Katzenstein: Bad teams boost Lions' resume

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Lions running back Theo Riddick makes a first down in the fourth quarter against the Niners on Sunday.

Seeing what the Lions have done in the second half of the season has led to plenty of hand-wringing among the fanbase.

I'm here to tell you it's simply not worth it.

What if the Lions fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi earlier in the year? What if DeAndre Levy didn't get hurt? What if the officials didn't make questionable calls in the losses to Seattle and Green Bay? The questions could go on and on.

The Lions didn't stumble on some secret formula to help turnaround their season after it was already effectively over. They simply got to the soft part of their schedule and have taken advantage.

The best team the Lions played the past two months was the Packers (10-5), and Green Bay just lost 38-8 in Arizona. Otherwise, the Raiders and Rams were the top squads at 7-8.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and disparage what the Lions have done. Teams can only beat their opponent each week, and each win and loss counts the same. So, the Lions deserve plenty of credit for going 5-2 so far in the second half of the season.

However, as we approach an offseason with several unknowns, it's important to keep the events of the past two months in perspective and try to dispel some myths that might exist.

Caldwell 'not worried' about evaluation by new Lions GM

First of all, the Lions aren't playing to save coach Jim Caldwell's job. The idea is ludicrous, and Caldwell said as much Monday.

When asked how Caldwell prevented the Lions from quitting after a 1-7 start, he said he doesn't think players quit on coaches.

"I don't believe that happens," he said. "I believe they may have a poor performance, but there's no player in this league that doesn't come out and compete to the best of their ability every single time that they go out."

With all the information about concussions made available recently, people should understand how dangerous football is. If just one player quits on a play, he puts his teammates at increased risk of injury.

No matter how spiteful someone might be to a coach, few players would wish such harm on their teammates.

Another myth that seems to be gaining steam is that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has completely changed the unit, and that's why it's having success. Suddenly, many of the fans clamoring months ago for a total house cleaning — in the front office and coaching staff — want Cooter to return.

Many offensive players have said the biggest reason for the offensive improvement, besides execution, is improved communication. Cooter understands the players, and they understand him. When there's less confusion, teams play better.

Cooter likely will be an offensive coordinator somewhere next year, whether in Detroit or elsewhere, but it's not like he's reinventing the wheel or even the offense. The Lions still have head-scratching substitution patterns, and they still refuse to test teams deep consistently.

The other takeaway people seem to have from the recent stretch is that quarterback Matthew Stafford is now fixed. Stafford has been spectacular the second half of the year, no doubt.

But, his three best performances came against defenses that currently rank 31st (New Orleans), 30th (Philadelphia) and tied for 28th (San Francisco). In fact, the best defense the Lions have faced in the past seven games was Green Bay's, which ranks 19th.

It's also a lot easier for some players to excel when they have nothing to lose, which was the case for the Lions when the second half began. As good as Stafford has been, it should make fans wonder why he can't play like this against good teams, like the ones the Lions played in the first half of the season.

Ultimately, when fans reflect on the 2015 season, they should remember that the team had a treacherous schedule to start the season, and their many flaws were on full display. Then, a soft second-half schedule helped the Lions overcome those flaws.

The best thing fans can hope is that the next general manager understands that what happened in the second half of the season shouldn't dictate moves this offseason, because if the Lions want to contend for a Super Bowl, they'll have to beat teams like the ones they repeatedly lost to in the first half.

A Lions fan gives a thumbs-up to the job Martha Ford is doing as team owner, during Sunday's game against the Niners at Ford Field.

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (10-5) were taken down a peg in Arizona, losing 38-8. If the Packers want to actually contend for a Super Bowl, they have to block better.

* The Vikings (10-5) crushed the Giants on Sunday night, 49-7. Now, they'll go to Green Bay with a division title on the line.

* The Bears (6-9) won in Tampa Bay, 26-21, to avoid Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith coach from getting any revenge. Now Chicago and Detroit will play for third place next Sunday, or last, depending on how you look at it.

Around the NFL

* The Ravens (5-10) proved that teams don't simply give up as they upset the Steelers, 20-17.

* They didn't know it at the time, but the Lions ran into a buzzsaw in London in Week 8. Since Week 7, the Chiefs are 9-0 and have already clinched a playoff berth at 10-5.

* Give Washington (8-7) credit. That was a team that had a lot of new faces in 2015, and quarterback Kirk Cousins has been playing exceptionally for most of the past two months.