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What went wrong for the 2018 Detroit Lions?

The Lions playoff hopes are all but dead before December, how did we get here?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions earned their seventh loss of the season on Thanksgiving Day when they fell 23-16 to division rival Chicago Bears. Their loss total now matches their end-of-season loss totals from 2016 and 2017, two seasons where they finished with a winning 9-7 record. The Lions notably fired former head coach Jim Caldwell at the end of last season despite his efforts in earning the team their first back-to-back winning seasons since the early 90s.

General manager Bob Quinn made it clear that he believed that 9-7 was not good enough for the roster that Detroit had. He brought in Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach, a man he was familiar with from him own time with the Patriots.

Detroit had Super Bowl aspirations entering this season and wanted 2018 to be the year they took the next step. It is clear that this will not be the year that the Lions emerge as Super Bowl contenders and instead will be a season that sets them back.

What went wrong for the Detroit Lions?

Inconsistent offseason strategies

When an NFL team is planning out their offseason strategy, they are usually either building for now or the future. Teams that believe they have a chance to compete for a Super Bowl within the next two seasons will make short-term moves to fill up their roster with talent now at the expense of their teams future. The Chicago Bears sent two first-round picks for Khalil Mack this offseason, the Los Angeles Rams made huge moves for the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Brandin Cooks, the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars loaded up defensive talent in free agency to make a run that year.

A team who does not believe that they have a chance to compete will do what they can to conserve future assets for when they are Super Bowl contenders. They will save cap space so they can roll it over to next year. They will not trade away draft picks and, instead, deal away expendable players for future assets. The team will field a roster full of older veterans on cheap deals and young players to let them develop over time.

Detroit is somehow in the middle. They dealt a fourth round pick to trade up in the second round of the draft to grab running back Kerryon Johnson. Drafting a running back is always a short-term investment and the investment gets costly when you begin to deal away assets. They re-signed or extended Nevin Lawson, Tavon Wilson and Quandre Diggs to multi-year deals. None of these players will develop much over time and now the Lions are either stuck with them or have to eat dead cap to cut them. Sylvester Williams was signed to a fully guaranteed $3.5 million deal. These are moves that are made by a team that plans to compete today.

These moves also align with the rest of the rosters cap situation. Ezekiel Ansah is on a franchise tag and he should be off the books this offseason. Aging guard T.J. Lang has a potential out in his contract this offseason. Cornerback Darius Slay has a potential out in his contract as well this season, and while he is safe from being a cap casualty, his cap hit almost triples next season. Matthew Stafford is entering Year 2 of a huge deal and was coming off of the two best years of his career. Golden Tate was in the last of his five-year contract and the Lions entered the season knowing it would probably be the last year they had one of their most important pieces. If Detroit was going to load up the roster with talent then this offseason would have been the time.

What did Detroit do this offseason, though?

Their biggest free agent land was an inconsistent edge rusher from the New York Giants. Tight end Eric Ebron was released before the last year of his rookie contract and never was truly replaced. They did not make any big free agent signings despite having the cap space to do so. They had huge issues at all three levels of the defense entering 2018 and it cost them dearly.

Detroit obviously wanted to win this season but they failed to bring in the talent they needed.

The stars have failed to shine

Detroit was not a team rich with talent in either 2016 or 2017, but they still had enough individual talent scattered across the roster to win nine games. The stars that have done enough to keep the team afloat in the past have all faltered this season.

It all starts with the face of the franchise. Stafford has followed up two of his best seasons with an inconsistent mess of a 2018 campaign. His 10 interceptions through 11 games match his full season totals from 2016 and 2017. He is on pace to fall short of 4,200 yards for the first time since 2010—when he only played three games. Poor performances against the Jets, 49ers, Vikings and two bad games against the Bears have earned the team’s avoidable losses. There is no single player worthy of more blame for Detroit’s terrible season than Stafford.

Slay has been under performing, as well. The cornerback led the NFL in interceptions in a 2017 campaign where he was named first-team All Pro and has followed it up with an inconsistent season. His health has been in question for much of the year and even when has been on the field, he has had trouble. Davante Adams dominated him in the early season matchup against the Green Bay Packers. He was poor on Thanksgiving against the Bears, as well. While he has had a few good games—notably against the Dolphins and Cowboys—he is a shell of the play making corner he was last season.

Glover Quin was a rock at the back end of the Lions defense for the past few seasons but he has clearly regressed before our eyes. He has lost a step and has been culpable in the team’s struggles against both the pass and the run.

Three of the players Detroit was set to depend on the most this season have failed them. No matter what the team’s plan going forward was or however much talent they had on the roster, if the talent is not performing then the team will always be destined to fail.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.