By Dan Pompei
Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise and proposing solutions for each. So far, the series has covered the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills. Today it's the Detroit Lions.
Early last December, the Lions were in first place in the NFC North and appeared to be a hop, skip and jump away from a division championship. But, as both their sworn enemies and their loyal supporters predicted, the Lions tangled their feet and fell on their facemasks. Again.
This is a franchise that has won one playoff game in 56 years, hasn't won its division since 1993 and endured the only 0-16 season in NFL history. So does it make a difference if it's Monte Clark or Jim Caldwell? Greg Landry or Matthew Stafford? Alex Karras or Ndamukong Suh? The sense of doom surrounding the has Lions transcended the eras.
General manager Martin Mayhew knows that if he ignores history he is doomed to repeat it. But he also knows that he needs to bury the Lions' history in order to be free from it. His latest attempt was the launching of Jim Schwartz after five years and a .363 winning percentage. Now it's Caldwell's turn.
Problem: The Lions need a culture change.
Solution: Prioritize character and leadership in offseason player acquisitions.
This is a talented team, talented enough to win and win big. Whatever can be stop-watched, tape measured or weighed, the Lions have in spades. Whatever the Wizard of Oz was supposed to deliver, not so much.
The Lions took a step in the direction of smarter play when they hired Caldwell, who is known for his calm, easygoing demeanor and emphasis on discipline and character. He is very much a departure from the fiery Schwartz, who was good theater down to the postgame handshake. Caldwell's staff of assistants also has bent more toward teachers than motivators. But the Lions will need more than coaches laying groundwork. They will need leadership from the locker room.
To start with, they can try to talk middle linebacker London Fletcher out of retiring. The 16-year veteran no longer is the physical force he was, but Fletcher does things the right way and he commands respect. He would have an impact in ways that would not necessarily show up in statistics. Another old-timer who would be an ideal Lion is Champ Bailey, assuming the Broncos cut the cornerback. Young players on the Lions roster would have no choice but to follow his lead.
There are other veterans who would be good for the Lions' culture. Among them are quarterback Josh McCown (did you see what he did for Jay Cutler?), fullback John Kuhn (a gritty veteran could help provide an identity for the offense) and defensive end Justin Tuck (a stand-up leader who is not afraid to call out a teammate).
The desire for character should continue in the draft. The Lions don't need gifted individuals who don't enhance the locker room. They need young leaders they can build around, players like UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin or Wisconsin middle linebacker Chris Borland.
Problem: Matthew Stafford has regressed.
Solution: Break out the tapes from 2011.
In Stafford's last six games, he threw 11 interceptions and fumbled six times, as the Lions went 1-5. The good news is he played at a high level just two seasons earlier, and he still is only 26 years old. The first step for new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter will be to find out what Stafford was doing so well in his career year of 2011, and why he has failed to do it since. They will need to bring Stafford back to square one and start over with his fundamentals and mechanics. At times, Stafford can get as sloppy as a toddler at feeding time. This may not explain all of his turnover mess, but it explains some of it.
The Lions have the right men to rebuild Stafford. Caldwell's roots are as a quarterbacks coach, and he has worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco, among others. Lombardi, grandson of Vince Lombardi, coached Drew Brees in New Orleans. And Cooter has helped make Manning look good, both in Denver and Indianapolis.
The other thing these coaches will have to do for Stafford's sake is diversify the offense. Lombardi should have learned how while working for Sean Payton. It should be noted that as the tight end involvement in the Lions' passing game has fallen off, so has Stafford's effectiveness. Even if the Lions don't re-sign free agent to be Brandon Pettigrew, they need to throw more to a tight end in order to give Stafford better options and greater comfort.
Problem: The Lions don't have a No. 2 wide receiver.
Solution: Do not, in the name of Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams, use three first-round picks on wide receivers in consecutive years.
Calvin Johnson was responsible for 53 percent of the Lions' yards by wide receivers last year, and he didn't even play in the season finale. Late in the season he was worn down by ankle and knee injuries, and he scored only one of his dozen touchdowns in his last five games. The Lions were overly dependent on Johnson last season, and when he started to break down they had no viable alternative.
The Lions have to be careful about not overreacting to fill this void. They can patch a hole with a mid-level free agent, perhaps a younger version of Nate Burleson who does not value pizza quite so much. The veteran Burleson had a nice little run with the Lions before breaking his arm in an auto accident while trying to save a pizza box from falling last year, and was cut on Thursday. Players like Emmanuel Sanders, Jeremy Maclin and James Jones would be worth exploring.
The Lions also should look hard at the draft, which is deep with receivers. They don't necessarily have to draft one in the first round, as there is sure to be value beyond the first. The Saints provide a good model of a team that can find receivers without using first round picks. Among the receivers Lombardi worked with in New Orleans were seventh-round pick Marques Colston, fifth-round pick Kenny Stills and undrafted Lance Moore. The Lions still have hope for Ryan Broyles, a second-round pick in 2012, but he is trying to come back from an Achilles tear and really can't be counted on. Adding a second- or third-round wide receiver might be the ticket.
Problem: Suh's contract calls for him to take up $22.4 million of cap space in 2014, which is the next-to-last year of his contract.
Solution: Extend Suh's deal and create cap space in order to sign others.
There have been calls for the Lions to part ways with Suh. Recently, Warren Sapp charged that Suh has not progressed. Former NFL fullback Heath Evans reported that Suh was uncontrollable and he bucked authority during Schwartz's regime. Suh has a reputation as a cheap-shot guy, but he has taken more than he has given in this department. And at least some of what has been directed at him has been undeserved.
Ultimately, it's difficult to envision the Lions defense getting better without him. If there is a better two-way defensive tackle in the NFL, I'd like to see him. Suh consistently draws double teams and creates havoc for opposing blocking schemes. His combination of power and quickness makes him a mismatch for almost any interior offensive lineman. Suh is the player everyone dreads going against but loves to line up beside.
Suh needs to be part of the Lions' future. In order to lock him up, the Lions will have to deal with his new agent Jay-Z. The sooner, the better, because they can gain a significant amount of cap space to use on other veteran free agents. Already, the Lions had to cut safety Louis Delmas to create cap space, and they need to sign him back at a reduced cost.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America, for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.