We all have heard the media and others speaking about the optimism surrounding our beloved Detroit Lions. News articles, fan boards and blogs are all discussing how the Lions seem to be a team on the right path, a team “on the rise”. The common consensus is that the Detroit Lions should be a playoff team in 2011.
Forgive me if I have heard this before. When the Detroit Lions drafted Andre Ware with the 7th overall pick in 1990, the Lions were thought to be a future Super Bowl contender with Barry Sanders and the Run and Shoot offense of Mouse Davis. In Matt Millen’s first year as GM, the Lions drafted Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and Shaun Rogers, and they were going to “dominate” both the offensive and defensive lines. When the Lions drafted Mike Williams to play next to Charles Rogers and Roy Williams, they were going to have an “unstoppable” offense.
While I love the hype and anticipation surrounding the next season, it is important to realize that one very important scenario could have a huge impact on the Lions next season. And that one scenario has proven to be an issue in the past. That scenario is the health of Matthew Stafford, and could lead to some very tough decisions for the Lions after the 2011 season is over. Given the critical nature of next season, I am going to detail some of the impacts if Stafford gets hurt (say for 10 or 11 games) and the potential impact to the Detroit Lions organization.
The first item to consider is Matthew Stafford’s long term future in Detroit. If Stafford goes down for any appreciable amount of time next season, then the Lions will have some interesting decisions to make. Stafford will have completed three years of his six year contract and is signed through 2014, and is making a boatload of money. The Lions GM Martin Mayhew will have to start seriously considering whether or not Stafford will ever stay healthy (and is worth the dollars being paid to him). If Mayhew decides that Stafford can’t remain on the field, then a quarterback option must be considered in the 2012 draft or free agency period, (in addition to a left tackle).
Obviously with Stafford sidelined, Shaun Hill is now the starting quarterback. Shaun Hill will be in the last year of his contract, and two scenarios could unfold. One, he comes in, and leads the team to the playoffs. Joy all around, people dancing in the streets of Detroit, cats and dogs living together. But then what? If Shaun Hill can lead the Detroit Lions to a playoff spot, he surely can make starter money somewhere else in the league. So the Lions now have to decide whether to let him walk via free agency, or pay him starter money (along with the money they already owed Stafford).
In the second scenario, he comes in and loses. The Lions then have to decide to try to sign him to another contract as a back-up quarterback, when he has proven that he cannot win in the league, or to let him walk, and know that your #1 quarterback keeps getting hurt and your #2 quarterback is gone.
With the uncertain situation at quarterback, the next question is whether Calvin Johnson decides that he has had enough. While I believe that no one player leaving (especially a wide receiver) should have a huge impact on an NFL team (look at how the Patriot’s plug guys in and continue to win), Calvin Johnson is arguably the Lions’ most gifted offensive player. The Lions have not only devised game plans to get him open, but have even drafted additional offensive players to enable that game planning (see Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew). If there is another losing season in Detroit (his fifth), and the Lions keep playing quarterback roulette, Johnson might be determined enough to test the free agent market after the 2012 season (the last season of his contract) regardless of the contract offered to him by the Lions. That would leave the Lions with a receiving corps of Nate Burleson and Titus Young and, hmmm, …..somebody else. If someone doesn’t think Calvin is fed up with the losing, look at what losing did to Barry Sanders, and he actually experienced a playoff game.
Another key decision to be made is regarding the future of Jim Schwartz. Suffice it to say, Jim Schwartz has hitched his wagon to Matthew Stafford. If there is another disappointing season in Detroit, the Lions will have another decision to make. Jim Schwartz will have just completed the 3rd year of his 4 year contract. Unless the Lions relish the idea of having a having a lame duck head coach in 2012, the Lions will have to decide whether to offer Jim Schwartz a contract extension, or to cut ties and start over. Martin Mayhew, who has been credited with several successful drafts and free agency deals, will have to analyze if Jim Schwartz has done enough with the players provided to him to earn another contract, or if the organization must again start over and begin a new search for a head coach. Needless to say, a new coach could potentially bring in a new system, with new player requirements, and the whole cycle starts again for the Detroit Lions and their fan base. While I feel that Jim Schwartz should be given an extension, Martin Mayhew has made it clear that winning is the only thing that matters.
Finally, given the circumstances above, with a potential new head coach and the best offensive player expressing an interest in leaving, the fans could finally decided that they have had enough. Season ticket sales could drop….oh wait. We are Detroit Lions fans. We would never do that. If there is one thing that the fans have proven, is that we will be here no matter what…and no matter how much we complain.
The scenario above I feel is reasonable and not outside the realms of reality. And given the contract situation of several key players, it is all the more reason to hope that 2011 is a successful year, because many hard decisions can be avoided. And while the Lions have been better recently, decision making has never been a strong point of this franchise.