The Detroit Lions have been making moves this offseason.
The front office has been reshaped, changes have been made at the positional coach level and the roster itself is undergoing a bit of a transformation.
When it’s all said and done, the Lions will have made double-digit changes to the coaching staff (without making any moves at the top) and the front office. Those fresh faces will be joined by several new players in the locker room – including a changing leadership group as some of the core leaders – like Stephen Tulloch, Rashean Mathis and Joique Bell – have already left the team.
All of these moves (with the exception of Mathis, who retired) are occurring as baby steps towards one over-arching goal – to win a championship.
Every team that is built has an optimal window to win that championship. Some builds never take flight, while others seem to defy logic while making repeated title runs.
When it comes to the Lions, what does their championship window look like?
That’s a question that is only truly answered in time, as the fleeting nature of most championship windows usually reveal themselves only after they have closed.
For the Lions, 2015 might have been the optimal year for a title run.
It almost seems absurd to write that – after all, 2015 turned out to be a catastrophic campaign for the organization. One that saw a 1-7 start crush any playoff hopes and cause some of the highest-ranking officials to lose their jobs.
Still, a couple of decisions could have completely changed the fortunes of 2015.
The first – and most obvious – is Ndamukong Suh, the star defensive tackle the Lions let walk for a bank-breaking deal in Miami.
Consider this; had the Lions beat Seattle and Green Bay – two games that were decided by a play – they are likely to have made the playoffs. With Suh on the roster, the Lions win those games.
The infamous Hail Mary doesn’t happen with Suh in the trenches. Also, the back-breaking, out-of-the-pocket brilliance of Russell Wilson is more contained, potentially keeping the Lions out of the do-or-die situation that cost them against the Seahawks.
Simply put, Suh could have propelled the Lions into the playoffs and the Lions could have kept him. Even with the two ill-advised contract restructures that gave Suh the leverage that ultimately allowed him to walk, the Lions could have simply accepted the hefty hit of the franchise tag and shed some veteran contracts while restructuring others. Maybe not the best long-term play but certainly a decision that enables you to make a run in the short term.
The Lions had the league’s second best defensive unit in 2014. Imagine what they could have done in 2015 with Suh as well as the emergence of Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay.
Even if Deandre Levy is still hurt in this scenario, the Lions defense falls short of only the Denver Broncos in 2015 with Suh manning the middle of the line.
Take that defense and couple it with a Jim Bob Cooter powered offense and 2015 could have been much different.
It’s probably not realistic to have expected Jim Caldwell to pull the plug on former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi at the end of 2014. However, had he realized the chemistry Cooter had with Stafford as well as the former-quarterbacks coach’s ability to be a potent play-caller, the move would have been a justifiable one.
The Lions averaged 27.3 points-per-game during the team’s last seven contests vs. 18.5 during the team’s first nine. Had Cooter started with control of the offense, who knows exactly how the Lions would have fared against stiffer competition earlier in the year but the results are almost certain to have been better.
Had the Lions been able to stretch their second-half proficiency across the entire year, that 27.3-pt average would have been bested by only three other teams – Carolina, New England and Arizona – three teams that made it to championship weekend.
Still, despite the missed opportunity in 2015, the Lions window hasn’t slammed shut. It’s hard to imagine a title run in 2016 but the team is in position to retool for a run within a few years.
If Stafford and Cooter continue to build chemistry and the Lions hit in the 2016 draft (where they will have double-digit selections after compensatory picks are added) this team could be loaded with talent in the prime of its career within a couple of years.
The key is recognizing what you have, when you have it and then maximizing your chances to do something with it.
The Lions failed to do that exiting the 2014 season but they might have another opportunity soon. The question is, will the new regime make the same mistake when their window is most open?