Keys to the Game: A Year In Review

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In a playoff game that many Lions fans were hoping would finally break the bad juju following this team like a black cloud for so long, Detroit laid an egg in a 26-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Despite arguably both the keys to Seattle’s run and pass defense being out in this contest, the offensive players for Detroit never seemed to be on the same page.

Stafford struggled to get the ball to his receivers, who in turn struggled to make routine catches. Throwing for a mere 205 yards, and a total of only 49 yards were picked up on the ground by Zenner and Stafford with no touchdowns. The defense on the other hand, while generating decent coverage and consistent pass rush simply could not stop the run with Thomas Rawls and the Seahawks exploding for almost 200 team rushing yards. Despite these failures this was still shockingly a one score game, 13-6, entering the 4th quarter. That’s when crucial veteran mistakes took over with two personal fouls by Boldin and Ngata opening the door for 10 Seattle points. The game was effectively over at that point.

While I could take the time to break down this game, discuss continued officiating failures, and generally be glum about losing as many fans are right now, I don’t think that’s the best attitude with which to represent this season.

This year despite its ups and downs was a win for Detroit. Before the start of the year this team was viewed not just as an after thought but a laughing stock. A group projected to get only a handful of wins, last in their division, and a top five pick almost guaranteed on the way. The Lions though blew that narrative up, they went out and won tough games, grinding their way to victory despite every obstacle seeming to come up in their way en route to a playoff appearance.

They produced magic moments and made the team exciting to watch all year long, most importantly showing that the foundation is being set for a bright future moving forward.

With that more optimistic viewpoint then let’s go through the key’s to this season’s success:

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Key #1: Stafford’s Rise

Matthew Stafford had had an up and down career entering this season. People had a wide range of views on him, whether they be unfair or not, going from a clear top 10 player to a guy Detroit should potentially consider moving on from. He’s always been a phenomenal talent but he was accused of being hot and cold and not taking care of the ball well enough with his gunslinger persona.

Add in the fact that he was losing Megatron and very few people saw a big season coming from Matthew Stafford. Yet despite all of that Stafford didn’t just have a good year, he had by far the best of his career placing him solidly in the top five quarterback conversation. His stats weren’t as impressive as they have been before, but he was more efficient then ever, leading the Cardiac Cat comebacks right when they were needed, and this led to the one stat he’s struggled with in his NFL career: wins.

Stafford was able to spread the ball all over the field and take over as the clear leader of the team, with a strong presence that led the troops throughout this season. Despite trailing off at the end of the season this year served as a phenomenal building point both in building a winning culture in Detroit, and establishing Stafford as an elite quarterback entering his prime to take this team to success sooner rather then later.

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Key #2: Defensive Surprises

It was rather obvious entering the season that the defense was going to be a concern. There were a lot of new faces and with them a lot of question marks, leading to some unacceptable play early in the season. As that talent started to grow together however the holes started to close up and the unit became a relatively functional group as the season wore on.

That improvement came on the back of some surprising stand out performances from little known guys entering 2016. Kerry Hyder was a random udfa who had never played 4-3 defensive end in his career, switching to the position to hopefully stay in the league. He went on to lead the Lions with eight sacks and became one of their most valuable defensive linemen.

Tavon Wilson was a career backup and special teamer in New England, having a disappointing career up until leaving in free agency for new scenery. He ended up effectively taking over the starting strong safety job and by the end of the year becoming an effective zone cover man producing big hits and several key turnovers. Miles Killebrew was a 4th round project that many thought could be a hybrid linebacker option down the road. He ended up contributing crucial minutes by midseason, becoming one of the team’s best third down players.

You could continue on with numerous other guys that helped along the way as well. These defensive standouts combined with a core group of veterans have created a great base for this team to build off of this offseason in creating a more consistent defensive unit.

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Key #3: Quinn’s Hot Start

The story you could not tell this season without is how Bob Quinn has instantly had an immense impact on the Detroit Lions’ roster. Through both free agency and the draft, Quinn put his mark on Detroit starting day one and was essential in this team having the success it did.

In free agency he found offensive players like Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts, and defensive players like Stefan Charles and the aforementioned Tavon Wilson that may not have had giant impacts but all played key roles that helped move the team forward. Throughout the season he refreshed the roster constantly trying to find talent and never stopped working to make the team the best it could be.

Looking at the draft Quinn brought in contributors in every round, from big time guys like Taylor Decker, to players making impacts earlier then expected like Graham Glasgow, to late round rotational guys like Antwione Williams playing solid minutes. If this sort of drafting ability becomes a continuing trend the Lions will be set up with young talent for a long time as this was already a top three draft in the Stafford era one year in.

Finally Quinn has been able to already retain a ton of home grown talent prior to the free agency period. He’s been great at signing guys to reasonable money, making various moves behind the scenes at the same level of quality as his player acquisition. With Bob Quinn at the helm it seems as though Lions fans have significant reasons to be optimistic going into next season despite an inevitably harder schedule to contend with.

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Looking Forward

Heading into the offseason now there are numerous needs that need to be addressed across the team. The defense as a whole could use upgrades at starting positions and depth, while tight end and a power back are both needs on offense. There is also the need to try and resign Larry Warford and Reilly Rieff on the offensive line among some other depth players who need to be targeted. The important point though is don’t let this recent effort cloud a great season of Lions football as another “same old Lions moment”.

The pathway has been laid out, foundational players are in place, and things are moving in the right direction. Just keep on hanging in and lets see if this finally takes us to the success we have been waiting for a long long time.

Thanks to everyone that has followed along this season. I appreciate all the support and watch out for great offseason coverage from us as we head slowly toward the draft.

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About the Author

Chris is the founder of everything you see here. A former radio presenter and Detroit native, he now resides in sunny California – and like so many of us, he found himself marooned on an island devoid of other Lions fans. After spending a few years in the Detroit Lions Reddit community he decided to start the Detroit Lions Podcast. Its become the #1 Detroit Lions podcast, and regularly ranks with the top podcasts in Detroit. With a mixture of pre-recorded shows, live & recorded phone-ins, and live post-game broadcasts - this is his slice of Honolulu Blue heaven.