The Detroit Lions finished up one of the most successful seasons -- record-wise -- in franchise history. Now, the offseason begins with the combine, free agency and the NFL draft.
To start that process moving, we looked at the position groups over the past two weeks. Now, we’ll spend the last day of the review taking a look at the coaching this season.
The good: Jim Caldwell had a good first season with the Detroit Lions, taking the team to the playoffs and tying the second-best record in franchise history. His demeanor seemed to contribute to comeback wins against New Orleans, Atlanta, and Miami. His approach -- calm after the fiery ways of Jim Schwartz -- was an appreciated asset by many of the veterans in the locker room. His hiring of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was an extremely good one. Austin’s ability to adapt his defense despite injuries to linebacker Stephen Tulloch, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, and multiple defensive backs showed his versatility and intelligence. He took a defense that had a good front seven and questionable secondary, and helped turn the group into one of the best units in the NFL along with Buffalo and Seattle.
A lot of that had to do with Detroit’s defensive line, and Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek did a masterful job there, especially with the development of Ezekiel Ansah. Linebackers coach Bill Sheridan developed Tahir Whitehead well, especially when he had to move into the middle to replace Tulloch. The secondary coaches -- Alan Williams and Tony Oden -- did a good job working with second-year cornerback Darius Slay and also developing safety Isa Abdul-Quddus into a potential third safety option. There were certain plays offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi drew up that were pretty strong, especially screens and quick passes to Golden Tate in space.
Special teams coach John Bonamego's aggressiveness in calling two fake punts against Miami was gutsy, and some of Caldwell’s best decisions.
The bad: The offense stagnated too much under Lombardi, and too often seemed devoid of rhythm. Some of Lombardi’s playcalling was predictable, particularly on first downs. Some of the run vs. pass when certain personnel groupings were on the field was also somewhat easy to decipher. The biggest personnel-grouping issues were packages taking both Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate off the field for the same play, almost guaranteeing a run or screen pass. The Lions had 93 snaps without Johnson or Tate on the field and gained 319 yards. Here’s the tell, though: In those snaps, Detroit ran the ball 80 times, passed it 12 times, and gave up one sack. The Lions got 27 first downs on those snaps and scored seven touchdowns according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Some of Caldwell’s decisions were interesting, too. His challenge against Green Bay -- when he insisted a reporter learn the rulebook when asked why he challenged a fumble when a Packers player was already rolling on the ground -- made little sense. Pro Football Reference has Caldwell winning two of four challenges in 2014.
Caldwell took the blame on a delay of game penalty at the end of the Atlanta game that could have cost Detroit a win -- but ended up giving the Lions a victory after Matt Prater's second field goal attempt went through the uprights. His decision to punt after the pass interference reversal in Dallas was questionable as well, considering the Lions threw the ball on third-and-short. Caldwell insisted the Lions didn’t have the personnel to run a fast-tempo hurry-up offense a lot, however the offense appeared to be more effective throughout the season in two-minute situations.
The offensive line play -- due to injury and scheme -- was questionable throughout the season, although Jeremiah Washburn might receive a pass here because of the continual rotation of players there.
Bonamego’s coverage teams were not as good as last season, and both Caldwell and Bonamego’s decision to keep Nate Freese as their kicker in the preseason backfired through the first three weeks of the season until his release.
What needs to change: Detroit was able to hold on to Austin as its defensive coordinator after he interviewed for head coaching jobs, so the defensive staff should remain intact. Despite the offense’s struggles, the Lions are making the right call keeping Lombardi for multiple reasons. He will be able to grow into the role in the second year of the offense, and it would be bad for quarterback Matthew Stafford to have to learn three offenses in three seasons.
The Lions will have one staff hole to fill with assistant offensive line coach Bobby Johnson heading to Oakland, but keeping this staff intact makes sense considering the team made the playoffs in 2014. Most of what needs to change would be in play-calling and decisions -- something that can’t be remedied until offseason workouts begin anyway.