Step #1 in turning the Detroit Lions into a perennial playoff contender is telling general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz that the Lions must be 9-7 in 2013 or they’re gone.
Business can be cruel and make no mistake; professional football is a sports entertainment business. You can be the subject matter of Jay Leno’s comedy monologue on "The Tonight Show" or you can be declared the best of the best by the national media. Which would you prefer? Or more importantly, which type of publicity sells more tickets and team merchandise?
General manager Martin Mayhew took over for the fired Matt Millen after Detroit lost the first three games in 2008 and the Lions finished the season with a 0-16 record. Mayhew went out and hired former Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to be the new head coach and together they have amassed a 22-43 record in four years.
There was a time in the NFL (maybe the 20th Century) when franchise owners gave their leadership team five years to make the club a playoff contender. 2013 is the fifth year for the Mayhew-Schwartz regime and they must produce a winner.
No excuses. No compromises. If Mayhew and Schwartz finish .500 or worse in 2013, it is time to fire them and bring in a new leadership team. The facts indicate that it will be quite a challenge to reverse the Lions’ current doldrums.
Statistics not in Mayhew and Schwartz’s favor
Start with Detroit’s record since 2009:
* 22-43 with one playoff appearance (a loss to New Orleans in January, 2012)
* 13-19 at home and 9-24 on the road
* 5-19 in NFC North divisional play since 2009
The prototypical playoff team needs to accomplish the following:
* Enter the playoffs with at least a 10-6 record
* Finish 4-2 in division games
* Win six home games
* Win four road games
Now compare the two sets of numbers and you can see why 9-7 is a feasible first step for the Lions. Expecting them to suddenly dominate the NFC North is silly. Schwartz’s first year and his fourth (2012) had identical 0-6 division records. Even the year they made the playoffs, the Lions finished 3-3 in NFC North games. The challenge for the Lions is to go 7-3 against non-division opponents as they did in 2011.
Salary situation not in Mayhew and Schwartz’s favor
The Lions are one of several NFL teams that will suffer a salary “wedgie.” Specifically, a number of Lions starters signed long-term deals prior to the 2011 collaborative bargaining agreement. It is good for the players, but bad news for the football owners and franchises.
I will look at the salaries in greater depth in a future article when I focus on negotiating or renegotiating long-term deals and who to sign and who to cut from the Lions roster. To wet your whistle, here are 16 players with million dollar contracts for 2013:
- Wide receiver Calvin Johnson - $5 million + $20 million option bonus
- Quarterback Matthew Stafford - $12 million
- Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh - $11.1 million
- Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch - $5 million + $500,000 roster bonus
- Wide receiver Nate Burleson - $4.5 million
- Center Dominic Raiola - $4.05 million + $250,000 roster bonus
- Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch - $3.5 million
- Guard Stephen Peterman - $2.65 million
- Quarterback Shaun Hill - $2.4 million + $350,000 roster bonus
- Offensive tackle Jeff Backus - $2.25 million + $500,000 roster bonus
- Tight end Tony Scheffler - $1.95 million
- Guard Rob Sims - $1.85 million
- Wide receiver Mike Thomas - $1.45 million
- Defensive tackle Nick Fairley - $1.3 million
- Tight end Brandon Pettigrew - $1.15 million
- Defensive back Ron Bartell - $1 million
This group of players stands to make a combined $72 million in 2013 and the top three players create the most havoc financially. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is the face of the Lions franchise and given all his accomplishments, he is worth every dollar that Detroit is paying him.
It’s the fact that Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh benefited from the old contract structure. Stafford is slated to make $11 million in 2014 and $15 million with a club option in 2015 before becoming a free agent in 2016. Suh is due $11.55 million in 2014 and could earn $3.50 million under a voidable contract in 2015.
Now look at 2011 1st round draft choice defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He received a four-year contract worth $9.9 million with a $5.7 million signing bonus, but he stands to make only $1.3 million this year. It is the penalty that lousy teams with early 1st round picks prior to 2011 must endure unless they renegotiate contracts or move expensive players off the team (next article in the series).
Drafts are a mixed bag for Mayhew and Schwartz
If you evaluate Mayhew and Schwartz based on the quality of the personnel they’ve drafted, you come up with seven of the current 22 starters were selected by the Lions via the NFL draft in the last four years. It equates to one out of every four players drafted by Mayhew and Schwartz is a starter today.
Offensive starters include Matthew Stafford (2009), running back Mikel Leshoure (2011) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (2009). Defensive starters include free safety Louis Delmas (2009), linebacker DeAndre Levy (2009), defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (2010) and defensive tackle Nick Fairley (2011).
Now compare the Lions to the Minnesota Vikings, who went from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6 this season. Over the same four-year period, the Vikings drafted seven starters on offense, four starters on defense and kicker Blair Walsh. Eight of those 12 players were drafted in 2011 or 2012.
Some additional trends worth noting about Minnesota’s draft strategy. In 2011 and 2012, they made deals to increase their draft pool to 10 selections in each draft. They have acquired three offensive line starters via the draft in the last four years. The only defensive back starting in the Vikings secondary that was not drafted after 2008 is veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield.
Now the Lions match up well against the Vikings in the number of players they have drafted under Mayhew and Schwartz that are still on the roster. 21 of the 29 draftees still play for Detroit. 26 out of 33 drafted by the Vikes are on the Minnesota roster.
The Lions have seven picks in the 2013 NFL draft. Maybe they should borrow from the Vikings’ script and see if they can add two or three more selections to their draft pool.
Need for constant discipline
Mayhew and Schwartz need to enforce a renewed sense of discipline in 2013. It is easier to excuse misbehavior when you are 10-6 and believe better days are ahead of you. It is a lot tougher sale when you stumble to 4-12 during a season of miscues on and off the field.
A first step in making a course correction apparently occurred Monday when the Lions decided not to offer new contracts to assistant coaches Shawn Jefferson, Sam Gash and George Yarno. It may not stop there as there are at least two other assistants whose contracts expired at the end of the 2012 season.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham are not going anywhere as they signed contract extensions after the 2011 season and playoffs. At least Linehan will have new assistants to correct all of the offensive mistakes the Lions made in 2012.
There were plenty of mistakes made on offense, defense and along the sidelines. Have you ever seen a coach give away a touchdown based on his actions? How about nullifying a touchdown by executing an illegal block?
Surprisingly, the Lions finished in the middle of the NFL pack in number of penalties and penalty yards, but they made up for it with "style points."
One clear objective for Mayhew, Schwartz and the coaches is a total reversal in the takeaway/giveaway differential. The Lions were +11 in 2011 when they made the playoffs. They were -18 during their 2-14 season in 2009 and -16 this season.
It is a discipline issue. You secure and protect the football on offense. You take away the football on defense. You win the battle in the trenches and you never surrender points to your opponents on special teams.
There's a difference between being mean and undisciplined versus being tough and disciplined. If Mayhew, Schwartz, Linehan and Cunningham cannot get the players to be more of the latter and less of the former, then forget 9-7 in 2013 and expect the current management team and coaches to be looking for new jobs a year from now.
Next article - Step #2: Resolve if Matthew Stafford or Ndamukong Suh deserves a long-term contract.