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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Looking ahead to Lions' offseason

Matthew Stafford made an impassioned speech at the Detroit Lions' team meeting Saturday night, then backed his words up with his play on the field Sunday afternoon.

Injured right thumb, aching left ribs, injured right ankle – and probably a few other areas in his body that are hurting – none of it kept Stafford from playing every offensive snap in the Lions' 37-35 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

The Lions have now officially begun their 2021 offseason, but in practical terms it began on Nov. 28 -- two days after principal owner Shelia Ford Hamp fired GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia.

The Lions are already in the process of interviewing candidates for both jobs. The team as we saw them from start to finish of a failed 2020 season that ended in a 5-11 won-loss record that made the Lions look more competitive than they really were may not exist when they line up and play for real in 2021.

Hamp has made it clear in words and action that she is in the game to win. That means sweeping changes, starting at the top with a new GM and head coach.

The trickle down of that, of course, affects the players. And one of those players will be Stafford – whether he remains a Lion or winds up somewhere else.

This week's Monday Countdown looks at Stafford's status, with my thought on the choices. There's also a take on Darrell Bevell and what he accomplished in five games as interim head coach, a look back at one play in Sunday's game that highlighted the Lions' glaring weakness (hint, it wasn't on offense, special teams or coaching) and takeaways on the 2020 season on offense, defense, special teams, and what's trending for the Lions.

We start with Stafford:

1. The leader: That's his role, in addition to everything else a quarterback is expected to do, and he takes every bit of it seriously.

"The guy is out there, he's not 100 percent," Bevell said in his postgame press conference. "He's fighting for his teammates. He's talking to the team last night. The respect for the game, the history, the guys that have come before us.

"The guy is laying everything out there on the line in a game that he doesn't need to. I think that says a lot about him as a person, about him as a quarterback – what he means to the team.

"I really appreciate what he has done for me and this team."

What he did for the team is what he's always done -- give it a chance to win. And too often, for many reasons that are beyond any quarterback's control, the Lions have come up short.

Stafford threw for 293 yards and three TDs Sunday, with one interception that he typically chastised himself for throwing. He twice scrambled for first downs, running on the sore right ankle that knocked him out in the first quarter of the previous week's game.

Stafford shared his comments on Saturday night in his postgame press conference.

"I just talked about the game, the game of football, why it's important," he said. "I kind of shared my thoughts with my teammates.

"We're lucky to get to do what we do. We're part of history. We're part of this group of people who get to call themselves players and coaches. That's a huge responsibility. Every time I come to work I bear that responsibility."

2. What's next for Stafford: He has never responded in any depth or detail to questions about his future, and that was the case again Sunday.

"I've got two years left on my deal here," he said. "There's a lot to discuss. We'll figure it out at some later date."

No doubt, the Lions have minimized, not maximized the talent of their best quarterback by far in the Super Bowl area. With the exception of his four seasons under Jim Caldwell, Stafford has endured operating in the training ground for men getting their first experience as head coach.

Hamp said at the press conference announcing the firing of Quinn and Patricia that Stafford's future would be up to the next head coach and GM.

Watching him throw the ball and lead the team makes me believe that the Lions will be better off with Stafford than with any reasonable alternative. He turns 33 on Feb. 7, which means he has at least five good seasons left.

Better to have those in Detroit, and let the new GM and head coach build a better team.

3. Bevell's future: He was the right man at the right time when he was elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach. He let everyone take a deep breath and move on.

It seemed like the Lions did better than the 1-4 record they had under Bevell, but the record is what it is. He inherited a dispirited team with a bad defense.

It was more spirited under Bevell, but the defense was beyond repair.

Bevell did not speculate on his future, except to say the Lions "probably" would have a new head coach.

"I've loved every minute of it, but it's not for me to speculate," he said. "I think it's for other people to evaluate."

4. Defensive breakdown: At one point the Vikings were scoring so freely that it looked like the flip side of a video of last week's 47-7 loss to the Bucs.

On seven possessions they scored five touchdowns and a field goal, and missed one field goal.

The killer play in all of it was a 40-yard catch and run for a TD by Vikings wide receiver Chad Beebe with four seconds left.

Beebe ran through three Lions players inside the 20. Bevell uncharacteristically faulted their combined effort and fundamentals on the play.

No matter what system is brought in, there are bound to be massive changes in personnel on defense.

5. Takeaways, offense 2020

Key question: Aside from the status of Stafford, next on the list is the wide receivers. Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola all are free agents in 2020.

Jones finished strong. In the last five games he had 33 catches for 476 yards and and four TDs. He topped it off Sunday with eight catches for 180 yards and two TDs. Whatever role he's been handed in Detroit – lead receiver, No. 2 option – he handles. That kind of player and attitude is worth having.

T.J. Hockenson emerged as a top-tier tight end in his second season.

He made the Pro Bowl with 65 catches. He has room to improve – consistency and being more physical after the catch – but the tools and work ethic are there. He needs to finish stronger. He had nine catches for 66 yards in the last three games.

Overall, the offensive line is a strength, with three solid starters in Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, left guard Jonah Jackson and left tackle Taylor Decker. There's enough depth and starting experience to fill out right guard and tackle, barring another rash of injuries.

The run game declined, from below average with 103 yards per game in 2019 to worse with 93.6 per game. Two bright notes: Rookie second-round pick D’Andre Swift showed the potential to be a No. 1 back, and the Lions scored 17 rushing TDs compared to seven in 2019.

6. Takeaways defense, 2020:

Key question: How much of their resources do the Lions spend in terms of free agent signings and draft picks to fix a defense? It's lacking badly in speed and playmakers.

From the 2020 draft class, sixth-round pick John Penisini was a hit as a run-stopping interior lineman. He progressed through the season. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, taken third overall, was a miss – at least for his rookie year. He played nine games, started six, and finished the season on injured reserve. He had one interception and showed a willingness to tackle.

Big plays: They were missing. The Lions had only seven interceptions for the second straight year and 24 sacks.

Romeo Okwara was a standout, and not just by comparison to his teammates. He had 10 sacks and was consistently productive.

7. Takeaways, special teams 2020:

Key question: Matt Prater had an off season by his standards, but he's been a clutch kicker since coming to the Lions in 2014. Do they re-sign him?

Jamal Agnew was one of the standouts in a core group of special teams players. He had a 74-yard punt return for a TD in the Week 16 loss to the Bucs and broke off a 70-yard kickoff return in the final game to make up for a fumble earlier.

Punter Jack Fox made the Pro Bowl in his first year as an active player. He was on the Chiefs' practice squad for part of 2019. It was a sharp free-agent signing.

Overall, it's a strong unit that has continued to function under five different special teams coordinators – caused by in-season firings in 2018 and 2020 – in the last three seasons.

8. Trending:

  • Up: Young players on offense – center Frank Ragnow, Hockenson, Swift and Jackson. Sleeper to watch: Wide receiver Quintez Cephus.
  • Down: Home-field failures. The Lions were 1-7 at Ford Field in 2020. That's unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances.
  • Even: Stafford. He's still the heartbeat and leader of the franchise.

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