After years of instability and change, it appears the Detroit Lions are embracing a new approach to building a winning organization.
In today’s NFL, there is an unprecedented amount of turnover on a year-to-year basis. At the first sign of trouble, players are released, general managers are fired, and coaches are replaced with nary a second thought. As a result, the structure of a franchise is in a constant state of flux. The Detroit Lions have been no exception to this rule.
Over the course of the last decade, the Lions have had three general managers, three head coaches, and a constantly changing roster. While there are other franchises that have unquestionably seen more turnover, there is little doubt that the Lions have been in a perennial state of upheaval.
Naturally, when a team endures an extended period of losing, organizational change is to be expected. But ultimately, endless turnover stunts a franchise’s potential growth. A quick look around the league indicates that the most successful teams put the right people in place, build around them, and practice a continuity-based approach to success. It’s a formula that has proven to be effective for teams like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and, more recently, the Seattle Seahawks.
Naturally, this is easier said than done. When a team finds a quality executive, a successful head coach, and franchise quarterback like all of those aforementioned teams have accomplished, stability is much easier to achieve. However, with the 2017 season looming in the not too distant future, it appears that the Detroit Lions are applying this philosophy to their day-to-day operations in the hopes of enjoying the potential rewards.
It starts at the top of the organization with sophomore general manager Bob Quinn. Since his hiring in 2016, the former Patriots executive has taken a patient, calculated approach to his position. Through two free agency periods and a successful 2016 NFL Draft, it has been apparent that Quinn has a plan and is adhering to it. Each year, he’s added to the team’s talent base, mixing splash signings with low-key depth acquisitions and an effective draft strategy.
While he is only in the midst of his second year on the job, his title of Executive Vice President is a clear indicator that the organization intends to commit to him for the long haul. And to this point, that has proven to be a smart decision.
One of the key elements of Quinn’s plan has been the retention of head coach Jim Caldwell. When Quinn took over as general manager, many expected him to bring in his own man, but that didn’t prove to be the case. Quinn saw the progress the team had made during the second half of the 2015 season, and wisely decided to keep the coaching staff in place. Ultimately, that decision paid dividends as the Lions returned to the playoffs in 2016, something that very few pundits predicted would happen.
Even as the 2017 offseason began, there were questions abut whether Caldwell would be back after the Lions dropped their last three games of the regular season en route to a disappointing Wildcard Weekend loss to the Seahawks. Ultimately, Quinn’s cooler head prevailed once again, and Caldwell was assured of a fourth season at the helm.
Mar 1, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn speaks to the media during the 2017 NFL Combine at the Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Frankly, Caldwell has earned this opportunity. In three years as head coach, he has taken the team to the NFL Playoffs twice. The Lions have only made postseason appearances in three seasons since 2000, and Caldwell was running the show for two of them. Furthermore, Caldwell has enjoyed 27 regular season wins as the Lions head coach, which is remarkable considering that’s only two fewer than the 29 victories the team accumulated over the six years prior to his hiring.
Some will point to the fact that he hasn’t delivered Detroit the elusive playoff victory that fans have been craving since the 1991 season as of yet, but in spite of this, he is clearly the most successful coach the Lions have had since Wayne Fontes.
After years of bitter disappointment, the Lions have become a respectable team with Caldwell running the show. The players admire him, he’s a natural leader, and as importantly as anything else, he has assembled a top-notch staff around him.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is a prime example of this. Austin, a former Ravens defensive backs coach, joined Caldwell in Detroit in 2014, and has been a success from the start. The apex of his tenure was undoubtedly his first year with the club when the Lions finished as the second-ranked defense in the league. But without question, he has always fielded a solid group. While the unit has been decidedly middle-of-the-pack since that sensational season, there are many reasons for that.
Considering that he has seldom had a surplus of premium talent to work with on the defensive side of the ball, his work has been fantastic. Annually, Austin is a serious contender for any number of coaching vacancies, and the Lions have been very fortunate that he hasn’t landed one of those jobs as of yet. It’s likely only a matter of time until he does.
While Austin is on the path towards a promotion of his own, it was an unheralded internal maneuver that set the Lions up for much of the recent success the team has enjoyed. The 2015 midseason promotion of quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator has proven to be one of the smartest moves the team has made in recent history.
Cooter’s conservative play-calling has been a key element in the development of Matthew Stafford into a high-end NFL quarterback. A former gunslinger, Stafford has thrived in Cooter’s ball control oriented offense, and has significantly improved his efficiency as a passer. Were it not for a dislocated finger and torn ligaments he suffered to his throwing hand in a Week 14 showdown with the Chicago Bears that hindered his play down the stretch, Stafford was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2016. Unquestionably, Cooter’s efforts contributed to his strong play.
In 2017, Cooter will enter his second full season as the team’s offensive coordinator, but along with Caldwell and Austin, he is entering his fourth season as a member of the coaching staff. These three men have been successful together, and their continued employment is paramount to organizational growth. Quinn is only entering Year 2, but has proven to value this steady progression, and has earned the confidence of team ownership.
Stafford, entering his ninth season with the Lions, is a 29-year-old signal caller with years of productivity ahead of him, and the strong relationship that he enjoys with his coaching staff is greatly beneficial to his continued development. With his recent arrival as a true franchise quarterback, the Lions will have an opportunity to compete for many seasons to come.
Quinn is wise to take a steady, patient approach to team-building. Having already assembled several key pieces to producing a winning organization, any significant changes would hinder the franchise’s progress, and trigger an necessary reset. While there is little doubt that significant work needs to be done, the Lions are enjoying their best three-year stretch in decades. Consistency and continuity have been the catalyst for the team’s recent good fortunes, and there is no need to abandon a successful formula. It might very well pay significant dividends in 2017.