ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It’d be nice, for all of us on the outside, if there were a tangible turning point to the Lions’ 2015 season.
Maybe the normally stoic Jim Caldwell could’ve flipped the Gatorade table at halftime, Coach Winters-style. Perhaps Matthew Stafford might’ve delivered a speech at a players-only meeting on a random Wednesday. Or maybe there should’ve been a symbolic burying of a football at an otherwise mundane walkthrough.
None of that happened when the Lions were 1-7. And somehow, they still got to 7-9.
“There’s no magic to it,” Caldwell told me, shortly after Wednesday night’s work. “We just started playing better. And we played better because we practiced better.”
The idea now is to keep ascending.
It was last Nov. 1 that the Lions were curb-stomped by the Chiefs in London on national TV. The final was 45-10. It could’ve been worse. And four days later, things did get worse, as ownership took the unusual step of firing a team president (Tom Lewand) and GM (Martin Mayhew) midseason.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most thought 1-7 was destined to become 2-14 or 3-13. Caldwell was probably gone, and Stafford’s future as a Lion became a talking point for the first time. The stage wasn’t just set for the wheels to come off. The Lions were past that, their season careening into a ditch.
Somehow, the team swerved out of trouble. Seven months later, with the slate wiped clean, the hope is that experience was just a springboard for what’s next.
“The young men that we’re responsible for hung in together and did something that’s very, very unusual,” Caldwell said. “I mean, you can count the number of times where what happened at the end of our season happens in the National Football League. Typically, it implodes. Typically, you have all kinds of circumstances that boil down to people not giving everything they have, because they just say, ‘hey, we’re not going anywhere.’
“The guys that we have are different. So it shows you there’s a lot of character, a lot of integrity, they certainly love each other, and I think that’s why we were able to hang in there and battle through it. Usually, when you go through something like that, it serves you well in the future.”
And that future does, indeed, look different than the present of last summer.
Mayhew has been replaced Patriots pro scouting director Bob Quinn. Lewand was replaced by Ford family confidant Rod Wood. Calvin Johnson retired. The facility has been tweaked, as has the team’s processes, given the upper-management changes.
But many of those who went through last year—start to finish—remain.
And what they did at the end of the season, statistically speaking, appears to be no fluke. The defense allowed just 313.5 yards per game over that stretch, good for eighth in the league. Stafford posted a 110.1 passer rating, fourth best in the NFL for that period. The team’s giveaway/takeaway ratio went from 11/20 over the first eight weeks, to 8/4 over the last eight weeks. That, they say, was no accident.
“We lost seven of our first eight because of execution and turnovers, it wasn’t effort or talent,” Stafford told me. “It was our own doing. We did a great job in the second half of the season turning those negatives into positives. It’s hard to say it’s gonna carry over, that’s difficult, but you know what it feels like to play at that level. It’s on us to get back to that, and play that way consistently for 16 games, not just eight.”
Of course, going on a run isn’t the same as sustaining one for that long, but the Lions think there are reasons to believe the midseason renaissance was the start of something more significant.
Start with the presence of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who quickly led the offense out of the woods and oversaw Stafford’s revival. We’ll get to his scheme tweaks below in my Five Things, but they weren’t just window-dressing, and that’s why when I asked if he thinks the momentum will carry, he confidently answered, “I’m expecting it to, yeah.”
Meanwhile, the defense was adjusting to loss of Ndamukong Suh last year, and that was compounded when the unit’s heart-and-soul, linebacker DeAndre Levy, suffered a mysterious, season-ending hip injury. And it became even tougher to replace Suh’s production when Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker were on the shelf. That led to more combinations of players, and an extended feeling-out process.
“I didn’t do a good enough job of recognizing what we had to do to give ourselves a better chance to win, because I didn’t know our guys in that regard,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “And so at that point, once we got Haloti out there and really figured out the way we could play, that’s when we really started getting a little better, and our guys took off the second half of the year.”
The whole team did.
Caldwell is careful now to not let guys get too comfortable. But he’s quick to laud the leadership that became apparent in each room, and the way Austin and Cooter solved their units’ issues on the fly.
And while the head coach knows it’s a new year, he saw plenty of traits in the old year that should serve the whole group well.
“All of those things—work habits, accountability, character, the integrity portion of it—it shows through with these guys every single day that they come in this building. They have an unusual work ethic. You have a group that’ll work hard, and blend talent within it, you’ll be headed in the right direction.”
