Wojo: Stafford, Caldwell face defining Lions season

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — When the Lions open training camp today, Jim Caldwell will regale the media with eloquent and evasive comments. Matthew Stafford will follow in similar fashion, while fending off Calvin Johnson questions. The coach and the quarterback will pleasantly reveal little, which is OK, because soon they’ll be forced to reveal a lot.

The Lions have a new boss, Bob Quinn, who isn’t the same as the old boss. And he takes over a team with loaded questions and low expectations, not surprising considering the Lions just went 7-9, lost their star receiver to retirement and will mark the 25th anniversary of their lone playoff victory in more than half a century.

But before Quinn can fully implement a strategy, he has to figure out exactly what he has at the two most important positions, and who he wants to build around. Caldwell’s job likely is on the line and Stafford’s future could be too, with his contract up in two years.

They’re the first riddles of many, and they’re not easy to read. Each can be perfectly proficient — in Stafford’s case, even prolific — and then numbingly ineffective. It’s hard to know if they’re perpetuators of the Lions’ losing lineage, or possible victims of it.

Identity crisis

Caldwell is either the strong coach who went 11-5 his first season here, or the embattled coach who went 1-7 to start his second season, or the determined coach who went 6-2 to close last season. Quinn opted to retain him, which was the safe and fair move, but you can bet the evaluation continues.

Stafford, meanwhile, holds all sorts of franchise records, and as he enters his eighth season, he’s about to set another mark — longest stretch as a gifted enigma whose status is still undefined. He’s either overrated because of his fabled right arm, underrated because of a weak supporting cast, or properly rated as absolutely average. Is Stafford the savvy slinger who leaned on Johnson to throw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011, or the scatter-shot guy who tossed 11 interceptions the first eight games last season and was briefly benched? Obvious answer: He’s neither.

Five keys for the Lions as they open training camp

Stafford and Caldwell are about to get defined, one way or another. The coach always sits on the hottest seat, and the perception is, because owner Martha Ford expressed admiration for Caldwell, she strongly suggested Quinn keep him. It no longer matters if that’s true or not. Frankly, retaining Caldwell made sense if you wanted a shot at determining if Stafford can lead the Lions anywhere.

Caldwell’s return meant Jim Bob Cooter’s return, and the offensive coordinator is the bridge to Stafford, theoretically. Cooter took over midway through last season and connected with the quarterback, prying highly efficient performances out of him. Yes, the Lions mopped up on lesser competition, but 6-2 over any stretch in the NFL is noteworthy, especially considering it could’ve been 7-1 if not for one little Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary.

Could Quinn have blown out the coaching staff and started over? Sure, but if he did, he might not have learned what he needed to know about Stafford, before deciding whether to go all-in with another huge contract extension. That decision likely will come after this season, and while teams rarely let 28-year-old quarterbacks of Stafford’s talent leave, there’s a cost to consider.

Stafford’s salary cap numbers the next two seasons average $22.3 million, and no matter what you think of his awful record against winning teams and the absence of a playoff victory, he would draw even more on the open market. As it stands now, the Lions would pay it too.

This is a quarterback who has defied odds in one important way — he has started every game since 2011, 82 straight. He’s an upstanding person, well-liked by teammates. But standing up is not the same as standing out, and Stafford must show his terrific final eight games last season were no fluke. In that span, he completed 70 percent of his passes, with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Stafford talks excitedly about his rapport with Cooter, and so do others on offense. Tight end Eric Ebron raves, and if the former first-round pick can have a bigger impact, the Lions might not miss Johnson as much as we expect.

Lots of questions

But with the Lions, there are no certainties, almost never. You can’t pencil them in as contenders in the NFC North like you can the Packers and Vikings. Everything is speculative with the offense, from Ebron to Ameer Abdullah to newcomer Marvin Jones. Golden Tate is good enough to be considered a given, but how does that change without Johnson commanding defensive attention?

Abdullah had injury and fumble issues as a rookie but remains highly intriguing. Theo Riddick and TJ Jones have shown flashes of explosiveness and probably need bigger roles. You know the Lions harbor concerns because they keep hunting for help. They might have found a decent piece in sure-handed Anquan Boldin, 35, who caught 69 passes for the 49ers last season.

Lions concentrate on beefing up both lines

The offensive line could be fortified with No. 1 pick Taylor Decker at left tackle, allowing Riley Reiff to fit better at right tackle. The guards, Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford, are young and promising, but the center position is up for grabs.

Stafford would be greatly helped by a line that continued to show improvement, just as he was greatly helped by having one of the all-time premier receivers in Johnson.

Caldwell was greatly helped his first season by inheriting a menacing defense, which is now largely retooled.

People will be defined, or confined, by how they handle this shifting environment. Caldwell and Stafford have always been on the clock, as all coaches and quarterbacks are. With a new boss, it ticks ever more loudly.