If you don't look too closely it appears as though the Lions had a dynamite 2014. They just missed out on a division crown when they lost to the Packers on the final day of the season, but they still finished a very strong 11-5 behind one of the league's best defenses and a talented offense that finally added a strong second fiddle to the all-worldness of Megatron. They suffered a devastating loss to the Cowboys in the Wild Card round even though they kept DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant mostly in check, and in fact led the game for all but two minutes and thirty two seconds. It was the kind of loss that is basically a coin flip played against a quality opponent and easily could have gone the Lions' way. Losing Ndamukong Suh in the offseason isn't ideal, but at least the front office replaced him with the very capable Haloti Ngata. Matthew Stafford is still just 27 years old, Calvin Johnson is merely 29, and the window for this team is wide open.
But if you look under the surface you'll see a fringe playoff contender with a 9-7 pythagorean record that basically lucked their way into looking like one of the NFL's elite. While the defense was extremely good, the offense was secretly one of the NFL's worst, and if they take a step back on defense with the losses of Suh and Fairley, they may quickly find themselves on the wrong side of .500.
A lot of people predict "surprise teams" that will jump up and unexpectedly make the playoffs, but I suspect at least for this season, the Lions are a good candidate so see 3+ wins fall off of their 2014 total.
In some corners of the internet you will still see the Lions offense referred to as "dynamic" or "explosive". Here's a chart of the points scored by NFC North teams last season:
Packers - 486
Vikings - 325
Lions - 321
Bears - 319
Yes, if the Bears had managed to kick one more field goal the Lions would have had the worst offense in the division. There are some good, obvious reasons for this, starting with the fact that Calvin Johnson was either playing injured or missing games for a generous chunk of the season, but that only tells you a little of the story. The bigger story with the Lion offense is all about Joe Lombardi's quixotic quest to turn Matthew Stafford into an accurate short passer. Lombardi had the luxury of working with Drew Brees for most of his career and believes in having his quarterback get the ball out quickly on a regular basis. When someone possesses the all-world accuracy of Brees this is a fantastic idea; however, Matthew Stafford has a completely different set of tools, and this is a fool's game.
Stafford isn't a great quarterback, but he has occasionally been a good one. His 2011, for instance, was great by conventional metrics, and a solid top-10 by Football Outsiders' DVOA. Stafford excels when he can wing it out to big, fast targets, and allow them to make plays on the ball. This is a great skill to have when your best receiver is Calvin Johnson, and the Lions have, in the past, put together good offenses around the duo. Stafford has a huge arm, perhaps the strongest in the NFL, and his ability to hit Johnson and his cohorts all over the field was and is his best skill.
Stafford's biggest weakness is his mechanics. When throwing short he tends to get lazy and go sidearm, and he's simply not a precision passer. While Stafford did cut his interception rate in 2014, he also saw a dip in his TD%, and he was one of the worst in the league in terms of under-throwing his passes, bouncing them in 7.7% of the time., according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015. (Editor's note: check out our discussion with FO's Tom Gower here.)
Stafford did not take well to getting the ball out quickly. While his pass distribution did not change that much, his efficiency simply tanked across the board, especially on short passes. Stafford is much better throwing to men than he is throwing to spots. Occasionally this leads his WRs into big hits, but when throwing down the field to Calvin Johnson, it more often than not works.
Golden Tate was supposed to bring balance to the Lion wide receiver corps, and they absolutely leaned on him last year while Johnson was hurt. If you take Tate's statistics without Johnson on the field and pro-rate them out to 16 games you get a line of 125-1,917-10.
The issue with Tate isn't so much with Tate himself as it is with how Lombardi chose to use him. Tate ended up being on the receiving end of a lot of those attempted short throws. Tate's numbers are fine, and he graded out well on deep, medium, and short throws last season, but the same cannot be said of Stafford when throwing to Tate. In a way, Tate's skills as a catch-and-run receiver exacerbate Stafford's problems throwing precision passes as the Lions are more tempted to do it.
The other big issue with the Lion passing game is the awful play of Eric Ebron. Ebron is ostensibly a big, athletic field-stretching Tight End who finished 47th in DVOA last year. His -6.5 PFF grade also looks bad until you see Brandon Pettigrew's -11.7. Jeremy Ross was a disaster against everyone but Green Bay and Corey Fuller was a disaster against everyone. There's a huge dropoff after Johnson and Tate.
The Lions can occasionally run with effectiveness and it would not be surprising to see the team lean more heavily on the run this season, especially with the addition of talented rookie Ameer Abdullah out of Nebraska and the speedy Theo Riddick operating as a 3rd-down back. Joique Bell is still around and may irrationally soak up some starter carries, but the Lions should improve overall in this area, especially with the supremely ineffective and all-around bad guy Dominic Raiola put out to pasture. It's better to be a solid running team than to not be one, but in this case it's merely a band-aid on a severely lacking passing attack.
When you get right down to it, this offense was and is fundamentally about the health of Megatron, and Stafford's ability to properly use him. It's completely understandable for the offense to struggle when he's dinged up, but tailoring things to be a slower, quick-throw offense with a bigger focus on the run is shooting yourself in the foot. It's possible to use Johnson too much, and the Lions have been guilty of this in the past, but they now face the prospect of not using him enough, both due to health and by design. It might work if the defense can maintain last year's level of play, and I actually think there's a puncher's chance of that happening, but I suspect losing Suh will be too much to overcome.
