs, swung a blockbuster trade for Blake Griffin, which has ultimately relegated Detroit to mediocrity and issues with cap space. It was a move that reeked of ‘last-ditch-effort-to-save-my-job’ then, and does so even more now.
Again, that’s a totally different scenario, but the point is that once the writing is on the wall, some higher-ups can make rash decisions that set back the franchise once they’ve been ousted.
BQ and Patricia haven’t given us any reason to believe they’ll do such a thing, and moves to that scale don’t really exist in football. On the other hand, though, playing with no leeway for miscues could potentially parlay into a much-needed step forward.
Following the season’s end, owner Martha Ford came out and basically said, “Hey, this wasn’t good enough, make the playoffs next year or you’re done”, which was refreshing after a piss-poor campaign. While the Fords have been historically apathetic towards regime changes and tend to stick with people they believe in, Martha has been less tolerant of mediocrity than her husband, so I fully trust she’ll cut bait if the Lions come up short again in 2020.
This should only drive the front office to find success this year. They clearly have confidence in their methodology and style, hailing from New England, and after roster overhaul and staffing changes, probably feel optimistic about their chances this season.
But they aren’t idiots. They’re aware they play in a tough, cutthroat division, and that despite their efforts, have fielded some woefully bad teams the past two years. They have to be realistic with themselves and cognizant of the fact that they literally have zero room for error on a difficult schedule.
The current regime has instituted sweeping changes to add talent, instill their culture and players that buy into it, and forced the exits of those that don’t blindly follow suit. Although they look improved, and potentially even competitive, they don’t get another year to ‘build a group of guys’ that ‘fits their mold’ and ‘embodies what it means to be a Lion’. This is it. They have one shot, and if they airball it, or even draw iron, it’s all over.
I can see how this isn’t exactly an ideal situation to be in, especially with the pandemic throwing a wrench into football operations, but perhaps BQ and Co. can finally win some games.
To conclude, I’m tempering my expectations on this team after having my dreams of 11-5 or 12-4 crushed before my eyes each year. I don’t think they’ll be a great team this year, point blank. But, as is the case every season, there is legitimate reason for hope, arguably more than in years past, that Detroit could change things this season.
Thanks for reading, and sorry about the long absence from my last article. Expect less content for the next couple months, but intermittent posts week to week.