Offseason crucial for Lions to continue success in 2015

If both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley leave, the Lions will have to totally rebuild the middle of their defensive line.

Bob Donnan

Even though they couldn’t put an end to their long-standing playoff miseries, the Detroit Lions took an impressive step forward this season.

In many ways, it was similar to what happened in 2011. A double-digit win season, a wildcard bid and then an opening-round loss on the road in the postseason.

The question is whether this is legitimate progress that will be sustainable, or just a one-season, feel-good aberration like the last time.

"It’s going to be important for us next year to not take a step back," linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "We were in the playoffs a couple years ago and then weren’t the same team the next year."

The Lions went from 10-6 with expectations rising back to 4-12 in 2012, which was followed by another losing season.

Jim Caldwell came in as coach about a year ago at this time and quickly helped reenergize the entire organization.

They overcame laughable kicking woes early, along with several key injuries. They had some good fortune to win three straight games by a combined total of six points around midseason and carried that momentum into the final week.

A loss at Green Bay then deprived them of a division title, opening-round bye and a home playoff game.

Those things are going to happen when you’re in the same division as Aaron Rodgers.

While the Lions came up short in many ways, they delivered a lot of excitement, especially with their knack for pulling off fourth-quarter comebacks.

Caldwell believes "the foundation has been laid," setting them up for greater success down the road.

He was impressed with the improvement made in turnover ratio — from minus-14 in 2013 to plus-seven — and also with fewer dropped passes than in recent years.

Another year of familiarity in this offensive system, run by first-time coordinator Joe Lombardi, could make a big difference.

As for the surprising defense, which was among the best in the league, "We improved in almost every single category across the board," Caldwell said.

So, yes, there are a lot of positive vibes coming out of this season, despite blowing a 14-0 lead and losing 24-20 Sunday at Dallas.

The offseason becomes crucial in making certain this keeps moving forward. That’s where the pressure shifts from the players and coaches to general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand.

As Caldwell pointed out, "Your team changes about 35 percent in this league in a given year."

After their 2011 playoff season, the Lions chose to bring back most of their roster, rather than try to upgrade in some questionable areas, and that move backfired.

This year, they face a potentially team-altering free-agency scenario with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh looking for a mammoth new contract.

If they lose Suh, the impact on the defense will be substantial, perhaps too much to overcome next season.

"The success starts up front," teammate Andre Fluellen said. "Up front starts with him."

With the season over, the Lions undoubtedly will make another strong push to try to re-sign Suh before he hits the free-agent market in March, but the assumption is that he’s going to shop for the best price.

Caldwell said of Suh’s status, "That will continue to be one of our highest priorities. That’s going to be addressed constantly here until we come to some conclusion. He’s a dominant, dominant player."

Another major concern defensively is whether first-year coordinator Teryl Austin will return.

Austin is on the fast track to a head-coaching job, with Atlanta, San Francisco and Buffalo already having expressed interest.

"He’s deserving of an opportunity and I hope that happens," Caldwell said. "If that does indeed happen, we’ll be alright."

There are many other questions that have to be answered, too.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, like Suh, is a free agent. If both of them leave, the Lions will have to totally rebuild the middle of their defensive line, the heart and soul of their team, either through free agency or the draft.

Running back Reggie Bush, who turns 30 in a couple months, has two years remaining on his contract, but there’s speculation he could be a salary-cap casualty coming off an injury-plagued season.

The offensive line certainly needs to be addressed after a disappointing season in which quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked a career-high 45 times.

Will the Lions bring back center Dominic Raiola for his 15th season, and guard Rob Sims for his 10th? Will they try to upgrade at right tackle?

How Mayhew addresses these issues, along with many others, will be revealing during a crucial offseason for the direction of this team.

If they lose Suh and Austin, but improve the offensive line, it would not be surprising for the offense to be back to carrying the defense again.

There’s a fine line between success and failure in the NFL, and the Lions are still walking it.

"The season’s over, it’s tough to swallow," receiver Golden Tate said. "But, hey, the Detroit Lions are not done. This could be the start of something great."

Only if they make the right roster moves this offseason.