Did the Lions improve in 2009? That depends. Their performance hardly improved, but their positioning for the future might have improved greatly.
On the field, they made some progress, but not much. A year after the NFL's first 0-16 season, they went 2-14. Their victories were by a combined six points over two bad teams -- Washington (4-12) and Cleveland (5-11) -- and they lost to the only team that finished worse than they did: St. Louis (1-15).
They were better in most statistical categories, but everything is relative. Perhaps the prime example: A year after allowing 517 points, second-most all-time, they allowed 494, fourth-most.
"Obviously 2-14 is unacceptable," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "That's not what we're going to be about. I think 2-14 really is something the entire organization needs to improve on. Nobody should feel comfortable or feel like, 'At least my department did a good job.' ... Everybody is a part of 2-14, and that's something we have to have a sense of urgency about improving. ... We don't plan on doing that again."
In Mayhew's first full season as GM and Jim Schwartz's first season as coach, the Lions faced a severe talent deficit. The roster was depleted after years of mismanagement by former president Matt Millen. But Mayhew declined to lean completely on that excuse.
"I would say from where we started I knew it wasn't going to be easy," Mayhew said. "I would say that. Anybody who thought it was going to be easy obviously was mistaken and didn't speak to me about it. I knew it was going to be hard to accomplish our goals this year, and I think we all went into it with the understanding it would be a difficult task. But that doesn't mean you accept being 2-14."
The biggest positive the Lions can take out of 2009 was their draft class. They feel they found a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a complete tight end in Brandon Pettigrew and a leader for the defense in safety Louis Delmas, plus solid pieces for their defense in linebacker DeAndre Levy and tackle Sammie Hill.
All of those players gained valuable experience as rookies and need to continue developing.
"If you asked me after 2008 who our good, young players were, it would have been hard to come up with a long list," Mayhew said. "I think we do have a longer list of guys who have shown promise. I wouldn't say that our rookie class is a good rookie class yet.
"Like we talked about around draft time, you can't grade it after the draft or grade it after a season. It takes longer than that to figure out exactly what you have, and those guys have a lot of hard work cut out for them during this off-season to prove themselves as players in this league. But I would say the early returns are promising."
Now the Lions need to find a lot more building blocks.
"If Matthew Stafford doesn't succeed and doesn't become a great quarterback in the NFL, some of that's on us because he's got all the tools and stuff to be able to do that," Mayhew said. "It's on us to put good players around him. It's on us to coach him, to improve his play. I think he has shown that he has the tools to be successful and so we feel very, very good about that."
- The Lions fired special teams coordinator Stan Kwan. They struggled on special teams in all facets, from coverage to returns to kicking and punting. Even ever-reliable veteran Jason Hanson missed seven field goals. Punter Nick Harris called Kwan "one of the most diligent coaches that I've ever been around, as far as putting in the time, the hard work and the things that he needed to do to be successful." Kwan spent the past three seasons as the Lions' special teams coordinator. He was a Lions assistant from 1997-2000 and 2004-07. He also has worked for the Chargers and Cardinals. "It's unfortunate when there's a guy like that that does what needs to be done and it doesn't pay off for him," Harris said. "It really stinks for him. But hopefully he'll get another chance somewhere. I think he deserves it. I think he's shown that he's willing to do what it takes to win. Once he gets that next chance, hopefully he will."
- General manager Martin Mayhew was pleased with the coaches in general, however. "I couldn't be happier with the coaching staff and with the offensive and defensive systems," Mayhew said. "I think they've done an outstanding job coaching these guys, and you've got to understand this, too: When you draft players, they don't just get off the bus and just come in and start playing well. They have to get coached, and there have been a number of young players around the league who haven't had that first year that a lot of our first-year guys had. I was really happy with the staff and with the job that those guys did."
- The Lions will coach the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. "Our goal being to improve every step along the way, the next opportunity we have to get better is the Senior Bowl," Mayhew said. "It's coaching those players, and there's a lot of benefit to being around those players for a week, spending time with them, getting to know who those guys are. I think it really helps you on some of those mid-round picks knowing that a guy fits your organization, knowing what a guy's work habits are, knowing the way a guy practices or how he responds under pressure. All those things come into play, and so I think that really is going to benefit our draft in 2010."
- Running back Kevin Smith will have surgery to tighten a separated shoulder suffered Sept. 27 against Washington, but he won't have it until after he gets off crutches. He already has had a torn ACL repaired. "Let me say this about Kevin: Kevin didn't have a great year this year, but Kevin's injury, I think it was the third game against Washington, we've had guys go on IR with that," Mayhew said. "I think that affected his play. Later he hurt his other shoulder. He continued to play with both bad shoulders, and then he had the knee injury. Obviously from an injury standpoint it was a bad season for Kevin.
"But I think he showed his competitiveness and his toughness in that situation. This off-season we have to look at every situation and evaluate what kind of player we're going to bring in at what level. I anticipate adding somebody to that position, but the question will be what their role is going to be. Is it going to be a guy you bring in and say, 'This guy is going to be our starter'? Or is it going to be a guy you bring in to supplement what you already have?"
- Mayhew said the Lions will bring back quarterback Drew Stanton, a second-round pick in 2007 who has struggled and hardly played. "Drew's still a developing guy," Mayhew said. "I thought he made tremendous strides from the beginning of the year through the season. He's a young guy that we drafted. We still believe in Drew Stanton, and we're still going to keep working with him and trying to develop him."
- Mayhew said he would not rule out bringing back quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Culpepper went 0-10 as a starter for the Lions from 2008-09. "All Daunte's done for us from the first day we brought him here is everything we've asked him to do," Mayhew said. "Sometimes his performance hasn't been what we wanted, but there's a bunch of guys in that locker room we can say the same thing about."
- Mayhew played down an incident on Thanksgiving, when Culpepper was upset the Lions decided to start Matthew Stafford at the last minute despite his separated shoulder. Mayhew was seen having an animated discussion with Culpepper, who didn't warm up right away. "I saw the clip of the conversation, it was nothing like what the conversation looked like," Mayhew said. "I was trying to make a point to him, and I was making a point. Sometimes I guess my mannerisms add volume to the conversation. But the tone I was speaking in is the tone that I'm speaking in right now, and we never had any serious issue.
- Mayhew would not rule out bringing back linebackers Larry Foote or Julian Peterson. Foote is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. "I thought he brought a lot to the table in terms of his leadership with that group and obviously the things he did in our community," Mayhew said. "He's a guy that wants to be in Detroit, and obviously that's important." Peterson is due a $7.5 million salary. "As he got opportunities to rush the passer, his production increased," Mayhew said. "So there's definitely I think a role for Julian. Like a lot of our players, I wouldn't address Julian's contract with you guys before I talked to Julian about it. I'll just say that he was productive and he did things we thought he should be doing."
- Cornerback Eric King served a one-game suspension during the season finale Jan. 3 against Chicago "for an alcohol-related violation of law," according to an NFL spokesman. King has been on injured reserve since suffering a shoulder injury Oct. 11 against Pittsburgh. But because he was suspended without pay against the Bears, he forfeited a game check of $58,823.