NFL 2014 Preview: Detroit Lions

Eric Ebron is among a group of new Lions that could make the offence even more potent. But that won't be enough if the team can't hold a lead. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Detroit Lions.

Last year’s record: 7-9

Coach: Jim Caldwell, not Jim Schwartz, to the delight of many

2014 is about… Becoming an actual effective team. For the last few years the Lions have been home to plenty of talent, but precious little depth and discipline. Around the league, there was a feeling that the lack of structure came from the top down, and that Schwartz was the wrong person to lead the team.

Core players: Matthew Stafford (QB), Calvin Johnson (WR), Ndamukong Suh (DT), Reggie Bush (RB)

But they lost… Jim Schwartz (head coach). Usually this is a space reserved for lamenting players who would rather work elsewhere—but the Lions didn’t lose anybody of note. One thing they did lose, though? Fourth-quarter leads in six of their nine losses. Schwartz brought a fiery attitude to the team, which was badly needed in the wake of a decade of epic failure, but his hotheadedness and lack of structured game plan ultimately wore thin quickly, and the team’s knack for blown leads, untimely penalties and off-field issues can be at least partly attributed to the example set by their coach.

Yeah, but they got… Golden Tate (WR). Hands up if you can name the receivers not named Calvin Johnson who caught the most passes for the Lions in the past two years. No? OK, well Nate Burleson (39, 2013) and Titus Young (33, 2012). That’s a total of 72 passes over two seasons—also known as eight more balls than Tate caught by himself with Seattle last season. As the Seahawks’ second or third option. In a run-first system. The Lions won’t have any of those circumstances hampering Tate’s opportunity and Tate can win jump balls downfield against No. 2 defensive backs all day, while Megatron might even see some single coverage on the other side of the field—or so the Lions hope. Tate has the potential to be a game changer.

Growing from within: Eric Ebron (TE) is another elite offensive piece that should make Detroit’s air attack more potent—though the team plans to let him grow into the role gradually and Ebron admitted at OTAs that he finds the playbook challenging. On the other side of the ball, Darius Slay (CB) took major strides last year, so much so that the Lions released ineffective vet Chris Houston and are counting on Slay to help lock down two of the more potent passing attacks in the league in divisional rivals Chicago and Green Bay. If he’s not up to that task the season will start to seem very long very quickly. There’s also hope that Caldwell and new quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter (yep, that’s his real name) can help Stafford refine his mechanics, which QB observers have labelled the biggest obstacle between the rocket-armed pivot and true elite status.

Why this team? Because they’re the Lions, but they’re also one of the most exciting offences in the NFL. In other words, you get all the fun of cheering for a loser team (rooting for the underdog, being able to brush off horrible news as simply expected and the thrill of anything good seeming like manna from heaven) without having to actually endure the ugly, boring process of watching a bad team try to rebuild—you’d rather watch Detroit than, say, Jacksonville, Oakland, Houston or even teams like St. Louis or Buffalo.

Why not? Because they are the Detroit Lions. If it can go wrong, it probably will. If Golden Tate seems like a viable No. 2 receiver now, it’s only a matter of time before he goes nuts and gets thrown off the team or breaks his arm trying to secure a pizza while crashing his car. This is a team that managed to turn the greatest running back of all time into a sad, discouraged man who walked away from football rather than return for more seasons of racking up stats and going nowhere by November. This is a team that is not for the faint of heart.

Perfect for fans of… The Toronto Maple Leafs. Rare playoff appearances. Seasons that begin with promise and end with pain and humiliation. A handful of talented players and a coach seemingly devoted to using them incorrectly. A loyal fan base that’s waited decades for a title and somehow doesn’t seem any closer to raising a banner. Basically, both teams represent eternal hope left to wither and die, alone and friendless, in the alley, every single year. Hop on board, Leafs Nation!

How much hope? 5/10. The NFC North is not a juggernaut division, though it’s far from a cakewalk. The Lions have a lot of talent, though they’re far from a deep, balanced contender. The new coach could calm things down, but since he’s Jim Caldwell, that might be accomplished by putting everyone to sleep. The bottom line is that there are reasons enough to hope for the best—but because we’re discussing the Detroit Lions, it’s probably best to plan for the worst. Just to be safe.

Will you be mocked for front-running? Oh, man. No. If you root for the Lions you will not be mocked for front-running. Your friends may ask you why you’re doing this to yourself in the same tone of voice they’d use if you were huffing paint thinner or smoking crack—but they won’t accuse you of jumping on any bandwagons, that’s for sure.

A Meme To Remember: What’s it like being a Lions fan? “I had a great time until (Matt) Stafford threw an interception in the third…”

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