After they beat the Bears on Nov. 10, the Detroit Lions were 6-3, and all was seemingly right with the world. And that's when the wheels fell off. Detroit managed just one win through its final seven games, missing the postseason for the second straight season and for the fourth time in five years under head coach Jim Schwartz, who was fired at the end of the season.
Of course, Schwartz had to deal with the aftereffects of the only 0-16 team in NFL history in his first season with the Lions, but after 2011's 10-6 campaign, progress was hard to find. Schwartz must be blamed to some degree for the Lions' failures -- he had a reputation as a coach who had difficulty cultivating a required level of discipline and consistency, and given the overall talent on Detroit's roster, an 11-21 mark over the last two seasons was not acceptable.
So, the Lions brought in former Colts head coach and Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell as Schwartz's replacement. It's unknown how Caldwell's reserved style will mesh with alpha personalities like Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Matthew Stafford, but the hope is that there will be enough respect within the locker room to set things right. Caldwell's only head coaching experience was in Indianapolis from 2009 through '11, where he took a preset team to a 14-2 mark in his first season, and a franchise demolished by a half-decade of bad drafts and Peyton Manning's absence to a 2-14 record just two years later. Safe to say, it's tough to know what Caldwell really is as a stand-alone coach at this level.
One thing's for sure -- in the 2014 offseason, the Lions did as much as possible to give quarterback Matthew Stafford the targets he needs to have a hyper-successful season. They took North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick in the draft, and signed former Seahawks receiver Golden Tate to a five-year, $31 million contract with $13.25 million guaranteed. Thus, Stafford finally should have an upper-tier cadre of receivers, allowing him to avoid his usual method of throwing the ball to Calvin Johnson no matter what and hoping for the best.
It's important for Stafford, who will also have a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi, to buck his recent tide of regression. After throwing 41 touchdown passes to just 16 picks in 2011, Stafford has just 49 touchdowns in the last two seasons combined to 36 picks. Mechanical issues have bedeviled Stafford, and it will be up to Caldwell and Lombardi to turn that around. It's important because, despite an estimable amount of talent on the defensive line and an underrated linebacker corps, the Lions will -- once again -- go as far as their passing game takes them.
The most glaring issue remains the cornerback position, and the Lions didn't do enough to improve it in the offseason. That's a problem in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. Primary starter Chris Houston gave up five touchdowns and a 107.3 quarterback rating, and he was released in mid-June. Now, veteran Rashean Mathis and second-year man Darius Slay are projected to be the starters. Mathis led the Lions with an 83.9 opponent quarterback rating, but didn't have an interception last year, and Slay was benched twice last season in favor of Mathis. Detroit replaced safety Louis Delmas with James Ihedigbo, and the latter should keep things going pretty decently in the safety department, but new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has quite a challenge overall when it comes to Detroit's pass defense. And that may define Caldwell's first season, for better or worse.
Best acquisition: Golden Tate, WR
In 2013, Tate set career-highs in receptions (64) and receiving yards (898) in a Seattle offense that threw the second-fewest passes in the NFL. Moving to Detroit's high-volume passing game should put a major bump in his stat totals, especially with all the attention opposing defenses give to Calvin Johnson. Tate isn't a No. 1 receiver per se, but he's an exceptional speed slot receiver, and he will win matchups outside. Tate has compared his role in Detroit's offense to that of Lance Moore, who Lombardi worked with in New Orleans as one of Sean Payton's primary assistants. Moore had 65 catches for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns for the Saints in 2012.
“I watched some tape on the Saints over the last few years and just looking at that -- I haven’t talked to coach Lombardi that much -- I see myself being a Lance Moore type of player, but just more explosive and able to do a few more things,” Tate told the team's official website in April.
“That’s exciting, because Lance Moore caught a lot of balls and he’s a terrific player that did a lot for the Saints. That’s kind of how I see myself having the best receiver in the league [Calvin Johnson], and one of the best to ever to play the game, opposite of me or sometimes on the same side.”
Biggest loss: Willie Young, DE
Despite all the talk about Suh, Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, it's arguable that Young was the Lions' most effective defensive lineman last season. He led Lions' ends in total pressures with 60, and only Minnesota's Brian Robison and St. Louis' Robert Quinn had more quarterback hurries. The Lions got all that production on a $1.5 million deal in 2013, but the Bears came calling and gave Young a three-year, $9 million deal in March as part of their epic line overhaul. Jason Jones, who had just two quarterback hurries in 87 snaps last season, is projected to be Young's short-term replacement.
Unheralded draft pick: Larry Webster, DE, Bloomsburg (Fourth round, 136th overall pick)
Webster was a basketball star and pass rusher for the school that's most well-known for bringing All-Pro guard Jahri Evans to the Saints a few years back, and he'll hope to add his name to that roll. Some teams actually saw the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Webster as a potential NFL tight end, but the Lions took him in hopes of developing him into a freakishly athletic edge weapon at the NFL level. Possessing rare speed for his size, and with the agility to drop and cover, Webster will likely serve something of a redshirt year in 2014 as he learns the intricacies of the game after just one season of college football. Certainly, the sky's the limit athletically.
Looming question for training camp: Will Detroit's defense finally catch up to its offense?
Well, that's a loaded question -- if Stafford can fix his technical flaws and the new receivers work out as planned, Detroit should have one of the more explosive passing games in the NFL, and Reggie Bush is a captivating factor at the running back position. But the only season the Lions made the playoffs under Schwartz was 2011, and in that campaign, the team finished ninth in defense in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted rankings. The other years? 32nd (2009), 22nd (2010), 24th (2012) and 14th (2013).
Adding BYU's Kyle Van Noy to a linebacker group that already included DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch should sew that group up, and the front four is talented if inconsistent. Add in the fact that both Suh and Fairley are in contract years, and you can expect the pass rush to be pretty solid, even without Willie Young. But general manager Martin Mayhew could pay in-season for not doing more about the cornerback position, and if the Lions miss the playoffs again, he might not be around for corrections in 2015.