As everyone continues to assign blame for this Lions season, don’t forget president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew.
Because decisions they made years ago handicapped the team beyond measure this season, and as bad as the execution and coaching have been, the men at the top deserve the most criticism.
The dead money on the Lions’ salary cap was a popular topic in March during the pursuit of Ndamukong Suh in free agency. Seven games into the season, it’s clear the Lions needed that money to spend on players who could contribute to the team this year, particularly along the offensive line.
Back in March, the Lions were atop the NFL with dead money. Currently, with about $19 million according to Spotrac.com, they have the eighth most, and the teams ahead of them are struggling, too.
The Saints (3-4) lead the league by a wide margin with $32.2 million in dead money. Behind them are the Bears (2-4), Dolphins (3-3), 49ers (2-5), Buccaneers (2-4), Ravens (1-5) and Chiefs (2-5).
However, none of those seven teams entered the season with a player costing them more in dead cap space than Suh with the Lions. Suh is on the hook for $9.7 million in dead money as he tries to help the Dolphins turn around their season.
While there are plenty of examples of players costing their teams cap space, the Lions’ handling of Suh’s deal represents the systemic failure of the front office. The decision to repeatedly restructure his contract cost the Lions both a chance to keep Suh at a somewhat reasonable rate — if he was open to signing — and a chance to field their best possible team in 2015.
Running back Ray Rice is costing the Ravens $9.5 million in cap space this year, which helps explain their fall from grace. Baltimore is also losing $7.5 million in cap space with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata playing for the Lions.
After trading him on Sept. 28, the Bears now have $11.7 million in dead cap space taken up by defensive end Jared Allen. The Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks in the offseason, which is taking away $9 million of their cap space.
But, those situations are much different than the Lions’ calculated — supposedly — risk related to Suh’s contract.
Just imagine if half of that nearly $10 million allotted for Suh to spend on free agents last spring. With some good accounting, the team could’ve signed a solid offensive tackle and immediately upgraded its offensive line, or the Lions could’ve signed a really good guard — the Bengals re-signed Clint Boling for five years and $26 million in March — instead of relying on the combination of rookie Laken Tomlinson and Manny Ramirez.
As much as people want to blame coach Jim Caldwell or former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi for the problems this season, it’s clear that the roster isn’t talented enough to be a playoff team.
Sure, if linebacker DeAndre Levy was healthy, the defense would probably be better than 27th in the NFL. But if Mayhew and Lewand put their faith in a player who is — based on his recent contract extension — worth less than $9 million a year, then they’re practicing gross negligence with the roster.
Lions players and coaches have said losing one player, even as good as Levy, doesn’t explain the poor performance this season. Yet, people often make jokes about how bad the team would be without quarterback Matthew Stafford, and while that’s probably true, the poor cap management has forced the Lions to go cheap at backup quarterback the past couple years.
To their credit, Lewand and Mayhew have done well planning for the future beyond 2015. Currently, the Lions have less than $400,000 in dead money on the books for 2016. Plus, they should receive a few compensatory picks in next year’s draft.
Unfortunately for the men leading the Lions, it’s becoming increasingly unclear whether they’ll be here for 2016 to see how their ability to fix the financial issues paid off.
Around the NFC North
■ The Vikings (4-2) had the good fortune of playing the Lions on Sunday, so they remain in second place in the division. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had his most productive game of the year with 316 passing yards and two touchdowns while completing 71.4 percent of his passes.
■ The Packers (6-0) were idle, but have a matchup with the Broncos (6-0) on Sunday night.
■ The Bears (2-4) had a bye, too, and play the Vikings on Sunday.
Around the NFL
■ People demanding the Lions fire coach Jim Caldwell received more fuel for their fire as the Dolphins dominated a second straight game under new coach Dan Campbell. In a 44-26 win over the Texans on Sunday, the Dolphins led 41-0 at halftime as 3-3 Miami is already out of the 1-3 hole from previous coach Joe Philbin.
■ It won’t be long before Raiders rookie Amari Cooper establishes himself as one of the NFL’s top wide receivers. After having five catches for 133 yards in a win Sunday over San Diego, he now ranks 17th in receiving yards and has three 100-yard performances in his first six games.
■Todd Gurley, meanwhile, might already be among the league’s best running backs. The Rams rookie has played four games and already has three with at least 128 rushing yards. With 442 yards, he’s 12th in the league, and he’s third with a 6-yard-per-carry average.