For a team that has been mired in mediocrity for generations, the Detroit Lions are in an interesting place in the last month of the 2018 season, caught in a duality between the ingrained mantra of wanting to win every game with the reality of trying to do things in 2018 to prepare for another run in 2019.
It’s complicated, but here’s the truth: Detroit has no chance of bettering its record from the past two seasons, the final two years under Jim Caldwell. One more loss will end the Lions’ chances of having three straight over-.500 seasons for the first time since 1993-95. And in all reality, barring winning out and getting some help, making the playoffs is not going to happen.
So the Lions are in that weird place, still caring about 2018 (because tanking in the NFL doesn’t happen for the most part like it does in the NBA or even MLB) while also starting work toward a longer-term future. The Lions technically started to do that last month by trading Golden Tate. A 1-3 mark and more offensive sputtering since the move only solidified the spot Detroit is now in.
With that in mind, there are some things the Lions can conceivably do over the final five weeks of the season to get a jump start on having a better roster -- and better record -- in what could end up being a critical year for the futures of Matthew Stafford, Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn.
Figure out the offensive issue: The defensive problems are clear -- the Lions need edge rush help, could use a new linebacker or two and have to figure out personnel at safety and corner opposite Darius Slay. But that’s all known (and in the case of Damon Harrison, something Quinn has addressed). The offense is more puzzling and needs a larger overhaul.
Detroit ran a reasonable offense, albeit without a strong run game, during the Stafford-Jim Bob Cooter era. It was seen as a strength and not a problem entering 2018. That ended up spinning around this season. Even with a rejuvenated run game led by Kerryon Johnson and better offensive-line play, save for a two-game stretch against Minnesota and Chicago, the offense has stalled. Stafford has regressed for reasons that have been difficult to pinpoint. The playcalling has been stale and often doesn’t appear to take advantage of the strengths of the quarterback and his top two receivers -- Stafford’s arm strength along with Kenny Golladay’s and Marvin Jones Jr.’s jumping and catch radius. Play-action, another Stafford strength, seems to have gone by the wayside, as well.
How the Lions got here is vexing. From a personnel standpoint, Detroit improved in every area -- at least before the Tate trade -- other than tight end, which got worse by flipping Eric Ebron and Darren Fells for Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo.
The offensive coaching largely remained the same, although there is reason to wonder if Detroit's firing Brian Callahan as the team’s quarterbacks coach was a mistake. There is something to continuity of message, and it was clear both Stafford and Cooter worked well with the widely respected Callahan. This is nothing against George Godsey, who is a very good coach, but the Callahan move always felt like one made for change’s sake instead of a clear upgrade or something in need of a shakeup. Now? If the offense doesn’t markedly improve by the end of the season, it’s possible a much bigger shift is in store. That’s going to need to be a focal point for Quinn and Patricia over the next month and beyond, deciding both if Jim Bob Cooter is the coordinator they want to continue with and what type of offense they would like if he isn't.
Work in the younger guys: The Lions are starting to do this with Mike Ford playing at outside corner and Tracy Walker getting some work as a safety in sub packages. The Lions would be smart to keep playing Ford and to work more reps in for Walker -- similar to how the Lions initially found work for Quandre Diggs during his rookie year -- so he could potentially have a bigger role in 2019. It’s a little tougher on offense, because the Lions need to keep protecting Stafford, but finding some way to get Tyrell Crosby some reps (probably at right tackle) can be only a long-term benefit. He has played reasonably well in the limited work he has gotten this season. Right guard is another option -- although that would put Crosby in a really tough position, since he has not played it. Getting Brandon Powell into the receiver rotation also couldn’t hurt, but that would likely not come until Detroit is officially eliminated from playoff contention. If the Lions can figure out if Powell is a solution at slot receiver, it could take one potential need off their long list (although bringing Bruce Ellington back in 2019 could also be an option).
Make decisions on vets: The last five games can also give Detroit an idea of which veterans the club might have to make tough calls on before 2019. Right guard T.J. Lang, on injured reserve, is at the top of that list with an $11.67 million cap hit. Rick Wagner, the team’s right tackle, has no money guarantees for 2019 (unless he gets hurt, which means his $9 million base salary would then be guaranteed), and his cap number of $11.9 million seems high for his production, particularly if the Lions like what they see from Crosby. Theo Riddick, with a $4,387,500 cap hit in 2019, is another player to look at on offense, but that could depend on what the team’s offensive scheme looks like next year. On defense, safeties Glover Quin ($7,916,688 cap hit in ’19) and Tavon Wilson ($3.825 million) are question marks, as is linebacker Christian Jones ($3.875 million). None of these players has a guarantee for 2019.