Detroit Lions Still Searching for the Team's Identity
- The 2017 Lions’ team is proving tough to figure out, especially after a lackluster training-camp practice. But it’s just early August—there’s still plenty of time to figure all of that out... right?
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It’s quiet.
Too quiet? Not necessarily—who’s to say?—but there is very little disrupting the peace as the Lions wrap their first full week of training camp.
Granted, this particular practice is taking place on a Sunday afternoon, little more than 24 hours after the Lions held an instrasquad “mock game” at Ford Field, so perhaps there’s a little lull. A dozen or so fans cheer a Golden Tate TD grab, some music pumps over the loud speakers in 10-minute intervals and everything just ticks along on schedule.
Upon visiting the Seahawks on their first day of padded practice, The MMQB’s Peter King wrote about the elevated level of physicality at that workout. In contrast, the Lions’ outing feels like it'll end with a player’s mom passing out orange slices and then everyone carpooling home.
Does it matter in the long run, how boisterous or contentious August practices are?
“Everyone’s got their own personality,” says center Travis Swanson, as he glances at a curious T.J. Lang, who’s poked his head in on the discussion.
“You’ve been to another place,” Swanson calls out to Lang, the ex-Packers guard who signed with Detroit this offseason. “I’ve just been here.”
Lang, walking toward the team’s facility, replies, “Practice is practice.”
“Practice is ... yea,” Swanson says. “Practice is practice.”
They’re right, of course: volume doesn’t matter. A team can have a rowdy, sloppy, pointless practice just as easily as a muted, efficient, business-like one.
Practices, though, are a window into a team’s soul. When Pete Carroll’s club engages in a internal brouhaha, it’s easy to chalk it up as a very on-brand moment for the Seahawks given their reputation. When the Lions tick-tock their way through an early August practice, does it reveal anything?
Only that the Lions’ identity may be a lot harder to pin down.
“I’m still trying to get to know this team,” says new right tackle Ricky Wagner, another of GM Bob Quinn’s recent big-ticket signings. “I think it kind of starts over every year, we’re trying to make our own identity.”
That was not always the case for the Lions, necessarily. There was a long stretch, in recent memory, when their calling card was similar (albeit less successful) to that of the Seahawks. With Ndamukong Suh at the heart of their defense and Jim Schwartz patrolling the sidelines as head coach, Detroit was, for better or worse, nasty. And if Suh was not the face of the franchise, then Calvin Johnson held that title. Past Lions’ highlight reels often amounted to little more than Megatron elevating above multiple defenders for a remarkable catch, time and again.
What the Lions are these days is more difficult to define because the parameters have changed at a rapid pace. At the end of 2013, they fired Schwartz and hired Jim Caldwell. In 2015, Suh signed with Miami, and the Lions fired team president Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew, replacing Lewand with Rod Wood. Early in 2016, they brought Quinn over from New England.
Is this Quinn’s team? Caldwell’s? QB Matthew Stafford’s? Does it matter?
The relatively low-key practice has Caldwell’s imprint all over it. After all, this is a coach whose stoic, unflinching facial expression earned its own meme. The 62-year-old Caldwell has yet to produce a playoff win in his three Detroit seasons (and two Detroit playoff appearances), but he will enter 2017 with the highest regular-season winning percentage (.563) of any Lions coach during the Super Bowl era. His practices are a little blasé, sure, but the Lions will take that over being a laughingstock.
But with Caldwell’s and Stafford’s contracts up after 2017 (although at minimum the Lions likely would use the franchise tag to retain the QB into ’18), the franchise has reached a crossroads, forcing it to figure out who’s at the heart of this.
The Lions have a comfort zone in Stafford and Caldwell. They know what they’re getting from both. The challenge now is for them to deliver even more.
For Caldwell to do so, he needs Stafford. He needs the offense to become everything it hints at being in all-too-infrequent bursts.
“When you have a guy like Matt Stafford, he’s the best leader I've ever been around,” Swanson says. “I’m only three years in, but anytime you have Matt on your team, you have a chance regardless of the score. He’s a guy who knows how to get the best out of you.”
Stafford is their biggest star right now, all due respect to the likes of Darius Slay, Ziggy Ansah, Golden Tate and others. The Lions would love nothing more than for their identity to be tied to him the way that, say, the Packers’ is to Aaron Rodgers.
Much of what Stafford accomplishes in practice comes rather free and easy. During a passing drill, he takes a moment before the snap to chat with veteran Jared Abbrederis, then fires a perfect back-shoulder pass where only Abbrederis can catch it for a touchdown. During an 11-on-11 setup later, he flawlessly picks up a key from the defense and swings a pass out to RB Zach Zenner for a walk-in score.
In an ideal world for the Lions, defensive coordinators would spend sleepless nights considering how to stop Stafford. Many still do, no doubt, but he and the offense still do wind up shut down too often.
If Detroit’s identity lies in Stafford, the points need to come in bunches.
“He shouldn’t have to do everything,” RB Ameer Abdullah says. “He shouldn’t have to nickel and dime us down the field every time.”
He has had to, though, especially in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s system. The results in said system have been preferable to what came before—former O.C. Joe Lombardi—but the Lions still do not have one specific area where they can overwhelm teams.
“First of all, I don’t mind long drives as long as they end up in a score,” Caldwell said. “OK, because that does a couple of things for you: It eats up the clock, it keeps your defense off the field, you control the tempo of the game. So, it doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s getting there that counts. ... We’d like some quick strikes and I think we’ll get some, but as long as we score, that’s all I care about.”
Reasonable, and yet if Stafford is the player around which the entire team is constructed, it is also not senseless to expect the Lions’ offense to hum. It just has not established that go-to element. So, when opposing teams prep to face Detroit, on what do they have to focus first?
“That’s a good question,” Swanson says. “We’re a very dynamic offense in what we do. Obviously, we have to improve on every single area, not just here and there. There’s a lot of versatility in everything we do. ... That’s the first word that came into my head when I think about who we are.”
Maybe that is good enough. Maybe the Lions’ identity can come in not really having an identity, like one of those “A girl has no name” mind warps that Arya Stark endured. They took the NFC North battle with Green Bay down to the final game of the regular-season in 2016, and believe they have enough talent in place to stick with the Packers and Vikings again.
Beyond that, who knows. They certainly spent little time Sunday trying to be anything they are not.