Strong finish gives pause to notion of a rebuild in Detroit
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) By the time this season ends, the stats will look pretty solid for Matthew Stafford.
For Calvin Johnson, too.
That leaves the Detroit Lions with some interesting decisions this offseason, when they will have to determine whether the offense's encouraging late-season performance is enough to justify keeping this core of players largely intact.
''We're striving in the right way right now,'' Johnson said Wednesday. ''If we just keep on getting better, especially running that ball ... we have the tools in the passing game, we've just got to detail some things in that area.''
When the Lions lost seven of their first eight games, it looked like a major overhaul was coming. The team fired its president, general manager and offensive coordinator during the season, and the biggest remaining questions were about Stafford, Johnson and coach Jim Caldwell. Now Detroit has won five of seven, and that may be enough to keep the quarterback and star receiver around a little longer.
''I think every offseason brings a bunch of questions whether you know everything or you don't,'' Stafford said. ''You've got to draft, you have free agency, you have players coming and going. I think we have a good core of leaders here through the coaching staff, the players, everybody. We understand what it takes to win. We didn't do it enough in the first half of the season. We've just got to continue to build on the success that we've had this second half.''
Stafford in particular has been sharp lately, throwing 16 touchdown passes with only two interceptions over the past seven games. He's now completed 67 percent of his passes this season, the highest mark of his career, and his passer rating of 95.4 is his second highest.
Johnson, meanwhile, has 78 catches for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns, numbers below his peak of a few years ago, but still good enough to indicate that the 30-year-old can remain a standout for a bit longer.
Detroit's schedule may be a big part of this recent resurgence. After losing to Denver, Seattle, Arizona, Kansas City and Minnesota in the first half of the season, the Lions have rebounded against mediocre opponents like Oakland, Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco.
So Detroit could decide to go in any number of directions once the season is over. Before the 2013 season, Stafford signed an extension with the Lions through 2017. Johnson's big contract runs through 2019, and when it appeared the Lions might be entering a major rebuild, it was fair to wonder if either player would be worth keeping.
With the passing game clicking again, the short-term future now looks a bit brighter if Stafford and Johnson remain in Detroit. Jim Bob Cooter, who took over as offensive coordinator when Joe Lombardi was fired around midseason, has gotten good reviews. Johnson gave Caldwell his endorsement to stay on as coach.
''I love him. Everybody in the locker room would probably say the same thing. He commands respect, but he doesn't have to do much, it's just his character guys gravitate toward,'' Johnson said. ''Guys see that he's a great person, he's a great coach and guys are going to fight for that. We didn't start like we wanted to, but we're going to do our best to finish the best that we can.''
NOTES: The Lions promoted C Braxston Cave to the active roster from the practice squad. ... Johnson did not practice Wednesday because of an ankle issue, and RB Ameer Abdullah (shoulder) was limited. Caldwell was asked about the possibility of holding Johnson out of the finale this weekend at Chicago, since the game has no postseason implications. ''We look at everybody's situation and according to if they're ready to play, if they can play they're going to play,'' Caldwell said. ''No matter who it is.''
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