Of the two biggest changes the Lions made this year, the more important is almost certainly Jim Caldwell replacing Jim Schwartz. Caldwell brings with him a reputation as a quarterback guru, and Detroit is collectively hoping his staff can turn around one of the most undisciplined and - let's face it - hilarious teams in recent football memory. It's not just that the Lions collapsed last year. It's not just that they perennially fail to live up to the hype created by their big name stars. It's that no one seems to fail quite like the Detroit Lions. From fumbled snaps to frequent unnecessary roughness penalties to baffling interceptions and incredibly ill-timed fumbles in the snow, the Lions under Schwartz more often than not went out of their way to lose.
It's easy to blame this kind of thing on the head coach and I understand the hope that things will improve in a new regime. Coaching changes do matter and discipline can matter. Few doubt that working under Tom Coughlin is different than working under Lovie Smith. The problem as I see it for the Lions is that I believe some of their players are simply bad people. Compounding the problem, they are frequently difficult-to-bench bad people. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley help to make up one of the stoutest defensive lines in football. They are also people who have shown a tendency to fly off the handle and stomp on opponents. You can attempt to impose discipline on them, but that often means taking them off the field, which makes the Lions much worse in terms of the talent on said field. It's a bit of a catch-22.
Discipline aside, the Lions boast what was by far the best defense in the division a year ago - they were the only unit in the NFC North that finished better than 25th in Football Outsiders' DVOA (they were 14th). They were not without their weaknesses (see this post from last season), but they were extremely stout against the run and fair against the pass most of the time. If Rashean Mathis is still a prominent member of the secondary they may struggle in that area, but there is some young talent that may develop (Darius Slay) and their front seven is capable of covering for a lot.
Furthermore, they were one of the few teams in the North that could routinely generate some kind of pass rush without blitzing. When you consider that the three contenders in the 2013 NFC North all possessed good-to-great offenses (when healthy) and that, of the three only the Lions possessed any semblance of a defense, it is downright shocking that they collapsed. It's in their nature, as previously mentioned, but there's more to this story. Let's move on to what I like to call:
Offense: The Megatron Effect
Calvin Johnson doesn't get enough credit. That may sound insane as even the national media calls him "Megatron" and he is widely regarded as the games greatest receiver, yet it's entirely true. In football the hardest part about working with statistics is deciding who gets credit for what. There are so many moving parts that assigning blame and credit always requires some guesswork, and we tend to default to the idea that on offense the quarterback deserves most of the blame and most of the credit. Generally speaking this is a good idea. The problem is that every so often you run into a situation like the Detroit Lions.
In his last 3 seasons Matthew Stafford has started all 16 games and averaged 409 completions, 675 attempts (60.6%), 4885 yards, 30 TDs and 17 picks a year. In 2010 Stafford missed most of the season. The Lions saw Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton start 13 games in his absence. If you combine their numbers and project them out to a full 16 game season, Shrew Stanhill had 401 completions in 658 attempts (61%), 4266 yards, 24 TDs and 18 picks. Consider also that Shrew, the definition of a replacement level quarterback, was playing with a still developing (but very good) Johnson while Stafford has had peak-Megatron. While these numbers superficially look pretty good, you can make a strong case that given the level of support in Detroit that Stafford has been barely (if at all) above replacement level. That's the effect that Calvin Johnson can have on a team.
I would usually resort to throwing some advanced stats here about Stafford's true performance, and while both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders don't see Stafford as one of the best in the business, they do generally see him as top ten. Personally, I think they hugely overrate Stafford. It is difficult to prove because of all the reasons previously listed, but when you consider that in addition to Megatron he also has a better supporting cast than old Shrew, the shine starts to come off of the video game numbers that Stafford has managed to put up over the last 3 years. There are certain quarterbacks who are able to function with just about any competent supporting cast, and there's a subset that can only be successful with the right tools. The Matt Ryans and Andy Daltons of the world live in this tier along with Stafford.
In many ways Stafford is emblematic of the terrible luck, bad timing, and incompetence of the recent Lions.* Stafford in 2009 and Suh in 2010 were both picked and signed under the old CBA, which allowed for highly paid rookies and often worked as a trap for bad teams trying to rebuild. They combined to receive over $80 million in guaranteed money on their rookie deals. Compounding this problem was the fact that while both are useful players, neither are really stars, at least in my opinion. In the case of Stafford this problem was made even worse by the Calvin Johnson effect, and this is what I mean when I say he doesn't get enough credit.
