In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
Anticipating the collapse is an art form in Detroit, on in which Lions fans are well practiced. There are collapses in games, in seasons and in regimes, and Lions fans like to think they can see all of them coming.
This season, a collapse may be coming, as it inevitably has been. But it may be more difficult to foresee because of the team's fresh faces and ideas. The hardened pessimists of Michigan should not lose sight of the considerable talent and the hope that exists within the Lions' Allen Park facility.
Biggest Offseason Move: Firing Jim Schwartz and hiring Jim Caldwell
The pendulum always swings far with coaching changes, and this one was a textbook example. Schwartz, at least from a perception standpoint, is fiery and uber aggressive. Caldwell, from a perception standpoint, is calm and restrained. A disciple of Tony Dungy, Caldwell is not likely to get in any handshake smackdowns. He won't tell fans where to stick it when he's walking off the field. And he probably won't spike many headsets. His steady leadership could bring out the best in a group that has been prone to crossing lines that should not have been crossed.
In the opening statement of his introductory press conference, Caldwell made the contrast clear and provided music to the Lions fans' ear. "Let's just talk about a couple things, image and identity," he said. "Either you create it, or somebody's going to create it for you. So, let me tell you what we're going to look like. We're going to be smart. We're going to be a football team that takes the field that's not going to shoot itself in the foot. We're going to be a team that is disciplined, that's focused, that understands situational football."
Schwartz has a defensive background. Caldwell has an offensive background. He has worked well with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco in previous stops, and he has another significant talent to work with in Matthew Stafford. The Lions quarterback slumped at the end of last season, and it will be up to Caldwell and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to try to turn him around and maximize his abilities.
Caldwell took the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2009 as their head coach. He also presided over the 2-14 season in 2011 that positioned the Colts to take Andrew Luck with the first pick of the draft. He knows what makes teams win and what makes teams lose. It is possible the son of an auto worker is just the right man to lead a team in Detroit that recently has misfired and underachieved.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Playing Contract Roulette With The DTs
As it stands now, both of the Lions' starting defensive tackles will be free agents after the 2014 season. For most of the offseason the team has been negotiating futilely with Ndamukong Suh in an attempt to extend his rookie deal. The Lions need to agree on a contract with Suh because he is a vital piece of the team's foundation who needs to be locked up. And there is another issue as well: Suh currently will count $22.4 million against their salary cap, and the team is short on cap space.
The Lions declined to pick up the fifth year option on Nick Fairley, a gifted interior presence who has not always been consistent. Fairley acknowledges he initially was upset about the move, but subsequently has gotten strict about his diet and dropped weight. For the Lions, the gamble might result in a short term benefit but a long term problem.
Suh and Fairley could and should be the engine for this defense. For that to happen, their heads will need to be in a good place.
Biggest 2014 Question: Can the Cornerbacks Hold Up?
Cornerback play has been an ongoing struggle for the Lions. The formula of general manager and former cornerback Martin Mayhew clearly has been to line up pass rushers who can enable mediocre cornerback play. So, in a year when Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis and Alterraun Verner were free agents, and when five corners were taken in the first round of the draft, the Lions made no big moves at the position. They added journeyman Cassius Vaughn, re-signed 33-year-old Rashean Mathis and used a fourth round pick on Nevin Lawson. Last week, they terminated the contract of Chris Houston, who had been a starter for them the last four years but recently had toe surgery.
The best bets to start probably remain green second year man Darius Slay and Mathis. If the Lions cornerbacks can't cover well consistently, they are sure to be exposed, as the schedule calls for them to be challenged by the wide receiver likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, and Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.
Bold Prediction: Calvin Johnson won't be as statistically productive as he has been
Johnson still is football's best wide receiver, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the Lions might be less inclined than ever to force the football to him when he is covered. The Lions have more options and better options besides Johnson than they ever have had in his seven-year career.
The Lions' two most significant offseason acquisitions arguably were receiving weapons -- veteran free agent wide receiver Golden Tate and first-round tight end Eric Ebron. Tate might be the best wide receiver the Lions have had playing opposite Johnson (the competition would be Roy Williams, Shaun McDonald, Bryant Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Kris Durham). Ebron, if he becomes what he has been billed to be, will create matchup problems, as will running back Reggie Bush. That means Stafford will have players open when Johnson is double covered.
The other interesting factor here is that both Caldwell and Lombardi have a history of trying to get the ball to the tight end. Caldwell did it when Dallas Clark was healthy and on his game in Indianapolis, and Lombardi did it with Jimmy Graham in New Orleans. The Lions did not use a first-round pick on Ebron so he could block.
So Johnson could catch fewer passes through no fault of his, and the Lions could be a better team as a result.