Detroit — It’ll be different, from the mostly empty stadiums to the COVID uncertainties. It’s hard to judge anything right now, as the NFL plunges ahead after a historically strange offseason and a non-existent preseason.
In some ways, the season will be reduced to the raw, simple basics of football. And in that way, the Lions should be judged as closely as ever, with jobs still squarely on the line.
Matt Patricia’s task hasn’t changed, as he enters his third season as coach. If his strategic and preparation acumen are better than his 9-22-1 record, this is a prime chance to show it. Almost every team is on level ground, no mini-camps, no exhibition games to test new personnel, no real home-field advantages.
Bob Quinn’s task hasn’t changed, as he enters his fifth season as general manager. Identifying and developing talent is even more vital, with COVID restrictions making it difficult to maneuver outside your own roster.
And we assume the mandate from owner Sheila Ford Hamp hasn’t changed, nor should it. She demanded (requested?) major improvement and a “playoff contender” when she opted to bring Quinn and Patricia back. And with the NFL adding two more postseason berths, the Lions’ odds of playoff contention logically go up, just like every other team.
The Lions have no excuses, and if they don’t contend, this regime doesn’t deserve another shot. The roster is improved from the 3-12-1 mess, although the Lions generally are slotted behind Green Bay and Minnesota in the NFC North, alongside Chicago.
To be honest, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Lions surprised. It only takes an unexpected division victory or two to alter the order, and some observers consider the Lions dark-horse candidates. With a healthy, hungry Matthew Stafford, a quick rebound is possible.
Back to slinging, not stinging
In this most unusual season, the Lions can’t just show more of the same, not if Quinn-Patricia are to be retained. And Stafford’s future could be tied to theirs. He has endured broken bones in his back the past two seasons, and weathered a mini-spate of trade rumors. His contract becomes more tradeable after this year, although the Lions give no indication that’s their plan. Quinn fiercely defended him, and supplemented the support by adding backs Adrian Peterson and D’Andre Swift to join Kerryon Johnson, and burly offensive linemen to boost the running game.
Stafford has been sharp in practice, seemingly more animated and motivated, although he says his motivation never changes. Fair enough. But he was aware of the trade whispers and the rumble to draft Tua Tagovailoa. He’s aware how good he was the first eight games last season, when he threw for 2,499 yards, on pace for 5,000.
The Lions were 3-4-1 when he went out and didn’t win another game. That’s on Patricia and Quinn, who struggled to find players that fit their narrow vision. Stafford, 32, seems as determined as ever to put it back on himself, to prove 12 seasons of gaudy statistics and zero playoff victories don’t define him. Former teammate and current broadcaster (and good friend) Nate Burleson recently said Stafford texted him to say he’s more than a “dark horse” MVP candidate. Asked about it, Stafford shrugged.
“I’m just excited to go play,” he said. “I know I have a bunch of talented playmakers around me, some guys if I can just get the ball in their hands, they can do some pretty incredible stuff. …
“No question, last year stung. It stung for me to not be out there, it stung for our team. But we can sit here and talk about it all we want. We gotta go out there and earn it every day in practice, and show up on Sundays and play better football.”
The team theme is “Dagger Time,” a push to finish off opponents when the opportunity presents. The Lions blew a league-high six fourth-quarter leads last season. You can say it’s hard to finish off opponents when you’re using second- and third-string quarterbacks, or you can acknowledge your mistakes and adjust.
Patricia has turned over play-calling duties to energetic new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, while Darrell Bevell begins his second season directing the offense. He has more elements for the running game he craves, which allows Stafford to show his play-action prowess. Stafford has his flaws in decision-making and mid-range touch, but his arm, character and toughness are unquestioned.
“Man, he’s been awesome,” Patricia said during camp. “He’s dialed in, locked into the coaching, the teaching, practice, meetings, his leadership has been outstanding. I think he’s fired up every day out there. He’s competing really hard and wants everything to be perfect, and you love the drive of everything he does right now. It’s been awesome just to watch him take that upon himself to push the team.”
Stafford and teammates have grown more comfortable with Patricia’s style, and Patricia has shown more flexibility, adjusting practice schedules and slightly loosening his regimented ways. Lions coaches and players say they’re tighter than ever, bonded by social and viral strife. They were the first team to cancel practice to protest racial injustice, and their heartfelt comments suggest a strong awakening.
Does something like that translate to the field? Not likely for a full schedule. More likely, whatever gains the Lions make will be tied to a more dynamic offense with its leader back, and a defense bolstered by veteran acquisitions. Practically every move had win-now intentions, which is fine as long as, well, you win now.
Cornerback Jeff Okudah is the big name, drafted third overall. But the Lions loaded up on experienced, familiar players — tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Desmond Trufant, safety Duron Harmon.
They have to generate a better pass rush, 31st in the league with 28 sacks last season. No matter how prolific Stafford and receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola are, the Lions are going nowhere if the defense doesn’t make more impact plays. Trey Flowers could be huge in that regard. Nick Williams was signed from the Bears for specifically that reason (six sacks).
“We know there’s a pecking order in the NFC North, and we’re here to change that,” Williams said. “We’re out to prove to the black and blue division, we can play ball.”
Some people agree. National writer Peter King has the Lions in the playoffs, and others toss them into the catch-all “sleeper” category. An awakening has been a long time coming, and I’m not ready to go there yet. I’ve pegged the Lions at the old standby, 8-8, which actually could put them in playoff contention in the expanded format.
This will be a season unlike any other, a season we weren’t sure we’d even see. With the Lions, we’re still not sure what we’ll see, but if it’s not appreciably different, we don’t need to see it any longer.