New Year’s signifies a time for change, and the Detroit Lions certainly need it. In a troubling year for people around the world, 2020 marked one of the lowest points in recent Lions history and end to a period once viewed with optimism.
2020 has been a roller coaster for the Lions. Matthew Stafford has been banged up, and his time as a Lion could be at an end. The coaching staff failed spectacularly, resulting in the firing of Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn—you could view this as a good thing, but I digress. Their star receiver hardly played in a contract year. The defense is historically bad. Their third overall pick had a rookie season to forget. Their prized free agent offensive tackle has been bad, injured, at guard, or some combination of the three. Jamie Collins got ejected for headbutting a referee while demonstrating what happened to him on a previous play. Their center fractured his throat. Their best coach got fired for going rogue.
What a wild season. At least we had some Pro Bowlers!
With 2020 in the rearview mirror, it is time for the Detroit Lions to look ahead. In keeping with the traditions of New Year’s, let us make some resolutions for 2021.
What should the Lions New Year’s resolutions be?
Jeremy Reisman: The Lions’ New Year’s resolution should be to adopt football from this decade. We’re in the midst of a new era of football in which passing reigns supreme, and young, mobile quarterbacks dominate the league. That isn’t to say running the football doesn’t have its place, but if there’s anything the Matt Patricia era should have taught us, it’s that the old adage of run the ball/stop the run should no longer be the staple of this team.
When the Lions decide on the general manager and head coach to lead this team into the new year, this should be at the forefront of their minds. That’s why I’m a little anxious about Chris Spielman—who comes from that era of old-timey football—helping lead the charge. But to give him credit, he’s seen the game change first-hand as he’s talked to plenty of smart football minds during production meetings for FOX.
Recently, I’ve started to fall in love with the idea of adding someone like Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to Detroit. He’s a brilliant defensive mind—I know, I hear what I’m saying, too—that seems to have his head in the 21st century. This article from The Athletic really paints the picture of a smart guy looking at football in a new way.
Plus, with quotes like this...
…you can quickly win my heart over after enduring years of horrible pass defense under Patricia.
Hamza Baccouche: I like what Jeremy pointed out, and I’ve already purchased my first-class ticket on the Brandon Staley hype train.
I wanted to say that the Lions’ New Years resolution should be to make their vision clear, but it took me about two seconds to realize what’s wrong with that. Matt Patricia made his vision clear, it was just a vision of an awful football team.
That being said, I do still want a vision. Since Chris Spielman was hired, we’ve been hearing a lot about “culture.” That seems to be the theme of the next regime hire. What does that culture entail though? Yes, winning, thanks for the obvious answer. Winning aside, what does this next team want to be? I know it’ll be heavily dependent on the hire, but you have to have some ideas in mind even before then, whether you want this to be an offense-first or defense-first team, who you envision as the leaders of this team in two, three, or four years, even if that’s a player who’s a free agent or on another team (and signing/extending them accordingly).
Once they do make the hire, it becomes even more important. When you have a vision you are able to execute and determine whether each roster move, coaching move, and internal decision gets you closer or farther from that vision. Matt Patricia was able to run this team into the ground so quickly because he had a vision (albeit one better suited for the NFL 25 years ago) and every move the team made was calculated in accordance with executing that vision.
Find out what the vision is, Chris Spielman, Sheila Hamp Ford, and Rod Wood. Let us know what it is, and then move—and move swiftly—to make it a reality.
Andrew Kato: My esteemed colleagues have already covered the top end of the organizational hiring, so I’d like to talk about an issue further down the org chart and closer to my own field of expertise. What I believe the Detroit Lions should resolve to do in 2021 is to become a leader in the application of data science and analytics in the NFL. The Lions made baby steps toward catching up to the rest of the league in this department, but it is clear the team remains far behind where they ought to be. Owner Sheila Ford Hamp said back in July that one way she wanted to differentiate how she ran the organization was to be “a little more involved with the younger staff, and would like to learn way more about our analytics team for instance.” She went on to say she knows “they’re excellent, but kind of want to be briefed on what they do.”
