The Lions are at a watershed moment in their team and front office development, meaning 2016 will prove to be a pivotal year that shapes the team for the near future. Dave Archibald, then, has decided to follow the Lions closely for the next four weeks to gain a better understanding of what is happening in Detroit.
I write about the entire NFL for Inside the Pylon, but I’m a New England Patriots fan. My columns have spanned the schemes, players, and team-building strategies of all 32 franchises, but I spend more time watching and thinking about my hometown team than any other. I know the good Twitter follows, I know who’s “next man up,” I know who’s nursing a hamstring injury, and I know the reports on how the fifth-round pick is developing (just kidding, the Patriots hate fifth-round picks). My rooting interest – and physical proximity, as I live about 10 miles from Gillette Stadium – gives me an awareness of the Patriots that I don’t have with the other franchises.
This fandom has affected my impressions of football and the way that it is meant to be played. When head coach Bill Belichick took over in 2000, I was a 20-year-old college junior, so he has essentially been football Moses for my entire adult life. He saw the burning bush and came back with tablets that said, “This is how you play football,” and thank God for that. I paid attention, and it turns out you can learn a lot by watching Belichick and trying to understand what he’s doing. I believe in option routes, versatile linebackers, bend-but-don’t-break defenses, investing in safeties and tight ends, the Erhardt-Perkins scheme, and long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days (clip NSFW).
Belichick’s way is not the only way, however. The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers each won their conferences last year, and with team-building approaches that differed greatly from New England – and from each other. The Patriots tend to use man / power blocking schemes, but I love watching the zone blocking schemes like the Broncos and Atlanta Falcons use. Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan always dials up crazy blitzes and can often get pressure even without top edge rushers. His approach is a marked contrast from the more conservative bend-but-don’t-break philosophy New England has typically employed. The Patriots always seem to have small, quick receivers, but who doesn’t love watching Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green run like a gazelle at 6’4”? My Patriots fandom has taught me one (wildly successful) way of doing things, but it’s a great big football world out there.
So I’m choosing to follow the Detroit Lions, for at least the next four weeks anyway. I’ll watch every play of every Lions game and chart them, listen to the Pride of Detroit podcast, read Friend of Pylon Jeff Risdon and the other terrific writers at SideLionReport.com, monitor the team’s transactions and injury reports, and generally try to approximate the perspective of a long-suffering Lions fan. Hopefully this will give me an understanding, of both the on-field X’s and O’s and also the roster issues and stories surrounding the team. The Lions are an ideal candidate because:
- They’re at an interesting point – they’re not that good (7-9 in 2015) and not that bad (11-5 the year before) but they’re at something of a crossroads. Head coach Jim Caldwell was seemingly on the hot seat after the team struggled to a 1-7 start in 2015, but general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand took the fall instead. New GM Bob Quinn elected to keep Caldwell on, but if things go south, the head coach is usually the first to fall. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter took over partway through 2015 with the firing of Joe Lombardi and oversaw the team cutting their turnovers from 20 in the first half of the season to a mere four over the back half. Can he sustain that early success? That question has obvious implications for Matthew Stafford, who has flirted at times with playing like a top-10 quarterback but also suffered bouts of inconsistency. If Stafford, who is only signed through 2017, has a poor season, do the Lions begin looking for a successor to arguably the best signal-caller in franchise history? A lot hangs in the balance for the Lions in 2016.
- The team is a bit of a mystery from a coaching and front office standpoint. Quinn enters his first season as general manager. The famously stoic Caldwell won an AFC Championship in 2009, but any offensive mind paired with Peyton Manning is perceived as riding the five-time MVP’s coattails. What does he truly bring to the table? The 32-year-old Cooter, who worked as an offensive assistant on Manning teams in Indianapolis and Denver, has only last year’s half-season as offensive coordinator under his belt; is he one of the game’s rising stars? Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin drew head-coaching interest in the 2014 offseason after that squad finished with the league’s third-best scoring defense but Detroit’s slide to 23rd in 2015 seemed to dull the shine a bit. Can he regain his magic?
- I have been fortunate enough to see all four of Boston’s major sports teams win championships in my lifetime. While the Red Wings have earned Detroit the nickname Hockeytown, USA, the city hasn’t experienced the thrill of victory on the gridiron the way it has on the ice. The history of the Lions, in many ways, mirrors that of my Red Sox before the Olde Towne Team ended an 86-year championship drought in 2004. Lions fans have been on the losing side of some controversial finishes, like the picked-up penalty flag in Dallas two seasons ago or the questionable facemask call that led to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completing a last-ditch Hail Mary. Lions fans have seen legends like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson toil on lackluster squads and then retire prematurely. Detroit limped through the only 0-16 season in NFL history in 2008. Rooting for the Lions will scratch my nostalgic itch for the feeling of crying myself to sleep at night because Todd Benzinger got traded, or breaking my clock radio because Mark Guthrie gave up a three-run home run to relief pitcher Guillermo Mota.
Hmm … in hindsight those days weren’t the best. But the Lions appear to be turning a corner, with a dramatic Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, and now they’ve got a healthy lead on the Tennessee Titans …
… oh no …