* By recent I mean "for their entire existence."
Receivers, even great ones, do not make nearly as much as quarterbacks, and mistaking receiver production for quarterback production can be expensive. Every dollar of value you mistakenly assign to a quarterback instead of a receiver is multiplied when it comes time to negotiate a contract. Before the 2013 season, the Lions extended Stafford for another $41.5 million of guaranteed money. If you subscribe to the theory that Stafford is probably mediocre at best, it is a heck of a lot of money to tie up in him, even if it's not necessarily as ridiculous as the Flacco or Romo deals. Moreover, it is a symptom of a team failing to recognize quarterback as a problem area in the first place.
To summarize, Stafford is an inefficient volume passer. He routinely puts up great fantasy numbers because he frequently leads the league in attempts, but he rarely exceeds a 60% completion percentage and almost always throws more than one interception per game. He also usually fumbles five or six times a season, and had a disastrous 12 last year.
Many pundits believe that Detroit will improve because they've finally found a complement for Calvin Johnson in Golden Tate, but this drastically underrates the supporting cast he had a year ago. Both Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are very good receivers out of the backfield and they have thrown on the field some tight ends who are at least competent receivers. Subjectively speaking, I'm also not sure that Johnson needs the help that much. It's certainly not bad to have a better second receiver, but it may also take some valuable targets away from Johnson.
In short, Johnson's biggest enemy isn't coverage - it's Stafford. Megatron is so great at making circus catches, at going up and getting balls, that it lets his quarterback off the hook. Stafford rarely puts the ball in an ideal spot, often robbing Johnson of forward momentum and putting him in harm's way. Golden Tate is unlikely to fix this problem, and is himself very likely to suffer at Stafford's hand.
Is Golden Tate an improvement over the Lions' other number two wideouts in recent years? Yes, he almost certainly is. Does he fix a fundamental problem? No, I believe he does not. The fundamental problem with the Lions is that they think they have a star at the most important position in the game when, what they actually have, is the equivalent of Sam Bradford with much better weapons. Stafford is a basically a parasite on their offense. If Calvin Johnson starts to decline or gets hurt, the Lions will quickly find themselves with a bottom-ten quarterback. Last year Johnson missed two games, both against bad defenses. The first was a 22-9 loss to the Packers in which Stafford threw for 262 yards and 1 TD with no interceptions. Stafford's TD came in garbage time with the Packers merely trying to kill the clock. The other game Johnson missed was against the Vikings in the last game of the season, a 14-13 loss in which Stafford threw for 217 yards, 1 TD and no picks. By most metrics (and the eye test) the Packers and Vikings had atrocious defenses.
It's certainly possible that the Lions improve. There is some room for the defense to get better, they may be able to shape up the locker room, and Golden Tate is a quality player, but given the potential improvement across the division and the fact that they employ the Antoine Walker of the NFL at quarterback I'm still immensely skeptical of the Lions, and probably will continue to be so until Stafford is gone. If they finish below the Vikings it won't surprise me a bit.
Update: I made a rather large mistake in the simple task of averaging Matt Stafford's last 3 years of production. In doing so I used profootballreference.com's automatic averaging function, which works great so long as you click on the correct lines. I did not, and accidentally included his 2010 numbers in the average which skews things immensely. I should have caught this mistake and apologize for it.
This mistake definitely effects the analysis as well. When I started writing this I knew that the Lion backups in 2010 had played pretty well. Their numbers are still accurate, and make for a solid, Jay Cutleresque season. I was surprised at how close Stafford's average was to this number and that should have been a tip-off that I'd screwed up. Stafford has obviously been better than his 2010 backups and definitely well above replacement level contrary to what I originally wrote. What doesn't change though, is just how good pedestrian quarterbacks were with Calvin Johnson in 2010. The level of replacement level at QB in Detroit is high. Stafford has exceeded it, and while he is better than I initially gave him credit for, he is still working from a very high floor, is still too careless with the ball, and is still overrated, though not to the extent I originally represented. Calvin Johnson still makes everyone look great.
I apologize again for this error. It was an honest mistake and I have no problem changing my position given correct information.