Now that there is a new regime coming into control of football operations in the front office and on the field, this is the time to really commit to selecting leadership that emphasizes using information in a 21st Century manner. Beyond simply expanding the analytics staff to more than Michael Pelfrey and Caio Brighenti on staff, the Lions could do many things to encourage a natural pool of analytics talent in Michigan to draw from. They could run seminars on data work and get involved with whatever local groups already exist doing this as a hobby or professionally. Maybe set up extracurricular programs with the Detroit Lions Academy or other area schools to field teams for events like the Big Data Bowl as a way to learn about the expanding field of data science. That is how you create interest and connections to the organization, and where you find your next great analysts.
1 year ago I was struggling to find a job in BI. Then I decided to take a shot at the student Data Bowl even though I thought I had no chance. Now I work for an NFL team.— Caio Brighenti (@CaioBrighenti) October 14, 2020
If you have sports analytics aspirations (in any sport) then you need to participate. https://t.co/NTCIopPjqt
Even as a straight up community outreach program, such a program emphasizing analytics is a solid service to the youth of Detroit. Skills in context-based statistical analysis, data visualization and presentation, and programming skills in R, Python, SAS, Tableau, or whatever other tools they may use are extremely highly sought after in today’s workforce. Remember when robotics clubs and computer clubs were the hot afterschool STEM thing back in the 1980s and 1990s? This is the next field that (already) needs a big influx of trained people.
John Whiticar: Building upon Jeremy’s idea of a modern day NFL team, the Lions will need to drastically rework their entire defense, players and philosophy both. My New Year’s Resolution for the Lions is to acquire players that fit in today’s NFL. The big, bruising run-orientated defenders of yesteryear are relicts in the league, and the Lions happen to have most of those relicts. I do not want this team to invest in Jahlani Tavais or Reggie Raglands. Coverage linebackers do not often get the accolades of pass rushing linebackers, but their role in the NFL is ever crucial.
Fred Warner is a playmaker for the 49ers. Eric Kendricks is the backbone of the Vikings defense. You need to get a linebacker—or in the Lions case, multiple linebackers—that can make an impact in coverage. Spending valuable assets on a run defending linebacker like Tavai is pointless. Best case scenario, he turns into a great run defender. Congratulations, he can now play on two out of four downs. Worst case scenario, he can’t defend the run at the pro level. Now you get Tavai, who is a liability on every down.
I haven’t even touched upon nose tackles or containment-oriented defensive linemen. Sure, it is nice that the Lions have held scrambling quarterbacks in check. That is a an adaptation to modern football. The problem? The defense gives up so much time to quarterbacks that containment doesn’t matter. The secondary was a disaster this season, don’t get me wrong, but at least they have the makeup of a modern defense. Where is the pass rush? Romeo Okwara has been overperforming all season as the lone competent pass rusher, but with him probably gone in free agency, who will replace him? Can Julian Okwara fill his brother’s shoes?
Teams have been chipping away at the defense all season long, going on long drives that eat up a ton of clock. The Lions are giving up a league-worst 41.6 yards per drive on defense. The Lions are fifth-worst with 3:06 minutes per drive allowed. Through 15 games, the Lions have allowed 38 drives of 70 yards or longer. THIRTY-EIGHT! Even worse, the Lions have allowed 17 drives of over 80 yards! What is the point of having a Pro Bowl punter pinning teams deep if that does nothing to hinder them?
The Lions secondary is full of young players, and they have gotten no help from the front seven. The Lions need to get coverage linebackers. The Lions need to get consistent pass rushers. The NFL is a copycat league. Some might want to be unique, but as we saw with Patricia, going against the grain can backfire. Learn from what works from other teams. Build upon it, instead of tearing it down.