Rookie Ziggy Ansah (94) was one of a handful of new additions that bolstered the Lions' talent level this season. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
The Lions still have plenty of work to do.
They found their coach this week, hiring Jim Caldwell on Tuesday, but no matter what anybody thinks of the hire, Caldwell and his staff alone won’t make the Lions Super Bowl contenders in 2014.
If the Lions hope to reach the playoffs next season, general manager Martin Mayhew will need another superb offseason acquiring talent.
Throughout the search to replace Jim Schwartz, the narrative of the Lions having great talent became a popular way to describe the opening, but the truth is, the 2013 team had an average amount of talent compared to the rest of the NFL. And being average in 2013 is a credit to Mayhew because the Lions were certainly subpar when they finished 4-12 in 2012.
Running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin, right guard Larry Warford, defensive end Ziggy Ansah, right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, punter Sam Martin and tight end Joseph Fauria all were acquired through free agency or the draft last season and directly led to three more wins this season.
If Mayhew has a similar haul this offseason, the Lions will, in theory, be prepared to make a playoff push, assuming the top two targets are a wide receiver and a cornerback. Signing star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to an extension is the only way to give the Lions enough cap space to make a splash in free agency, and president Tom Lewand saying this week there is mutual interest in that extension is a good sign for the Lions’ prospects in 2014 and beyond.
For as much time and effort as the front office put into the coaching search, it’s impossible to predict how Caldwell will do because hiring a head coach is always a crapshoot.
Talent fuels success
John Harbaugh was a special-teams coordinator before becoming the Ravens’ head coach, but Baltimore went to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, including a Super Bowl victory last year. Mike Tomlin had one year of experience as a defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers went to the playoffs his first year and won the Super Bowl in his second.
Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll were both fired from NFL head-coaching jobs, but they’ve had great success with the Patriots and Seahawks, respectively. John Fox went to one Super Bowl in Carolina, but was fired after a 2-14 finish in 2010. Now with the Broncos, Fox has won three straight AFC West titles.
The list could go on, but the one constant with the successes of these coaches is that they had talented rosters. Mayhew can’t afford to swing and miss with free-agent acquisitions or early draft picks this offseason if he wants to give Caldwell a chance in his first season in Detroit.
Most teams in the league have enough talent to finish the season 8-8, and the Lions are right in the middle of that group. A few good breaks or excellent quarterback play is enough to push a team to the playoffs, which is what happened with the Lions in 2011. A few bad breaks or poor quarterback play is enough to push a team below .500, which was the Lions’ fate in 2013.
There are a handful of teams with above-average talent like the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos, who will play in their conference championships Sunday. These are teams that can overcome injuries to some of their top players because they have such an abundance of talent.
Let’s pretend for a second that the Lions’ 7-9 finish wasn’t all Schwartz’s fault — because, of course, it wasn’t — and examine some numbers from this season. The Lions finished 13th in points scored and 15th in points allowed, and in a league with 32 teams, that’s about as average as it gets.
They also finished tied for 29th with a minus-12 turnover differential, which was inevitably their downfall. Caldwell promised to reduce the turnovers, which will in theory lead to more points, but coaching only goes so far in preventing turnovers.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with Eli Manning as his quarterback, and it wasn’t his fault Manning threw 27 interceptions this season.
Stafford still growing
The main reason Lions fans should be optimistic for 2014 is that quarterback Matthew Stafford is still just 25, so he has room and time to grow — though Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is 24 and already significantly better in just his second season. Caldwell should be able to help Stafford become a smarter and more careful quarterback, which would immediately make the Lions a better team.
Stafford’s 2-27 record against teams that finished with a winning record speaks volumes about both him and the Lions. It shows that when the Lions played teams with either equal or superior talent they almost always failed, and some of that blame certainly fell on Schwartz.
A new coach and a new mind-set could help push the Lions over the hump, but another impressive offseason from Mayhew will give them a much better chance.