The Detroit Lions spent the decade following Barry Sanders' retirement adrift, seeking an identity and finding only futility. Finally, a 2009 reboot installed competent football minds in the front office and a new head coach with a chip on his shoulder. Jim Schwartz and his franchise quarterback led the team to four straight wins to end the 2010 season before rolling through a 10-win season the next year and the first playoff berth since 1999.
Schwartz and Co. were overwhelmed by the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last season. It was still a step forward, a big one. The story this spring was supposed to be about the next step, taking a roster that finally boasted talent throughout and challenging the Packers for supremacy in the NFC North. Instead, a series of boneheaded arrests from the team's 2011 draft class fed a narrative of a team out of control, a coach unable to channel the wild emotion that brought a team back from punchlines.
In truth, the impact of the Lions' off-field shenanigans are overstated. A much better question is whether or not Schwartz can polish up a talented team enough to improve on 10 wins and work its way deeper into the playoffs.
Detroit's 10-6 record surprised nobody, not after the strong finish the prior season. In the first five games of the season, Matthew Stafford threw for more than 1,400 yards and Calvin Johnson scored nine touchdowns to lead the Lions to five straight wins.
The Lions' biggest problem throughout the season was consistency. A closer look at their 5-6 record over the final 11 games of the regular season reveals a variety of ups and downs. Stafford threw four interceptions, including a pair returned for touchdowns, by forcing throws in a Week 10 loss to the Bears. Detroit's paper thin secondary struggled against teams like the Saints and Packers. Penalties burned up their margins on occasion.
Young, up and coming teams like the Lions tend to struggle, so the highs and lows of their 2011 season are nothing out of the ordinary. Nowhere was this more evident than in their playoff loss to the Saints.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Tight on cap space, Detroit had to watch other teams load up on the free agent market. General manager Martin Mayhew did manage to keep some key players from getting away, namely middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who was best all-around player on the defense and the man who really tied it all together.
Defensive end Cliff Avril, who led the team with 12 sacks last season, has yet to show up for offseason workouts in protest of getting the franchise tag. Both sides are trying to work out a long-term deal, and, as is typical in these situations, something will probably get done as it gets down the wire.
2012 NFL Draft
First-round pick Riley Reiff, dinosaur arms and all, may be in line for a starting tackle gig this year. None too soon for the Lions either, who can hardly rely on Gosder Cherilus and an aging Jeff Backus.
They took a risk in the second round with Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles, who had ACL surgery last year. He may be healed in time to be a full participant in training camp. If Broyles does crack the lineup early this year, Detroit's offense could produce points by the dozen.
Needing cornerback help, they drafted three in the later rounds of the draft, headlined by Dwight Bentley of Louisiana-Lafayette.
From SB Nation's Pride of Detroit:
After finally climbing out of the bottom half of the division last season, the Lions would like to take a step toward competing for the division title in 2012. That is easier said than done given the fact that they are in the same division as the Green Bay Packers, but the pieces are in place for Detroit to make a run. They have a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford who threw for more than 5,000 yards last season, loads of weapons on offense (at running back, wide receiver and tight end) and a potentially dangerous defense. The key is for everything to come together in terms of avoiding injuries and getting consistent play out of both sides of the ball. If the Lions can stay healthy and capitalize on the opportunities presented to them, there's no reason why they can't at least make things interesting in the NFC North title race in 2012.
They Make the Playoffs If ...
Their division record will play a big part in how much success the Lions have this year. They really need to beat Green Bay, at least once. Not only would that help them get closer to winning the division, it would be a huge psychological hurdle crossed, putting the Lions into the top tier of NFL teams.
The Lions started the fourth quarter of their Wild Card game against the Saints trailing by three points. Within a two-minute span, the Saints scored twice, sandwiched around a Detroit turnover. Detroit will never be on the same level as Green Bay or New Orleans if head coach Jim Schwartz fails to iron out the inconsistencies in his highly capable core of players.