After losing their seventh game in Week 8, Chris Burke answers seven questions about the struggling Detroit Lions.
The Detroit Lions lost their seventh game on Sunday, about seven years and a month removed from firing GM Matt Millen and mere weeks from the seventh anniversary of completing an 0–16 season.
Already this season, the Lions have let go of multiple assistants, including offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Bigger, organization-wide changes could be coming in the near future.
And so, with a nod to Detroit's unlucky number, here are seven questions about the long-suffering NFL franchise:
1. Will GM Martin Mayhew be fired?
We start here because the answer will shape which direction Detroit attempts to head in the coming months. The truth is, it's increasingly difficult to see Mayhew surviving this season, given that just about every significant roster move he has made of late is blowing up in his face.
Mayhew was promoted to GM in 2008 shortly after Detroit canned Matt Millen. (Tom Lewand, who was handed the role of team president at the same time, also could be on the chopping block.) The Lions afforded Mayhew time to clean up Millen's unbelievable mess and, quite frankly, did a nice job of it under the circumstances. The Lions were respectable in 2010 and made the playoffs in '11.
But after last season's postseason appearance, the second in Mayhew's tenure, things quickly spiraled beyond the GM's control. Ndamukong Suh left, taking with him the Lions' defensive identity. Nick Fairley exited, too, because Detroit bypassed his fifth-year contract option.
This year, the offensive line has been awful despite Mayhew spending a Day 1 or 2 pick in each of the past four drafts addressing that unit. The defense has regressed badly, too, though at least DeAndre Levy's season-long injury woes provide a bit of an excuse.
Not every Mayhew move has been doomed to fail: he added Golden Tate and Glover Quin, and drafted Darius Slay and Ziggy Ansah. The overall picture, though, is bleak—a team with too little talent and depth.
Detroit owner Martha Ford, possibly with Lewand's help, has to make a call on Mayhew soon. It's hard to imagine ownership signing off on any significant trade-deadline deals if Mayhew is destined for dismissal; it's hard to imagine Mayhew sticking around with the team flailing as it is.
2. Will Jim Caldwell be fired?
After the Lions opened 0–4, the answer was no—last season's success was still relatively fresh, and Caldwell remains a vast departure from Jim Schwartz's abrasive demeanor. Now, the situation may have changed. Detroit was steamrolled at home by Arizona in Week 5, then rolled over again Sunday vs. Kansas City, in front of a national-TV audience.
Caldwell then promised that the offense would not necessarily improve because of the promotion of interim O.C. Jim Bob Cooter. He was right. In London, the Lions turned in arguably their worst offensive showing yet
Caldwell could be next to go, and these post-London trip days have made for popular timing when it comes to coaches being fired. (The Dolphins removed Joe Philbin shortly after a similar meltdown at Wembley Stadium.)
That Detroit looks unprepared and unable to make adjustments each week does speak poorly of the coordinators, including formerly hot head coaching candidate Teryl Austin. Everything that happens, however, is under Caldwell's watch. This team has regressed in rapid fashion, and the head coach is almost certain to take the fall for it.
3. What should Detroit do with Matthew Stafford?
This is the omnipresent question, one that may be more critical to the Lions' future than even the coach and GM decisions.
Stafford's last contract extension carried his deal through the 2017 season. His cap hits over the next two seasons are set to be $22.5 million and $20 million, respectively, up from around $17.5 million this year. The Lions would have to eat $11 million in dead money to move him for 2016, and $5.5 million for 2017. (All numbers via OvertheCap.)
So, what now?
Well, a couple of notes here: 1. The Lions made those 2011 and '14 playoff runs thanks in large part to the players they drafted starting with Calvin Johnson in 2006. The problem is that Johnson, Stafford and Suh all were top-10 picks under the old rookie wage scale, meaning they all earned massive contracts out of the chute. The road was paved for Suh's departure as early as his rookie season; Stafford's own salary has continued to escalate, both to keep his earnings in line with other NFL starters and because the Lions have had to extend his deal multiple times for immediate cap relief.
2. After taking Stafford in 2009, the Lions never moved to bring in a backup they could develop behind him—no, Kellen Moore does not count. If they had one now, it would be easier to envision a post-Stafford roster.
Because they don't, the only choices are to stick with Stafford through at least 2016 or to absolutely blow the current roster to smithereens by moving him and any other name worth a damn.
Stafford, 27, should have many years left in his career. He still has the arm to stretch the field and make all the throws. Unfortunately for Detroit, he's shown little improvement in his ability to process the game. That's a problem that the line makes more noticeable. His is not a quick-strike approach, nor is the offense built in that fashion.
If the Lions had a fallback plan, they might look into it. Because they don't, expect Stafford to stick.
4. Is the defense doomed?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it probably is what it is for 2015. Levy is not likely to come back this season, Haloti Ngata has done little to help the line and the secondary is devoid of playmakers.
No, if we want to find a silver lining, because Austin remains. He still has at his disposal young talents like Ansah, Darius Slay and Gabe Wright. Whoever is GM next off-season must add several pieces—a DT or two, a pass rusher, a linebacker, a safety, etc. There is at least a decent base off which to work, though.
5. Can the offensive line be fixed?
To really get an answer here, the Lions must first figure out what they're trying to be on offense. They are thought of as a passing team, an opinion the stats back up. On the other hand, Mayhew has added linemen and running backs in a way befitting a far more balanced attack.
There is just no continuity at all right now. Riley Reiff needs to be moved from left tackle to the right, current RT LaAdrian Waddle needs to be moved out of the lineup entirely, and 2015 first-rounder Laken Tomlinson has to start showing signs of development. Getting 2013 standout rookie Larry Warford back to his first-year self would help, as well.
Yet, again, the glaring issue is that Detroit is stuck between its desired offense and its current talent. Lombardi's failure came from trying to squeeze the Lions' personnel into a scheme similar to one he came from in New Orleans. But Stafford is not Drew Brees. Eric Ebron is not Jimmy Graham. It never worked.
There is absolutely talent to be molded along the Lions' line, if a coaching staff is willing to commit the time.
6. Is the NFL ever going to take the Lions' Thanksgiving game away from them?
Don't count on it, at least not so long as the Ford family owns the team. Say what you will about the franchise, but the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving since 1934. The Detroit game is a part of NFL history, as is Dallas's host duties.
The addition of a third Thanksgiving game made it even less likely that the Lions would cough up their spot. If it didn't happen after the 0-16 season, it's probably not going to happen anytime soon.
7. Are the Pistons the best Detroit pro sports team?
I'd give the nod to the Red Wings, but it's close. There is no question that the Lions have slipped back to fourth out of four (Lions, Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings), after sneaking above the Pistons for a few years.
Both the Pistons and Red Wings should be in the playoff hunt all season. The Tigers missed out on the postseason this year but had won four straight AL Central titles and still have the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
The Lions still boast Megatron (for now?), but the future looks bleak otherwise.