The 2019 season certainly doesn’t look like one that will be looked back upon fondly by Detroit Lions fans. No strangers to seasons lost before season’s end, Lions fans have had to endure hardship after hardship to maintain their fandom. Looking back, there’s always bright spots even to the worst seasons.
2008’s famous 0-16 season is brought up as a sort of catch-all smack-talk topic, but it did signal the end of the worst era in professional sports and set the Lions up to draft Matthew Stafford. 2009 only saw the Lions win two games, but Stafford’s win against the Browns despite an injured shoulder is a thing of legend.
After back-to-back winning seasons, the Lions let go of Jim Caldwell as the team seemed to be spinning its wheels and not improving past mediocre, but back-to-back losing seasons to follow have fans furious. Where’s the silver lining, one with no smoke?
The bright spot of this team has clearly been the offense over the defense, and I don’t think you’ll find many that would argue. There have been some issues this year, particularly with play calling and overall gameplan, that have caused concern but after watching the horror show that is Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter I think we can all agree that we’re pretty all right here. As I’ve alluded to, though, there’s some nuance that will give some positive encouragement even after the type of year we’ve seen so far.
An actual run game?
The Lions ranked 22nd in rushing as of Week 16 of 2019 in both total yards and yards per carry. That’s not great, but it is their best mark in either category since the final year of Jim Schwartz’s tenure when Reggie Bush and Joique Bell shared a backfield. Both are improvements over 2018 and significant improvements over the previous coaching staff’s efforts in that area.
They overcame some hardships, too, even if some were self imposed. The Lions managed improvement despite a baffling offensive line rotation throughout the season on their offensive interior line, injuries along the line causing another year of a constantly shifting front, and a career poor year from starting right tackle Rick Wagner. This looked like a year where the run game would sputter and fall apart, but they kept chugging along.
That’s even before you mention that the Lions have had a constantly-changing rushing backfield due to (somewhat predictable) injuries. Kerryon Johnson missed significant time and five different running backs (including two UDFA rookies and a second-year, seventh-round castoff) led the team in rushing at some point in the year. It wasn’t pretty, but this is a rush game that is built to withstand injuries and share the workload to preserve the running backs.
Touchdown Kerryon Johnson pic.twitter.com/6qluO3KXOS— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) December 29, 2019
We’re constantly talking about building depth to account for injuries, and with the volume and frequency with which the Lions offensive front dealt with that very problem, we should have seen a bottom-of-the-league effort even with an experienced coordinator. Instead, we see a talented enough backfield that we’re already looking ahead to what that rushing attack might look like in 2020, with few worried about who they’re drafting or when to carry the rock.
The Lions pass protection was awful under Jim Schwartz and worse under Jim Caldwell, with Matthew Stafford not seeing his team outside of the 12th worst in pass pro the entirety of former offensive line coach Ron Prince’s tenure. The team still lands in roughly the same range under Darrell Bevell and Jeff Davidson in 2019, but there is an important caveat to that. With Matthew Stafford under center, the Lions were protecting the quarterback among the best in the league, and he had only taken 18 sacks through the first eight weeks of the season. 10 of the Lions’ remaining 25 sacks since that time have been attributed to quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and David Blough—not the offensive line—as opposed to only three attributed to Stafford through the first half of the year.
Two #Lions OL make the @PFF Top 25 OL entering Week 16. C Frank Ragnow has thrived after his position switch and LT Taylor Decker has finally improved his run blocking to be on par with his pass blocking to put together a strong seasonhttps://t.co/Garf7p9m2X— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) December 19, 2019
The interior rotation idea was a bad one from the start, despite its early success, but I suspect the point was to build depth at a position group that hasn’t had any at all for half a decade. In terms of success, it was mixed. Backups Kenny Wiggins and Oday Aboushi got some work (significant work in the case of Wiggins) and the drop off wasn’t as significant as expected. As far as blind side protection, 36 of Taylor Decker’s 66 combined sacks, hurries, hits, and pressures came in the first five weeks of the season, while he was dealing with injury, and for the remaining stretch of the season he was a top five tackle in the NFL. If the team locks up Graham Glasgow, likely for a deal in the $11-12 million per range, the line may not be the weakness some expect it to be in 2020.
All the weapons
As far as receiving threats go, you could do a lot worse than Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola. Golladay has actually been on a Calvin Johnson-esque career pace, so the receiving room really comes down to only two questions: Longevity and other options.
Detroit #Lions WR Kenny Golladay finished the 2019 season with 1190 Yards, 11 touchdowns. The most in the #NFL— Gabriel Schray (@schrayguy) December 30, 2019
He is the first player in franchise history to lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns outright since WR Cloyce Box (15) did so in 1952#OnePride #NFL100 #Detroit @kgxix pic.twitter.com/ag4oqVG0uq
Longevity is a question because both Golladay and Jones are entering the final years of their respective deals. Adding to that, Jones has landed on IR in each of the past two seasons. Danny Amendola has had a career year in Detroit, but at 34 and with a history of durability concerns is it safe to bank on a similar return?
As far as other options, it gets a little murkier. The Lions came into the season having drafted T.J. Hockenson in the top ten and brought in Jesse James as a high priced free agent. The expectation was some returns from the tight end position. They got it early, but it was quickly lost in the weeds as the tight ends seemed more and more focused solely on the run and blocking in the passing game. When Kerryon Johnson went down, the Lions didn’t have any other options aside from gadget guy J.D. McKissic out of the backfield, a problem we’ve seen before in previous offenses that never ends well.
Risk aside, this unit was a bright spot, and there’s better portends on the horizon. T.J. Hockenson didn’t have the rookie season many envisioned, but he started out the year with a historic performance that set a record for a tight end rookie debut. Expectations are high at a position that is known for a steep bump in years 2 and 3. Receiving production at running back was down in 2019 in part due to the injury of Kerryon Johnson but also due to the downfield attack the team employed in Darrell Bevell’s offense.
Will it work?
Despite a maddening trend with Darrell Bevell where his offense would struggle running off script after the first couple of drives, this offense looks built to succeed when everyone is healthy.
There is still concern on the offensive line with Graham Glasgow inexplicably poised to hit free agency and the Lions potentially riding with a combination of Joe Dahl, Kenny Wiggins, and Oday Aboushi along their interior. If the team doesn’t go that route and instead brings back Glasgow and/or brings in a quality lineman in free agency or the draft, the offense, as a whole, could look very balanced. Based on Bevell’s desire and Stafford’s talents pushing the ball deep, it could be a very dangerous offense indeed.
With the team’s success working with their depth this season at skill positions, 2020 is going to come down to the strength and durability of their offensive line. We’ve already seen what this team looks like if they can’t keep their franchise signal caller upright and healthy.