Rogers: Lions can be optimistic, but they’ll have to be better, too
Allen Park -- The Detroit Lions open training camp on Sunday, representing the pinnacle of professional sports optimism around these parts. Who would have thought?
But let’s face it, the rest of the local pro sports scene is a wasteland. The Red Wings and Pistons head to their new arena just a few months removed from the conclusion of terrible seasons and with no clear path to contention anytime soon. And the underachieving Tigers, with their bloated payroll, waved the white flag earlier this month when they traded their best hitter, J.D. Martinez, to the Diamondbacks.
So here we sit, coming off a second playoff appearance in three years, the Lions are this town’s best bet for fan satisfaction. Of course, the franchise’s history suggests you’re in for a letdown.
It seems ludicrous, in a league that has long placed an emphasis on parity, that the Lions have not made consecutive trips to the postseason in more than two decades (1993-95). And with last season’s modest success comes a slightly more challenging schedule, something that doesn’t bode well for a team that leaned so heavily on late-game heroics a year ago.
The Lions will have to be better to repeat last year’s performance, and significantly better to claim the team’s first NFC North crown in the division’s 16-year existence and earn the first home playoff game since Ford Field opened its doors in 2002.
The belief the Lions can break free from the shackles of mediocrity is pinned to the front office, headed by general manager Bob Quinn. With change comes a fresh batch of excitement, and despite never holding the top position in an organization before, his background with the New England Patriots, the NFL’s gold standard, sparked optimism following his 2016 hire.
To be fair, past general manager and coaching hires brought initial excitement, but ultimately failed to net results. Even Matt Millen was welcomed as a sign the franchise was bringing in a no-nonsense former player who would instill much-needed toughness.
It’s far too early to judge Quinn’s impact, but the early returns have been promising.
After the much-debated decision to retain coach Jim Caldwell, Quinn hit a home run with his first draft class, nailing the first- and second-round picks, finding immediate, quality contributors in offensive tackle Taylor Decker and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson. In free agency, Quinn did his best to minimize the retirement of Calvin Johnson, inking the top option on the market in Marvin Jones.
But Quinn’s more significant impact in his first year was increasing organizational expectations, the latest sign represented by the removal of playoff appearance banners that had hung from the rafters of Ford Field. He had the weight room rebuilt, brought in a new training staff, added a staff dietician and had the indoor and outdoor fields ripped up and replaced.
By providing the players with top-notch facilities, excuses are minimized and expectations are increased.
This offseason, Quinn continued to reshape the roster to his vision. He committed big money to the offensive line, signing accomplished veterans T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, and added depth at a number of positions, including cornerback, linebacker and defensive line.
In the first round of the draft, Quinn addressed the biggest remaining need, scoring Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis. The team’s second- and third-round choices, cornerback Teez Tabor and wide receiver Kenny Golladay, have the makings of two long-term fits at positions of need.
The roster will continue to be tweaked throughout camp, but Quinn has two looming hurdles, unquestionably the biggest of his young tenure. The team continues to work on a lucrative long-term extension with quarterback Matthew Stafford, one that will likely make him the league’s highest-paid player. The GM also must determine the future of Caldwell, who enters the final year of the contract he signed with the team in 2014.
Questions about both issues won’t go away until there are resolutions. The team will do what they can to prevent either from becoming a distraction, but they loom large as the rookies returned to the facility earlier this week. The veterans report Saturday and the whole team will share the field for their first camp practice the next day. It’s the start of a month-long process, through four exhibition games, of forging the best roster possible.
Hope always springs eternal this time of year, when every team sports a 0-0 record. But the Lions face unusually higher expectations this year compared to most. Those expectations not only come from its young, idealistic front office, but from a fan base that has little been given little else to cheer from its local teams.
Will these Lions let them down or will it rise up to the challenge? This week alone predictions have ranged from the team finishing well outside of the playoff race to being a Super Bowl contender. None of that matters, of course, but for the next month at least, everyone can dare to dream.
The Lions have not made consecutive trips to the playoffs since 1993-95. All of those appearances have been wild-card losses.
1993: Lost to Green Bay, 28-24
1994: Lost to Green Bay, 16-12
1995: Lost to Philadelphia, 58-37
1997: Lost to Tampa Bay, 20-10
1999: Lost to Washington, 27-13
2011: Lost to New Orleans, 45-28
2014: Lost to Dallas, 24-20
2016: Lost to Seattle, 26-6