Wojo: Just making playoffs not enough for Lions anymore

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Seattle — The Lions weren’t good enough to compete with the best, not nearly good enough to stick with the Seahawks in the playoffs. We can debate whether they collapsed the final four games, incurred too many key injuries, or simply settled into the middle-of-the-road team they were.

But we can’t debate this: It’s not good enough anymore. It never should be, but it was realistic as the franchise emerged from years of incompetence.

More must be demanded now, up and down the franchise, from ownership to general manager Bob Quinn to Jim Caldwell. When the season ended with a dismal mess of mistakes in a 26-6 loss at Seattle, a lot of the good-faith capital built up when the Lions were 9-4 was squandered. They hit the higher limits of their modest expectations, going 9-7 largely because of Matthew Stafford’s fourth-quarter magic, and they deserve credit for that.

But if hope isn’t a strategy, neither is magic. Quinn’s decent first year is over, and everything must ratchet now.

Caldwell will be back as coach, perhaps only with a year left on his contract, a fair hedge. Stafford will be the quarterback, ideally with a new contract and a more-balanced offense that includes an actual running game. Stafford progressed in almost every area, and it’s vitally important the Lions make this work while he’s in his prime.

This was a blown opportunity, a longshot, but blown nevertheless. The franchise could’ve made a perception-altering statement, but instead lost to every playoff team on its schedule. This is less a personal issue, aimed at one person or one player, and much more a personnel issue. It’s why Quinn was brought from the Patriots a year ago, to upgrade the depth of talent.

The Lions need impact defensive players. They need playmakers. They need speed everywhere. There’s no element of this team that consistently worried the opposition, other than Stafford taking the ball with a fourth-quarter deficit.

The Lions lived on the edge with all those comebacks, although it wasn’t by design. Stafford became a top-tier leader and the Lions developed a fighting spirit, important traits going forward. To make long-term strides, they need a firmer foundation.

“It was a heckuva year when it comes to (the comebacks),” Stafford said. “I was proud of the guys. We were able to play really good, polished football at certain moments, but we didn’t give ourselves that opportunity (against Seattle).”

Rogers: Victim mentality dooms Lions to predictable fate

Some of the ugliness Saturday night was inexplicable, such as personal-foul penalties on experienced guys like Anquan Boldin and Haloti Ngata. And some was repeatedly explainable, such as the Lions’ inability to run the ball. They never could, and the difference between Thomas Rawls rumbling for 161 yards and Zach Zenner scrapping for 34 was the difference in the game.

The Lions started two rookies on an offensive line in constant shuffle, missing right tackle Riley Reiff and center Travis Swanson because of injury. They ran low on backs when Ameer Abdulllah was hurt early and Theo Riddick was hurt late, and they never recovered.

Talent upgrade needed

The Lions have solid players in a lot of positions, but they don’t have explosive game-changers. It was reflected in the Pro Bowl voting — zero Lions — and in the All-Pro voting, where exactly two Lions received one vote each (Darius Slay and Sam Martin).

So there are needs everywhere, and I’ve helpfully identified the top three:

1. Linebacker. The Lions cannot go through another season of uncertainty with DeAndre Levy. He was worth the effort at one point, but not anymore. Tahir Whitehead had a productive season but the Lions have no one to wreak havoc there.

2. Cornerback. Slay is good, and if he didn’t deal with injuries, could have been very good this season. But the secondary is patchwork beyond safety Glover Quin — the Lions allowed teams to complete a league-worst 73 percent of passes.

3. Defensive end. Lack of pressure on the quarterback compounded the back end’s troubles. Ziggy Ansah finally recovered from his ankle injury and flashed his difference-making form with two sacks of Russell Wilson. He should rebound next season, but with the aging Ngata alongside, and the inconsistent Devin Taylor at the other end, the Lions are far, far from disruptive.

Astute readers will notice I didn’t list an offensive position in my top needs. Don’t worry, that’s only because I limited it to three.

Offense should improve

The line should continue to progress with all those young guys, including a potential star in first-round left tackle Taylor Decker. Another rookie, Graham Glasgow, stepped in ably at center and guard.

Quinn invested heavily on offense last offseason and the Lions should have some answers still on their roster. They have two potential impact guys in Abdullah and Riddick slated to return. They have a receiving corps that was listless in Seattle, but should be better.

In between dropped passes, tight end Eric Ebron flashed big-play ability, as frustrating as he could be. So did Golden Tate. Boldin was valuable at times, but is 36. Marvin Jones started strong and disappeared for long stretches, and must do more.

The coordinators, Jim Bob Cooter and Teryl Austin, would be welcomed back, although Austin will interview for head-coaching positions. The Lions also have key unrestricted free-agents in tackle Riley Reiff and guard Larry Warford, and that’s where it gets tricky for Quinn. He has to weigh continuity and development, so important on an offensive line, with talent procurement.

There’s no doubt the Lions need talent procurement, and they won’t have the luxury of a high draft pick. In some ways, it’s a double blow — by overachieving to land a playoff bid they weren’t prepared for, they lost ground in the draft.

“We’ll review everything, look at schemes and make a determination,” Caldwell said. “But I think we’ve got a good, strong nucleus.”

They have a nucleus, but its true strength is undetermined. Making the playoffs was admirable, and no matter how miserable the ending, it was a positive step. Doing the unexpected is fine, and also fleeting. That won’t be enough next season, when expectations will rise, ready or not.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski