POSTSEASON COUNTDOWN: Mike O’Hara takes a top-level look at the Lions’ season

Posted Dec 29, 2013

Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O’Hara looks back at the Lions’ 16-game season and what the near future holds for head coach Jim Schwartz

MINNESOTA -- And now the waiting game begins on the future of head coach Jim Schwartz with the Lions, his staff, the front office and players who would be affected by a change in leadership.

When one big domino falls, others topple from the fallout. That is the nature of professional sports.

The Lions ended an unfulfilling 2013 season Sunday with a 14-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The game followed a familiar, and fitting, theme for the last seven games. Penalties, missed opportunities and the inability to hold a lead in the fourth quarter doomed another game, as it had six times in the last seven.

In the end, a team with good talent finished with a 7-9 record in a season will be best remembered for what the Lions failed to accomplish – win an NFC North title that was theirs for the taking for 15 agonizing weeks and was fumbled away.

Schwartz addressed his future after the game, saying he was “anxious” to remain head coach. He has two years left on his contract. He also said he has not been told what ownership and upper management have in mind, and that no meetings had been scheduled to discuss his future.

Whether Schwartz returns for a sixth season or a change is made in head coaches, somebody will have a chance to coach a winning football team in Detroit next season.

There is no need for another massive building project. This is not a talent-poor team suffering from roster rot because of failed draft classes and failed personnel decisions. There are enough good players for the Lions to compete for a North title, but not if they play as raggedly as they often did in 2013.

The Lions beat the Lions too often in 2013. Turnovers by the offense, a defense that played well in spots but could not hold fourth-quarter leads, and an overall malaise reflected a team still searching for the winning edge.

In this Postseason Countdown, there is a look ahead at what is needed to improve the roster and a look back at events that kept the Lions out of the playoffs. There’s an assessment of whose stock rose, whose declined, and the most important veteran negotiation of the offseason. Hint: it involves Ndamukong Suh.

There’s also my take on Matthew Stafford.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

We start with one undeniable fact:

1. They blew it: There is no other way to describe what happened in the last seven games except to say the Lions had the North title handed to them, and they gave it back.

They should be preparing to host a first-round playoff game at Ford Field in front of their loyal, long-suffering fans, with all the drama and intensity that goes with playing in the postseason. But they didn’t. They blew that chance.

The word “failure” was an F-bomb that Schwartz did not want to use in his Monday presser last week after the overtime loss to the Giants eliminated them from the North race.

The body of work for the full season was not all bad, but not winning the North after having a 6-3 record was a failure.

The Lions could have slow-walked to first place after winning in Chicago to get to 6-3.

After that game, the season imploded with a litany of failures.

They lost to a 2-8 Tampa Bay team at Ford Field. They blew a 14-0 lead in the third quarter and lost in the snow at Philly. Baltimore completed a third-and-15 in a drive to the winning field goal in the last minute of a Monday Night TV game. The Giants tied the score on an interception return for a TD late in regulation and won with a field goal in overtime.

The loss to the Giants eliminated the Lions from the North race, thus putting a lid on the worst end-of-season collapse in franchise history.

2. Talent Level: Schwartz said “I’m still a half-full guy” when talking about the state of his team last week.

My take is different.

The glass isn’t half full or half empty. It’s broken because of not winning the North, but there are some big, solid pieces that can be put together to make a winner.

The Lions are good enough up front on both lines. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are a good running back tandem. Calvin Johnson – despite too many drops and injury problems that often kept him from practicing – remains the league’s most dangerous receiver. Stafford needs some refining, but his talent and willingness to prepare and compete are obvious.

The linebacker unit is solid, but without the pass-rush specialist who garners Pro Bowl attention.

When GM Martin Mayhew and Schwartz went into their first year of free agency and the draft together in 2009, the roster was in such tatters that Pat Kirwan, a former NFL talent evaluator then writing for NFL.com, said the Lions’ talent was “worse than an expansion team.”

Kirwan was right. The Lions of 2009 were full of bad contracts and bad players. Expansion teams start from scratch.

The talent level is not an excuse for losing.

3. Improvements for 2014: Assuming the Lions get the necessary contract work done with key veterans – Joique Bell, Dominic Raiola, Brandon Pettigrew and an extension for Suh among them – they should use the draft and free agency to add a legitimate No. 2 receiver (and probably a No. 3) with playmaking ability to take some pressure off Johnson, a cornerback and a safety.

The Lions have had no luck in drafting receivers. Titus Young, a second-round pick in 2011, self-imploded because of behavioral issues. Ryan Broyles, a second-round pick in 2012, has had season-ending injuries three straight years – 2011 at Oklahoma and the last two as a Lion.

There is a glaring need for more plays in the secondary.

Other areas can use depth – both lines, linebacker, and probably a new kicker to replace veteran David Akers.

3. Suh: He is one of the Lions’ three cornerstone players, along with Johnson and Stafford, and he’s going into the final year of a five-year contract that has a salary-cap value of $22.4 million in 2014.

The Lions worked out extensions for Johnson and Stafford the last two years, and now Suh is coming up.

He made the Pro Bowl for the third time in four years. He is the primary reason teams have had little success running on the Lions. The constant double teams he attracts frees up Nick Fairley to make plays with his quickness.

By all indications, Suh likes playing in Detroit and is taken with the idea of being one of the core players who eventually turns the franchise into a consistent playoff team.

Negotiations with free agents begin on March 8, and players can start signing contracts on March 11.

If the Lions work out an extension for Suh – which I fully expect to happen – it should be done before March 11 to give them room under the salary cap to sign other players.

4. Joique Bell: He will be a restricted free agent in 2014, and his performance in two seasons as a Lion warrants them re-signing him. It is likely that the Lions will put a second-round tender on him, which gives them the right to either match any contract offer from another team or take a second-round pick as compensation for losing him.

Bell has been an ideal complement to Bush – the thunder to Bush’s lighting – which makes it difficult to imagine they will not re-sign him.

5. 2013 rookie class: It’s been the Lions’ best draft class since at least 2001, when the top three picks were Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and Shaun Rogers.

This year’s draft class got immediate impact from defensive end Ziggy Ansah (first round), guard Larry Warford (third round) and punter Sam Martin (fifth round). Defensive end Devin Taylor (fourth round) could be a starter next year, giving the line a pair of young, athletic bookends.

Cornerback Darius Slay, a second-round pick, struggled early and late with injuries and inconsistency, but the coaches remained high on him because of his athleticism and work ethic.

Two undrafted rookies – tight end Joseph Fauria and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle – added to the value.

6. Five brightest moments:

1. March 13: Reggie Bush signs a four-year contract with the Lions as a free agent. It was the start of a successful off-season, with free agents Glover Quin and Jason Jones following Bush to Detroit and the draft adding young talent in April.

2. Game 1: Bush has 90 yards rushing and 101 receiving in a 34-24 victory over the Vikings on Opening Day. The Lions were off and rolling.

3. Game 8: Stafford passes for 499 yards, Megatron has 329 yards receiving, and Stafford scores the winning TD on a QB sneak to beat the Cowboys, 31-30.

4. Game 9: Coming off the bye, the Lions score a 21-19 victory at Chicago to take command of the NFC North with a 6-3 record – and a two-game sweep of the Bears.

5. Thanksgiving Day: Lions 40, Packers 10. The Lions are 7-5 and can stroll to the North title.

7. Six darkest moments, in order:

1. Game 2: a 25-21 loss at Arizona. A lost fumble by Bush, blocked field goal and late fumble set up Arizona’s winning score, and the offense went into hibernation in the second half. Looking back, it was the start of a trend.

2. Game 5: Calvin Johnson didn’t play because of a knee injury, and the Lions were lost without him – Packers 22, Lions 9.

3. Game 11: The Bucs were 2-8 and gained only 10 first downs but won, 24-21, at Ford Field. Stafford had four passes intercepted, and the Lions lost a fumble.

4. Game 14: Monday Night TV at Ford Field, and the Lions lose, 18-16, on a 61-yard field goal in the last minute. Two big drops by Johnson hurt.

5. Game 15: The Giants score on an interception in the fourth quarter to tie the score, then kick a field goal in overtime to win, 23-20.

With a victory, the Lions would have played the Vikings in the last game for the North title.

6. Jan. 4 or 5: The Lions should have been at home playing a first-round playoff game at Ford Field. Instead, they’ll be a home, watching on TV.

That might be the darkest moment of all.

8. Three veterans whose stock rose:

1. DeAndre Levy: He would make the Pro Bowl if voters didn’t focus on sacks for linebackers.

2. Joique Bell: More than a relief backer.

3. Dominic Raiola: The hunt for a new center is delayed a year or two.

9. Three veterans whose stock declined:

1. Matthew Stafford: Couldn’t shake a slump that began in the second half of Game 10 at Pittsburgh.

My take: he’s still the Lions’ quarterback for the present and future but needs a slight tune-up, not an overhaul.

2. Chris Houston: Played without confidence for long stretches, and his performance declined.

3. Louis Delmas: He’s a warrior and played all 16 games, but not being able to practice consistently because of knee problems had a progressively negative effect on his performance.