DETROIT - Football fans in Detroit have waited a long time for the Lions to give them something to cheer about. The team hasn't won a playoff game since 1991, and has reached the playoffs just once since the turn of the millennium 14 years ago.
Yes, times have been hard for the Detroit Lions, but there are plenty of reasons to look forward to watching them during the upcoming season. Here are 10 storylines to prepare you for when Detroit kicks off the preseason on August 9.
1. Jim Schwartz won't yell at you this season
Jim Schwartz's final moments in Ford Field summed up his last season with the Lions. Schwartz not only watched his team cough up a 20-13 fourth-quarter lead en route to being eliminated from playoff contention, he sweetened the deal by screaming at fans before the game headed into overtime.
Schwartz decided not to give his offense a chance to win the game in regulation, instead running out the final 23 seconds despite the team's two remaining time outs. When displeased fans booed his decision, Schwartz appeared to look into the stands and scream something angrily towards a nearby group of Lions faithfuls.
This season Schwartz won't be screaming at Lions fans, because he was fired on December 30 after posting a 29-51 record over five seasons in Detroit.
2. Jim Caldwell took over as head coach
Despite an obviously talented core of players, the Lions have failed to become a regular contender in the NFC North. Much of the blame has been placed on the coaching staff over the years, but now Detroit has hired an experienced coach to take the reins.
Caldwell has been a part of something the Lions have never experienced: Winning a Super Bowl. In fact, while Detroit is the only non-expansion NFL team to never have reached a Super Bowl, its new head coach assisted with the SB XLI and SB XLVII championship teams.
Super Bowl experience is a rarity in Detroit, so the addition of Caldwell atop the coaching staff should bring a new mentality to a struggling franchise.
3. The Lions were so close last season
The Lions blew a golden opportunity to win the NFC North last season after the Packers and Bears struggled without their starting quarterbacks. A victory in Chicago in Week 10 gave Detroit a 6-3 record, good enough for first place with just seven games remaining.
Unfortunately the final weeks of the season proved nightmarish for the Lions, as they blew six fourth-quarter leads and finished 7-9. That means the team was only one or two plays away from winning the division and hosting a playoff game in the first round.
The new coaching staff should bring improved discipline, which would decrease mental mistakes and fourth-quarter collapses. If the team mirrors its performance in the first three quarters this season and plays average football in the fourth, then contending for a wildcard spot is realistic for the 2014 Lions.
4. Matt Stafford has no excuse not to be elite this season
Matthew Stafford broke out during the 2011 season and threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. In the two seasons since, his yards have drastically decreased and his interceptions have mounted, raising doubts about his ability to be a franchise quarterback in Detroit.
The Lions decided to pass on several defensive stars in the first round of the NFL draft this season to pick up another weapon for Stafford: tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron joins an already-loaded receiving corps in Detroit to equip Stafford with more that enough pieces to lead a dominant offense.
If the 26-year-old can't return to his dominant form in 2014, then the Lions will be forced to question his future role. Detroit committed to Stafford long-term in 2013, but it's time for him to earn that contract and lead a dominant offense, no excuses.26796756
5. Ebron joins an outstanding group of tight ends
Whether you're a fan of drafting a tight end at No. 10 overall or not, the addition of Ebron certainly gives the Lions a dangerous tight end core. Ebron, the consensus top tight end in the draft, joined Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria on the roster in April.
Ebron racked up 973 receiving yards on 62 catches during his final year with the University of North Carolina. At 6 foot 4, 235 pounds, the rookie gives Stafford another explosive target downfield.
The Lions will likely line up Ebron across from second-year tight end Fauria. Only five tight ends caught more touchdown passes than Fauria last season, as the undrafted rookie scored seven times.
Pettigrew rounds out the group of impact tight ends for Detroit, having hauled in 16 touchdowns in five seasons for the Lions. The addition of Ebron will likely push Pettigrew into more of a blocking role, but he can still be dangerous down the middle of the field.
Overall, this group of tight ends creates a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, and will make the offense fun to watch.
6. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell give Detroit a legitimate rushing attack
For the first time under Jim Schwartz, the Lions featured a legitimate rushing attack in 2013 behind the duo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. In his first year in Detroit, Bush rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught 54 passes for over 500 more yards.
While Bush contributed over 1,500 yards to the offense, his true value is tough to measure. The threat of a strong running game opened up passing lanes for Stafford and allowed the offense as a whole to expand.
But Bush didn't add this new dimension to the offense by himself, he was complimented by the powerful Bell. Though his stats were far less impressive than Bush's, the former Wayne State running back gained a total of 1,197 yards last season and averaged 10.3 yards per catch.
Bell offers Detroit a more conventional option between the tackles to compliment Bush's speed and quickness. The duo gives the Lions their best rushing attack since Stafford took over the offense in 2009.
7. Teryl Austin will improve a struggling secondary
Detroit made a strategic hire on January 16 when it brought in former secondary coach Teryl Austin to run the defense.
Austin helped mold a Ravens secondary that led the team to a Super Bowl victory in 2012 and spent six seasons with the Seahawks and Cardinals coaching defensive backs from 2003-2009. Austin inherits a group in Detroit that struggled to defend average NFL receivers over the past several years and lost its top contributor, Chris Houston.
Passing on talented cornerbacks in the first three rounds of the draft demonstrated Detroit's confidence that Austin can work with the players on the current roster. If the secondary improves behind a strong front seven, the Lions will field a formidable defense in 2014.
8. Suh is playing in a contract year
Ndamukong Suh's contract fiasco has certainly left an ugly scar on the 2014 offseason, but his pending free agent status should motivate the Pro Bowler to terrorize opposing quarterbacks in 2014.
Defensive linemen earn massive contracts if they prove they can rush the passer, so Suh needs to rebound from a season in which he recorded only 5.5 sacks. To maximize his value for what will surely be an active offseason, the 307-pound lineman should have his most productive season in Detroit.
9. "Monday Night Football" is coming back to Detroit
For the fourth straight season, the Lions will host ESPN's popular "Monday Night Football" at Ford Field. But this season, Detroit owns the privilege of being the first MNF game of the year on September 8 against the New York Giants.
Playing on Monday may not sound like a big deal, but football's largest stage eluded the Lions for over a decade before returning in 2011. As the franchise tries to become a factor in the loaded NFC, consistent national attention acts as an indicator of the progress Detroit has made.
If you're ever searching for a reason to watch the Lions, look no further than perhaps the best player in the NFL: Calvin Johnson. The 28-year-old wide receiver has been an absolute beast for Detroit throughout the past seven seasons, and he figures to improve his numbers in 2014 after putting last year's injuries behind him.
After two offseason surgeries, Johnson is poised to tear up NFL defenses this winter. While playing through lingering injuries over the past three seasons, the Pro Bowler caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns. The Lions made his job even easier in the past months by surrounding the star receiver with other targets for defenses to worry about.
Even when the Lions struggle, Megatron makes the games worth watching. His unmatched athletic ability leads to incredible catches nearly every week. If all else fails, tune into the 2014 season to see what Johnson does next.
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