by Chris Morgan
The Detroit Lions have fallen back this year after making the playoffs last season for the first time in a while, and they might not even finish with a winning record this season. This may be disappointing for their fans, but it isn’t terribly surprising. They probably got a bit fortunate last season, and admittedly they have probably been a bit unlucky this season, particularly when it comes to injuries.
Fans want their teams to make steady progress from season from season until they plateau as Super Bowl contenders, but it is rarely that simple for NFL teams. The Lions will continue their quest to finally make it to a Super Bowl, but it won’t be easy. In fact, it’ll be a bit harder than it is for other teams.
In short, the Lions had the misfortune of being awful at just the wrong time, which is to say right before a new CBA curbed rookie salaries. As such, guys like Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh entered the league on ridiculous contracts. In a league with a salary cap, this is a concern. Admittedly, all three of those players have been good. None of them have been a JaMarcus Russell-like albatross. However, while Stafford is one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the league, he certainly hasn’t played like one.
This makes it very hard to add players via free agency. It also makes it hard to keep guys like Cliff Avril around. You can use a franchise tag, but that can often alienate players. This makes it more difficult for the Lions than most teams. The Indianapolis Colts just drafted Andrew Luck on a much better deal. They have a lot of work left to do on their roster, although good fortune may see them make the playoffs anyway, but they have a lot more money to do so. They will also be able to add new rookies at a cheaper rate than in the past, although everybody has that ability now. It’s just that the Lions have less room.
Sure, Stafford and Suh can have their contracts restructured or finagled with, much like Johnson did, but they will still likely make a ton of money. However, signing free agents is going to be tricky, particularly bigger name ones. This is a team that still has needs. Not having as much cap space as others thanks to onerous old school contracts will make it harder for the Lions to fill them.
Basically, the Lions have to rely on their draft picks, and that means hitting on guys taken lower in the draft. This is not something the Lions seem to have had success with in recent seasons, although Joique Bell was a nice pickup off the scrap heap. Other than that, they just have to hope that Stafford and Suh continue to improve until they can earn their contracts.
Suh should be able to do that, even if he makes some folks clutch their pearls along the way, but Stafford is a bigger question mark. Other than that, the only real thing they could do is fire Coach Schwartz and hope they can find somebody else that can be better. Schwartz has shown himself to be a good coach. Sure, Thanksgiving was rough–although the challenge flag snafu has been overplayed while the 47-yard field goal on third down in overtime has not nearly been lambasted enough–but it would be a likely foolhardy roll of the dice unless somebody like Bill Cowher is looking for a job. Years after he was fired, Matt Millen’s reign of error is still negatively impacting the Detroit Lions.
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Chris has been a diehard Detroit Lions fan through the good (Barry Sanders) and the bad (Matt Millen) and that love has led him to take jobs writing about sports, including as a fantasy sports “expert.” His work can be found on Examiner.com.