The more you hear NFL experts like FOX analyst and two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson evaluate how talented this Detroit Lions’ roster is, it leaves you with an inevitable conclusion:
General manager Martin Mayhew has probably saved his job, if it was indeed in jeopardy, but coach Jim Schwartz potentially remains on the hot seat going into the final three weeks of the season.
The perception after winning only four games last year was that both Mayhew and Schwartz – Schwartz more so – were in danger of losing their jobs but eventually were given one more chance to prove themselves.
Only the Ford ownership group really knows if that was true or not, but if so, Mayhew arguably should be safe now while Schwartz’s future could come down to pass-or-fail on whether the Lions end up winning their first division title in two decades.
The growing opinion when it comes to the Lions is that they shouldn’t be in such a tight race in the NFC North at this point, not with quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Jay Cutler of Chicago out with injuries for several weeks.
Johnson went so far as to say he thinks the Lions have enough talent to win the Super Bowl, even suggested they might be the most talented team in the league, but he also called them a “sloppy” and “undisciplined” group that is “easily distracted.”
That sounds like the definition of an underachieving team, and that ultimately falls on the head coach.
Assessments like those from Johnson only put more pressure on Schwartz while validating Mayhew’s work.
The rap on the Detroit GM has been that he misses on way too many draft picks. Sure, he hit on no-brainers such as Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh – so could your grandmother – but it’s the other decisions made in the second round and later that show a true eye for being able to identify talent.
However, with all the unrestricted free agents the Lions had at the end of last season, you can argue that Mayhew couldn’t have done a much better job of overhauling this roster.
The addition of running back Reggie Bush and safety Glover Quin filled major voids through free agency, but the draft also played a big role.
Mayhew got it right this time.
Defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah (fifth pick overall) and offensive guard Larry Warford (third round) have made an immediate impact. Cornerback Darius Slay (second round) had a tough transition at a difficult position, but he showed recent signs of improvement before suffering a knee injury.
Sam Martin (fifth round) has had some ups and downs, but he’s still been one of the top punters in the league overall.
The Lions are also getting contributions from defensive end Devin Taylor (fourth round) and running back/special-teams player Theo Riddick (sixth round), along with undrafted rookies such as tight end Joseph Fauria and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
The performance at left tackle by Riley Reiff, a first-round pick in 2012, has proven to be a wise choice, too, after some initial skepticism.
When he does get something wrong, give Mayhew some credit for trying to fix it. Micheal Spurlock didn’t work out as a return specialist, but Jeremy Ross, who was signed in October after getting released by Green Bay, came through with both punt and kick returns for touchdowns Sunday at Philadelphia.
The one area that Mayhew hasn’t had any success shoring up is at cornerback, even though that’s the position he played for nine years in the NFL. The Lions have drafted four corners in the last two years – Bill Bentley (third round in 2012), Chris Greenwood (fifth round, 2012), Jonte Green (sixth round, 2012) and Slay – but it remains a glaring weakness.
That needs to be addressed much better before next season, but for the most part, Mayhew did a solid job revamping the lineup for Schwartz.
It appeared to be working, too, and it still might. The Lions once were 6-3 and seemed ready to cruise into the playoffs, but they’ve since lost three of their last four games. The turning point remains a failed fake field goal when they had a four-point lead in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh in Week 11, a decision for which Schwartz was widely criticized.
Instead of taking control of the race, Detroit is now tied with Chicago at 7-6. Green Bay is a half-step behind at 6-6-1.
No Rodgers, no Cutler, a seemingly comfortable lead not that long ago for the Lions, who have also clinched the tiebreaker with both the Bears and the Packers.
It begs the question: If not now, under these favorable circumstances, then when?
At times, the Lions really do look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender (total domination of the Packers in the trenches on Thanksgiving Day), but then they revert to their old ways (tied for second-most turnovers in the league, including 20 in the last six games).
Will the real Detroit Lions please stand up, and remain standing.
In fairness to him, Schwartz inherited an absolute mess when he took over in 2009 following a winless season. He got the Lions to the playoffs with a wildcard berth two years ago while winning 10 games, but the severity of last season’s regression was alarming.
There’s an incredible amount of baggage that goes with this franchise. Schwartz is still trying to work through it, but that hasn’t been easy, not even in his fifth season.
Just when you think it’s going away, the mysterious dark cloud over the organization – “Same Old Lions,” the Murphy’s Law of the NFL – has a way of reappearing.
Still, they’re in good position to finish this off the right way. How you get there – the rollercoaster ride – really doesn’t matter in the end.
Don’t forget, no one saw the last three Super Bowl champions coming at this time of the year:
*Baltimore lost four of its last five games last season. There were eight teams who finished with better records than the Ravens (10-6).
* The New York Giants had lost four straight and were 6-6 after 12 games two years ago. Nine teams finished higher than the Giants (9-7).
* Three years ago, Green Bay was 8-6 going into the final two weeks. Seven teams ended up winning more games than the Packers (10-6).
It’s agonizing for fans to watch their teams go through such ups and downs, but that’s the beauty of the NFL.
You just don’t know.
More than likely, the Lions are going to regroup and win at least two, if not all three remaining games, finish with nine or 10 wins on the season, clinch the division and host a playoff game against either Carolina or San Francisco.
If that doesn’t happen, you know who will be blamed for it.