Let's start with the positive. The Lions have an excellent linebacking corps, perhaps the envy of the league, and it's important to remember that Stephen Tulloch, who is in my opinion the best linebacker of the bunch, missed most of last season when he tore his ACL celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers. It was, perhaps, the most Detroit Lions thing that has ever happened. But assuming his recovery is complete, adding Tulloch back into the mix is the functional equivalent of adding a new, excellent defensive player to the team. He and former Wisconsin Badger DeAndre Levy (his +23.9 PFF grade was second only to Suh's +27.5) are an extremely formidable duo who swarm to the ball like few others, and both excel in run defense. The development of Tahir Whitehead in Tulloch's absence was also a positive, and he should just keep getting better.
Moreover, the Detroit secondary, which had been their biggest weakness just a few years ago, also saw big improvements. The additions of Glover Quin and Rashean Mathis in 2013 has paid off handsomely, as did the 2014 addition of safety James Ihedigbo. Rounding out the secondary is third-year corner Darius Slay. Each and every one of these DBs graded out as "green" last year per PFF, and it showed in the Lions 8th ranked pass defense per Football Outsiders.
But the elephant in the room remains. The Lions were good on pass defense, but elite in run defense, ranking first by DVOA, and a big part of all of this was Ndamukong Suh, who ranked 2nd only to Buffalo's Marcell Darius as a run-stopper (per PFF) among interior lineman. Suh also ranked 7th as a pass-rusher, making him a rare elite dual-threat defensive tackle.
I recently wrote about the loss of Jordy Nelson and how wide receiver is a position that is relatively easy to replace because, among other reasons, losing a receiver doesn't cascade weakness to the rest of the offense. Losing a player like Suh is completely different. He is the rare dominant defensive force who makes life easier for literally everyone else. He aids in pass defense by getting consistent pressure on quarterbacks and forcing either early throws or huge losses. He helps linebackers by stopping offensive linemen from reaching the 2nd level, and he is adept at personally stopping running backs unfortunate enough to encounter him in the hole. Suh's mere presence creates more third-and-longs for opponents. Moreover, everything I just said is also true, though to a far lesser extent, for the departed Nick Fairley, who was having a fantastic all-around season before he got hurt.
Levy and Tulloch are great players, but it will be interesting to see just how great they are without the big men in the middle. The secondary had an impressive year, but it will be interesting to see how they react to having to cover for just a bit longer.
All of that said, the line will not exactly become terrible overnight. The front office tried to patch over the loss of Suh by signing Haloti Ngata, a reasonable facsimile of Suh's talents. Ngata is 31 and some argue that the Ravens' defense was better without him on the field last year, but he still graded a very solid +9.3 grade as a pass rusher and a +8.9 against the run last year, though his snaps were limited. The big question with Ngata will be how much he's able to actually stay on the field. Defensive End Ezekiel Ansah also had an outstanding season and may be a household name by the end of next season. A first-round pick in 2013, Ansah has steadily improved, and if he continues to do so, he and Ngata can severely mitigate the losses of Suh and Fairley.
The Lion front office didn't do anything wrong. Suh is now greatly overpaid, and the financial flexibility of the Lions has been hindered by a few big contracts for far too long, and signing Ngata allows them to keep running their basic schemes with reasonable effectiveness. But occasionally smart long-term planning will cost you in the near term. The Lions probably won't fall off a cliff defensively, but even if they fall to 8th or 9th, that may be enough to drop them in the standings.
I actually think the Lions' front office deserves a lot of credit. They seem adept at identifying weaknesses (like Raiola and Bell) and finding upgrades (like Travis Swanson and Abdullah). Landing Golden Tate allowed them to survive more frequent Megatron health issues and eventually will help to move them towards a more balanced offense as Johnson ages. Abdullah and a slightly better offensive line will also help this transition along.
There's some upside here. If Megatron can stay healthy, if Ngata can play at a high level with an increased snap count, and if they let Matthew Stafford let loose a bit more frequently, this team can still compete. But the have some macro-level problems that are likely to swamp everything else. As I mentioned at the start, they were really more of a true-talent 9-7 team, and they were pretty lucky in close games. They went 6-2 in such games during the regular season, and five of those wins were against sub .500 opponents. Good teams don't need quite so much luck to beat inferior competition. Stafford has not taken well to the Lombardi/Caldwell regime, ranking as the 22nd best QB by PFF and 21st by DVOA in 2014, and it's difficult to overcome such poor quarterback play. Counting on a consistently healthy Johnson at this point is dicey, and losing Suh will hurt.
When you boil it all down, this is a team that wasn't as good as most people think, who lost some key players, whose best player is starting feel the bumps and bruises that come when you turn 30, and whose defense may no longer be able to support the more conservative offense favored by Caldwell and Lombardi. I think they'll be roughly .500 this season and maybe slightly under, but I am not as down on them as I was before I took a closer look. Another playoff appearance wouldn't shock me.