DETROIT — At one point in the first half of Sunday’s game, during one of those commercial breaks that leave players standing around bored and force team marketing personnel to drum up distractions for paying fans, the Lions ran a brief promo wishing Calvin Johnson luck in his most recent post-retirement endeavor— Dancing with the Stars. Lions fans, with their tempered applause for the former face of the franchise, sounded like anything but jilted lovers.
Know this: The Lions in 2016 do nothing spectacularly. They haven’t rushed for 100 yards in a game since September, and on Sunday against the Jaguars they managed all of 14 rushing yards. A month ago Detroit let Rams quarterback Case Keenum throw for 300 yards for the just the second time in his 25 NFL starts; a month later he would be benched in Los Angeles. Without the seminal talent of Calvin Johnson, who retired unexpectedly last summer at 31, the Lions are boring, unfit for prime time and unable to exert their will on an opponent.
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And they’re 6-4.
On Thursday they will play for the NFC North lead, against a Minnesota team unlucky enough to have perhaps the best defense in football and an offense run by Sam Bradford. After winning five of their last six games by seven points or fewer, Detroit could very well host a home playoff game for the first time since 1994, despite not just Johnson and but the injured DeAndre Levy, once considered among the best 4-3 linebackers in football.
Why is this team winning close games their fans have become accustomed to losing? Because the Lions, while no longer spectacular in one spot, are pretty solid in every spot.
“I think we’ve built a team with a lot of depth,” says wide receiver Golden Tate, “and when that happens you start to feel like just doing our individual jobs is always going to be good enough to win.”
You can see it in the way safeties and cornerbacks secure tackles rather than jump routes, how running backs clutch the football heading into contact and how Matt Stafford seems more willing to throw the ball away or take a sack and live to play another down. The Lions have minimized risk at an individual level, reducing turnovers in the process—Stafford has thrown just one interception in his last six games, and no Lions running back has yet fumbled in 2016.
“When you have a guy stepping outside of the framework instead of just doing his job, that’s how you get burnt,” said linebacker Tahir Whitehead. “When you have 11 guys doing their job, you can wait for the other team to force a play and make a mistake. That comes from [coach Jim] Caldwell and the whole staff on down. They’re making sure that we’re playing smart situational football.”
Said Tate: “I think we’re starting to trust in our preparation and who we have around here,” Tate says. “Guys are proving themselves all the time.”
It’s an egalitarian approach to the game that has best served Stafford, who is having the best season of his eight in the NFL, with 18 touchdowns, just five interceptions and a career-high 101.2 passer rating. In October, coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, in his first full season in the job, acknowledged that not having a talent like Johnson was helping Stafford better read the field.
“When you have Calvin Johnson out there,” Cooter said, “one of the all-time great receivers, going to the Hall of Fame as soon as you can get him in there, it makes a lot of sense to try and throw that guy the ball. Sometimes you might override your read to do that.”
It would have been a blasphemous quote from a Lions offensive coordinator a year ago, and an indictment on the coaching staff. Often, we discuss great receivers as though they uniformly take pressure off of lesser receivers and running backs and allow them to thrive. When that doesn’t seem to be the case, we have a tendency to blame the supporting cast of receivers and not the quarterback. For years the punditry monitoring the Lions decried a lack of help for Calvin Johnson. Then Detroit spent back-to-back second-round picks on receivers—Titus Young in 2011 and Ryan Broyles in 2012—and a first-round pick on tight end Eric Ebron in 2014.
Nothing changed until Tate’s arrival, which appeared to actually take some pressure off of Johnson. Tate’s 144 targets in 2014 were the most for any Lions receiver not named Calvin Johnson since 2001, the year Johnnie Morton was thrown to exactly 144 times by Charlie Batch and his understudies. The Lions finished 11-5 in 2014 on the strength of the second-ranked defense. But the emergence of Tate as a consistent threat—on paper—hid a problem that would be revealed in 2015 when the defense dropped off: In crunch time, the offense still relied on Johnson.
Tate still produced big numbers in 2015—a team-leading 90 catches for 813 yards and six touchdowns. Johnson saw just 23% of Stafford’s passes come his way and still caught 88 passes for 1,214 yards despite a lingering ankle injury for nearly the entire season. But in two-minute-drill situations to close the first half, and in the final minutes of one-score games, Stafford went back to a familiar well: Johnson was thrown to 40% of the time in those situations (39/97 passes). Despite the emergence of Tate, Johnson was still the go-to guy when it mattered, and often enough either Johnson or Stafford failed to deliver.
Johnson’s retirement forced the Lions to turn elsewhere in critical moments, and it turns out the team Martin Mayhew built from 2008-15 and Bob Quinn now leads is pretty deep. Here’s how the same hurry-up situations have played out in 2016, in terms of targets:
Golden Tate: 14 Eric Ebron: 11 Theo Riddick: 9 Anquan Boldin: 9 Marvin Jones: 7 Andre Roberts: 2
No player has more than 26% of the targets. Stafford is working within the framework of the offense, no longer distracted. “When you have a talent like Calvin,” says Lions safety Glover Quin, “sometimes you want to force-feed the ball to him to get him going. That’s not happening anymore.”
Asked to comment on the notion that the offense would be better off without him, Johnson this summer lamented what the attack might have become during his career, acknowledging what the 2016 Lions are now realizing. “I felt like it should have been easier because they were going to double me a lot of the time, especially in certain situations,” Johnson said.
Stafford should have been astute enough to weigh Johnson’s talent appropriately and distribute the football in last-minute situations. Instead, the Lions became predictable when it counted. Teams would get away with bracketing Johnson, rotating coverage to his side of the field, because Stafford was going to look for him at every opportunity, just as he’d done before Tate arrived.
Today, the offense has taken on a new identity that is refreshing to veterans and reflects the next-man-up mentality that teams so often cite yet rarely execute.
“Whoever is on that day, they’re on,” says Quin. “The next week it might be somebody else. When you can trust every position group, all 53 guys, to contribute and play well, it’s fun.”