Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez take a critical view of the Lions’ 2018 season and this staff, and discuss reasons to believe in 2019, Dec. 31, 2018.
Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions hired Bob Quinn as general manager three years ago this week, after a 7-9 season that, much like the one that just finished, started with some embarrassing losses in the first half of the season. 

The Lions went 6-10 in 2018, not exactly where the organization hoped to be three years into Quinn’s tenure. They’ve missed the playoffs the last two seasons and this season finished in last place in the NFC North.

Quinn was asked last week where he thought the organization was better than when he arrived. He pointed to both lines and an improved running game, and mentioned some of the defensive stalwarts he’s added to the roster.

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“I think we’re a more physical team,” he said. “I think we have a much better sound, fundamentally, defense, especially run defense. I think we play a physical brand of football, which before, I didn’t think that was the case my first year or two. I think this year, we drastically improved that. And that goes with some of the guys that we acquired in the front seven from Jarrad Davis to Damon Harrison to Da’Shawn Hand to Romeo Okwara. Those guys really set a tone in the front seven to play physical on defense. And I think the same thing can be said for the offensive line and the running game. So, I know that part’s better. I think other things definitely need to improve. We’re going to work on that this year, and just add as many playmakers as we can to this team.”

With the offseason upon us and the Lions still going through their end-of-year evaluations, it feels like a good time to take stock in where the Lions have improved under Quinn and how much further they still have to go.

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I wouldn’t characterize any of their units as “best in the NFL,” though the interior of their defensive line is trending towards one of the better ones in the league. Beyond that, though, as Quinn said, there’s lots of work to do.

Running game – better

The Lions have never lacked a commitment to building their offensive line, things just have never really worked out. Former general manager Martin Mayhew spent first-round picks on linemen Riley Reiff and Laken Tomlinson, plus third-rounders on Larry Warford and Travis Swanson, in a four-year span. Quinn, similarly, drafted Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow in Round 1 and Graham Glasgow in Round 3, and spent big in free agency on Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang.

The Lions were better up front this year than they were in 2015, their last season before Quinn, though the return still wasn’t commensurate with the investment. Their run game, though, was significantly improved, both because of their commitment to running the football and the addition of Kerryon Johnson. Johnson isn’t Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley or Saquon Barkley, but he has a chance to be the best Lions running back since Barry Sanders.

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Passing game – worse 

Whether it was scheme, coaching, supporting cast or regression from the man pulling the trigger, the Lions had their worst season passing the football this year since 2009. Matthew Stafford’s bottom-line numbers aside, the Lions didn’t stress opponents enough with their downfield passing attack and, outside of Kenny Golladay, they have no big playmakers in the receiving corps.

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Calvin Johnson was on the 2015 team that preceded Quinn, and it’s unrealistic to think the Lions would replace him with another Hall-of-Fame-caliber player. But three years after Johnson’s retirement, Quinn appears to have misjudged the need for – or not been able to land the right – playmakers in the passing game. Stafford, 30 years old and 10 seasons into his NFL career, is the wildcard. If he’s peaked as a player, the Lions might not recapture the passing success they had in the early part of this decade.

Run defense – better

Quinn is right that the Lions defense is better built schematically to stop the run. They’re bigger and more physical up front, and of course it helps to have players like Harrison, Hand, Davis and third-year defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson. Just like he has built the offensive line, Quinn has invested plenty of resources in the defensive front seven (high draft picks on Davis and Robinson, and trading for Hand).

Statistically, the Lions were a middle-of-the-pack run defense in 2015 (19th) and a top-10 unit this season (10th) despite posting almost identical numbers (112.8 yards per game allowed then against 110.1 yards per game allowed now), but this run defense feels more sustainable. Harrison is about at the same point of his career now that Haloti Ngata was when Quinn came aboard, but Hand, Davis and Robinson are all playing on their rookie deals while Quinn inherited a team that had an aging Stephen Tulloch at middle linebacker and a cast of journeymen (outside of Ngata) at defensive tackle.

Pass defense – worse

Philosophically, this is where the Lions of today and three years ago diverge. Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia have tried to be strong up the middle, while the Lions Quinn inherited were built for speed off the edge. The Lions weren’t a great pass defense in 2015, though Darius Slay was starting to come into his own as a cornerback and Glover Quin still was near the top of his game. The biggest difference was that the team Quinn inherited had a fierce pass rush led by a healthy Ziggy Ansah at right end.

Between defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni’s sacks-are-overrated comments this season and the Patriot Way of doing more with less, I’m still not sure how much Quinn and Patricia value big-time edge rushers. Maybe we’ll find out with the No. 8 pick in the draft. But collectively, I don’t believe the Lions are as good a pass defense now as they were when Quinn took over the team.

Depth – better

The back end of NFL rosters are always made up of young players and journeyman types, and most teams do a good job of mixing and matching players there to fit their needs. Where the Lions have grown stronger is in the 30-40 range on their 53-man roster, the group of top backups who are next up when the inevitable injury strikes.

Players like Zach Zenner, Tyrell Crosby and Levine Toilolo all emerged from the group as reliable contributors this season. The Lions still aren’t deep enough, and that was part of their problem. They couldn’t overcome the loss of key players on both sides of the ball. But Quinn has done a good job mining the waiver wire (Okwara) and otherwise adding players (Eli Harold, Bruce Ellington) to keep the roster afloat.

Top-line playmakers – worse

“I know what this team needs, and I think in the coming months we’ll fine-tune those needs to what’s available in the draft and free agency and all the different aspects of the way we can acquire talent,” Quinn said last week. Asked what those needs are, the first thing Quinn mentioned was “more playmakers on both sides of the ball.”

The Lions aren’t the only team in this boat. There are only so many blue-chip players to go around. But in 2015, the Lions had Johnson at receiver, Ansah at defensive end, a prolific Stafford throwing the ball and Golden Tate and Theo Riddick combing for 170 catches. This year, they had none of that. Golladay, Harrison and Kerryon Johnson all had their moments, but Riddick isn’t the same playmaker he was a few years ago, the Lions didn’t have a pass rush and Stafford’s numbers took a dive with no one to throw to.

Watch the playoffs over these next few weeks. Balance is important and there are plenty of ways to win, but the teams left playing are mostly there because they have individuals or groups who impact games in extraordinary ways. Aaron Donald. Andrew Luck. Patrick Mahomes. Ezekiel Elliott. Todd Gurley. Tyreek Hill. The Chargers’ pass rush. The Colts’ offensive line. The list goes on, and the Lions need someone or something to join it or we’ll be right back here again next year. 


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Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!