As we get ready for the 2014 season, here are five questions surrounding the Detroit Lions:
1. Will Matthew Stafford return to his 2011 form?
By 2011 form, I mainly mean play consistently well from the start of the season to the end of the season. We've seen Stafford's 2011 form at times since then, but he really faded in the second half of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Lions need the player who completed 63.5 percent of his passes and threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns to show up all year long for this team to return to the playoffs.
2. Will Calvin Johnson make it through the entire season, and can the Lions get by if he doesn't?
Johnson's injuries finally caught up to him last year, as he missed two games. Yes, he sat out the final game of the season for precautionary reasons more than anything since the Lions were out of contention for the playoffs, but the point still stands. He didn't look healthy thanks to his knee injury, and his finger injury almost certainly contributed to his drops problem.
Despite the injuries, Johnson's overall level of play didn't actually suffer all that much, and the Lions offense really fell apart when he was out. This year, after having a pair of offseason surgeries, the hope is that the Lions won't have to ever face the possibility of Johnson not being in the lineup. But if they do, will the additions of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron be enough to keep the offense running somewhat smoothly? It remains to be seen, but the Lions do seemingly have enough talent on paper to at least survive if Johnson has to miss a game here or there.
3. Will the pass defense actually hold up, and can the Lions get to the quarterback more consistently?
The biggest question marks about the defense are connected. If the Lions can do a better job of getting to the quarterback, the secondary won't have to be in coverage for quite as long, and perhaps there will be more bad throws that they can turn into interceptions. On the flip side, if the secondary is able to do a better job in coverage, the Lions' pass rush should have a bit more time to finish off plays with sacks.
It's safe to say the secondary is the bigger question mark here simply because there is more proven talent among the defensive linemen and linebackers. However, it's not just on the cornerbacks and safeties when it comes to doing a better job of defending the pass. The pass rush also needs to do a better job to help the secondary out, especially with there being so much talent in the front seven.
4. With a new coaching staff in place, will the Lions finally learn how to consistently finish games, and will they be able to avoid another late-season collapse?
One could argue that the Lions' problem last season wasn't a lack of talent or anything like that. Instead, the problem was that the talent they had just couldn't put together four good quarters of football week in and week out. Considering the Lions led or were tied in the fourth quarter in 15 games last season, they should have had a lot more than seven wins, but turnovers, penalties and a general lack of a killer instinct led to another collapse in the second half of the season.
This year, the Lions have tasked Jim Caldwell with eliminating those problems. There's been a big emphasis on being smarter and avoiding penalties, and there's also been an emphasis on taking better care of the ball. It was clear in the preseason that these issues haven't exactly been fixed just yet, but it's not like this was going to happen overnight. Even so, the Lions need to improve in the penalty and turnover departments if they want to win more close games, and that will ultimately help them avoid another collapse in the second half of the season.
5. Just how far can this team go?
With all of the talent the Lions seem to have on paper, they could conceivably win the Super Bowl this season. Conceivably is the key word there, though. Everything would have to fall into place for that to actually happen -- Stafford would have to play like an MVP, major injuries would have to be avoided, the defense would have to take a major step forward and so on. But the point is that it's not out of the question that the Lions could sneak into the playoffs and get hot at just the right time, much like the Baltimore Ravens did a couple years ago when Caldwell became their offensive coordinator.
Realistically, the Lions should probably be more concerned with just getting back to the playoffs at this point. Whatever happens beyond that would be the icing on the cake after the last two seasons. Hope and promise turned into disappointment and despair in 2012 and 2013, and the last thing this franchise needs is more of the same in 2014. The talent is seemingly in place, and the team has a fresh start with a new coaching staff, but now the Lions have to actually deliver on the field for a change.