The Lions fired a special-teams coach at midseason last year, rode the work of an interim and then brought back one they used to employ on Tuesday.
How much they have to fix is up for debate.
In the same week that the Lions hired recently fired Central Michigan coach John Bonamego back to the special-teams coordinator role he held in 2013-2014, some annual special-teams rankings came out from Rick Gosselin, an author and Hall-of-Fame voter.
Each year, Gosselin ranks all 32 teams in 22 special-teams categories and assigns them points based on how they place: one point for 32nd, 32 points for first in any given category. All the points add up to a final team score.
The Lions finished 12th in those rankings. They came out with 342 points, which amounts to 15 per category.
That figure stands in contrast to the perception that had the Lions firing longtime coordinator Joe Marciano at midseason. Of course, it factors in the improvement of the unit under Devin Fitzsimmons after that, but Detroit’s special teams didn’t appear like an overwhelming strength like they had in past years.
The ranking also contrasts the one Detroit received from Football Outsiders. FO ranks all units on a formula called DVOA that measures performance against the league average. In those, Detroit finished 19th.
It seems part of the discrepancy comes in field-goal defense. Detroit allowed the worst rate of converted field goals this season at 67.8 percent, but many of those were mere misses from reasonable territory, including extra points. The Lions did not block any kicks this season. They succeeded here largely without their own doing, yet that success counted as much as leading the league in punt returns would.
Detroit was also one of two teams to not miss any extra points this season. It’s a testament to Matt Prater’s reliability, but again, it doesn’t impact a game as much as being the best at making field goals.
The Lions led the league in one category in these rankings: opponent starting field position. Part of that is a credit to Sam Martin’s ability to down punts inside the 20-yard line, which he did 32 times, good for sixth in the league. But it also speaks to Matt Patricia’s conservativeness in punting in opposing territory rather than try a long field goal or a fourth-down conversion that, if missed, would mess up the opponents’ starting field position even though the outcome had little to do with special teams.
Some of these strengths are legitimate. Prater was sound for yet another season, converting 88 percent of his field goals and 100 percent of his extra points. Martin is good at avoiding touchbacks, and Don Muhlbach helps the units avoid blocked kicks. Bonamego could have these strengths as well as Jamal Agnew’s blazing speed as a punt returner, something the rankings somewhat ignore since he spent half the year on injured reserve.
But Detroit is closer to the No. 19 ranking than to No. 12 in the grand scheme of how the roster projects into next year. Prater will be 35, and he wasn’t quite as reliable from deep this year and also missed a go-ahead field goal for the first time. Muhlbach will be 38, and he had a few shaky snaps for the first time.
It’s possible that Muhlbach and Martin could be gone for age and financial reasons, as Martin represents $2 million in potential cap savings. Top remaining cover man Charles Washington is an exclusive-rights free agent. Detroit has searched for a kick returner ever since Andre Roberts left after the 2016 season.
The Lions have shown a willingness to pay up for special teams in recent years because that’s what the Patriots often do. But general manager Bob Quinn has also let trusted gunners like Johnson Bademosi and Don Carey go in recent years, and his coverage teams paid the price last season.
With one top-10 DVOA finish in his 12 years as a special-teams coordinator, Bonamego isn’t likely to turn water into wine here. He does have experience working with Prater, Martin and Muhlbach.
What Detroit has to decide is how long it wants to keep that trio together as opposed to the temptation to get younger.