Niyo: Lions’ season-ending crash an eye-opener for Quinn

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It was illuminating, both in what he saw at the beginning and what he didn’t at the end. But also because of what Bob Quinn already knew, having spent the last 15 years with the NFL’s most successful franchise in New England, and what he quickly learned after being hired to run one of the most unproductive here in Detroit.

There are expectations, and then there is reality, and for the Lions’ first-year general manager, the two never quite aligned in 2016. An offseason full of changes left people wanting more, the fans included, just as a surprising midseason run left everyone feeling shortchanged when it was over.

“Nine wins is a good season,” Quinn said Thursday, making his first public comments since training camp last August. “But it’s not nearly good enough for what we want.”

Now, if you want to hear something more than that, Quinn’s probably not your guy. And in that sense, Thursday’s media session — technically, this was Quinn’s first news conference since last year’s NFL draft — wasn’t all that revealing.

But he did acknowledge the last month was instructive, in fact, as the 40-year-old GM tries to assess the progress made and his plans moving forward.

Yes, the team was more competitive than it was a year ago. Deeper, too, though that depth was sorely tested, and ultimately proved too shallow at some key positions.

But after sitting at 9-4 in mid-December, with a two-game lead in the NFC North, the Lions came crashing down with four consecutive losses “to four of the better teams in the NFC,” Quinn noted.

“So that’s our competition going forward,” he added. “I mean, the Dallas Cowboys aren’t going to all of a sudden get worse. The Green Bay Packers aren’t going to be any worse. … It was eye-opening. It was like ‘OK, listen, we lost to those four teams. Next year, hopefully we’ll be playing meaningful games against them again, and things are different.’”

But for that to happen, plenty more will have to change.

“I mean, we won nine games and lost eight, so we have a lot of work to do,” Quinn said. “We have a long way to go.”

Room for improvement

How far depends on your perspective, I suppose. The Lions made the playoffs, but they did so without beating another playoff team. They set an NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comeback wins, yet they trailed in the fourth quarter in 16 games this season, a feat even the winless 2008 Lions couldn’t top.

So while Quinn certainly saw improvement, it’s safe to say he also saw right through it.

Sure, it would’ve made a difference if his starting running back and his most versatile offensive playmaker hadn’t missed a combined 22 games. Or if his franchise quarterback hadn’t finished the season with a splint on his throwing hand. Or if the two most important players in his defensive front seven — Ezekiel Ansah and DeAndre Levy — weren’t hounded by injuries as well.

Justin Rogers' final Lions grades: Offense / specialists

Justin Rogers' final Lions grades: Defense

But ask Quinn why his team failed in the end and he’ll answer matter-of-factly, pointing to the statistics that highlighted an anemic running game, the maddening red-zone inefficiency and that shoddy third-down defense that ultimately doomed the Lions.

“All those areas, we have to improve on,” Quinn said.

Some areas saw significant improvement, of course. The quarterback play, for one, as Matthew Stafford continued to make strides working with coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. The Lions’ special-teams units also shined, ranking sixth in the NFL, according to FootballOutsiders.com. And that was an area Quinn clearly focused in his first year, from low-profile free agent signings (Rafael Bush, Andre Roberts) to late-round draft picks (Miles Killebrew, Antwione Williams.)

Culture change

Quinn talked a lot last spring about improving the depth of his roster, and he did, to an extent. Kerry Hyder went from the practice squad to team sack leader. Tavon Wilson and Bush helped solidify the defensive backfield. And some surprising early contributions from Quinn’s first draft class helped plug holes at a handful of positions, most notably on the offensive line.

Like Caldwell, the GM also pointed to an improving “culture” as a positive.

“But at the end of the day, culture is about winning, ” Quinn said, “and winning cures everything.”

It just doesn’t guarantee much, unless you win it all, particularly in Caldwell’s case. He’ll be back as head coach next season, and Quinn reiterated he likes the veteran coach’s consistent message, steady demeanor and the way Caldwell lets “his coaches coach.” (“He’s not a micromanager,” the GM said.)

But as for an extension, don’t hold your breath.

“I never said we weren’t extending him,” Quinn said Thursday.

He also doesn’t seem concerned about a lame-duck coach. (“It’s nothing that we need to avoid,” he said.) And if you were waiting for the big reveal Thursday, maybe that’s it. Quinn saw some things he liked in his first year. But he’ll need to see a lot more before he’s ready to call it a success.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @John_Niyo