You definitely get the idea that the Lions are.
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FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT LIONS CAMP
1. The Lions are deeper than they’ve been in a while. The coaches raved in the spring about the health of the middle of the roster, and there are more signs early in camp that GM Bob Quinn has made the decisions from, say, spots 30-53 a lot more difficult on the coaches. “There’s no question about that,” Caldwell said. “We’re a more competitive group. We’re deeper. We gotta stay healthy too, that can change things in an instant. But if things stay as they are, it’s gonna happen that way. When there’s a lot of good competition out there for positions, typically, that’s the makings of a good football team. We’re excited about that.” As several of Caldwell’s assistants put it, Detroit will cut some good players, and the makeup of the team is far less top-heavy than it was when the cap numbers of Stafford, Suh and Johnson weighed down the top of the balance sheets.
2. Early returns on the relationship between Quinn and Caldwell have been positive. A few losses can change the dynamic anywhere, but it’s very clear that Quinn’s process has been inclusive. Of course, Quinn comes from a place where coaches are very involved in scouting, so it should come as no surprise that the Lions coaches have played a bigger role this offseason in that department than they have in the past. “We’re flying out to a few more pro days, and I don’t think it’s any secret that’s been how New England has done it over the years,” said Cooter. “We’re gonna go out to some pro days, do different things on the scouting side, and that’s been an adjustment for us, but it’s been fun. You don’t do that a lot of times in our business. It’s been fun to get out and scout some guys.” On top of the working the trail together, Quinn’s Patriot-centric philosophy is to find scheme fits for the coaches, which required a lot work for both sides of the football operation. And that collaboration has helped expedite the getting-to-know-you process between the new personnel people and the coaches, too. “It’s been excellent,” Caldwell said. “He and I didn’t know one another but we’d competed against one another for a long time, and obviously when I was at Indy and he was at New England, we had great battles, but also gained a lot of respect for the respective programs. It’s been tremendous.”
3. Stafford set for big things? The quarterback’s strong finish to 2015 has flowed into an offseason in which he’s taken a more forceful role as a leader. And that’s happened as a result of a specific aspect of the change Cooter implemented. Wanting to give Stafford more control at the line of scrimmage, he shortened play calls to one or two words, which made it easier to make changes on the fly and allowed the quarterback to change pace as he saw fit. In a very natural way, Stafford grew more vocal, and the expectation is that will continue. “I think the next step for him, and you probably saw a little bit of it tonight, is taking more and more and more ownership of the offense, making it his own,” Cooter said. “Sometimes I give him the play or I give him a couple plays, and I say, ‘Hey, if you like something better, go run that.’ … I’m trying to call the best play I can call, I’m doing all the studying I’m doing but he’s got the feel you have on the field that I can’t have on the sideline, that no coach can. The more we run the plays, the more he runs the same plays over and over, the better feel he gets for what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He’s increasing his ownership of the offense and I’d like to keep that going.” Stafford has also studied tape of one of Cooter’s old co-workers to improve in that area, and he told me watching Peyton Manning has helped. As Stafford explained it, “It’s been great. There’s a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders at the line of scrimmage, which is great for me.”
4. Anquan Boldin is quickly making a difference. The Lions considered signing Boldin as far back as May, which is when they started talking to him. They figured maybe they should do it before their June minicamp, so he could get his feet wet in a new offense. And as it turned out, all that wasn’t necessary. He arrived before camp, and he’s been a godsend, picking up the offense quickly and, just as important, serving as a tone-setter for a group that must replace Johnson’s production. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate will, to be sure, carry a heavy load as the Lions move into the post-Megatron Era. And Boldin isn’t what he used to be. But, as we stand here in early August, it certainly looks like he will have a sizable role.
5. Kudos for Caldwell. The coaches spoke a lot about how accountability on the staff was important as the Lions turned things around at the end of last year. And that starts with Caldwell, who the players swore by then, and swear by now. “It starts with our head coach,” Stafford told me. “His message was the same from Day 1. We know what we have to do to win, we didn’t do it but one time in the first eight games, we gotta do it more often. And we rallied. We rallied around each other, it was us against everybody at that point, and that’s the kind of guys we have.” There’s a reason why Caldwell survived all the turnover.
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