Close, but no cigar. That was the story of the Detroit Lions' 2010 season, wasn't it? Here was a team that was right there -- a lot -- but couldn't get wins until the last month of the season. There were some moral victories. There were some curiously questionable calls (Ndamukong Suh on Jay Cutler, anyone?). There were some weird calls (take a guess what play I'm referring to). But, at the end of the day, there were only six wins.
Detroit has been collecting 10-loss seasons for quite some time now. Other than 2007, when the Lions went 7-9, the last time this club didn't lose 10 games was way back in 2000 -- Bobby Ross was resigning at midseason and Matt Millen was in broadcasting (the first time around).
Here are some questions that will determine how one of the league's most historic franchises can avoid losing double-digit games again:
1. Can Stafford stay on the field?
In a room full of concerns, there's one Fat Albert sitting right in the middle: Matthew Stafford's health. The franchise quarterback has started a grand total of 13 out of 32 possible games since being tabbed the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Sure, he's shown flashes of brilliance, and toughness, during that time. But flashes are flashes, and streaks are streaks. The rich quarterback with a bum shoulder has never started more than six games in a row.
Stafford has suffered three major shoulder injuries in just two seasons. It's getting to the point that every time he's thrown to the turf, one wonders if he'll get up clutching his arm. And it's a shame, because most people around the league feel he's the most talented of the 2009 rookie class that includes the Buccaneers' Josh Freeman and the Jets' Mark Sanchez. In limited action last season, he compiled a 91.3 passer rating with six touchdowns and just one pick.
None of that means anything if he can't stay on the field. Moreover, his injury isn't just one domino falling in a row of 11. He's the double ship in Galaga, capable of doing twice the damage to other teams' -- or his team's -- hopes, by virtue of whether or not he's on the field. He's a big talent, and with an offensive line that can be inconsistent, he's also a big target. Coach Jim Schwartz has to find ways to protect him, while Stafford has to stay healthy.
2. Twin turbo, or twin turf toes?
What's a great way to keep your quarterback upright? Run the football. That's hard to do when your stud running back had not one, but two, injured big toes. Think about that. Two big toes in sometimes excruciating pain, and Jahvid Best is supposed to cut on a dime. Barry Sanders and Billy Sims would have trouble cutting on one bad toe, much less one on each foot.
"Turf toe" is like watching the movie The Notebook in that it doesn't sound painful, but it is. Best hurt both toes early in the season, and did his very best to play through it. While the rookie was explosive at times, Detroit's ground attack left a lot to be desired most of the season.
3. What direction to go in draft?
The problems of Best and Stafford aside, bolstering the offensive line would be one way to help both quarterback and running back. Look for general manager Martin Mayhew to hit this group in the draft or free agency, CBA issues notwithstanding.
Most followers of the Silver-and-Honolulu-Blue feel defense will be the focus of the draft in April. While the club has its own brand of "the triplets" in Stafford, Best and "Megatron," Calvin Johnson, the defense still has too many Gobots and not enough Transformers. Time to add some more expensive toys at linebacker (Texas A&M's Von Miller?), as well as adding another piece in the secondary. Actually, maybe two, if corner Chris Houston leaves via free agency.
4. Will Lions have a problem at corner?
... Houston ends up departing. Despite being thrown on 78 times last season, he only allowed 42 receptions, while batting away 12 balls. Detroit's pass defense made huge strides with Houston lining up every week, as well as the pass rush the front four provided. But if Houston's not re-signed, Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and the boys won't be getting as many coverage sacks.
Re-signing Houston is imperative. Adding a veteran presence in free agency or drafting a stud in the first round who can play now (perhaps Nebraska's Prince Amukamara?) might push this team to the next level.
5. Can Lions deliver a knockout punch?
If we lived in Candyland and Stafford's shoulder issue didn't exist, then it's quite possible that the biggest rain cloud over this franchise would be its lack of a haymaker. This club just hasn't possessed a knockout right hook. The problem is so ingrained in the team that even when Shaun Hill and Johnson delivered one in Chicago to open the season, the refs took it back. It's eerie.
This is a club that lost games by five, three, two, three, two and four points. If Detroit had won just half those games, you're looking at a 9-7 team. Schwartz has built a group that can keep games close with an excellent front four and an offense that has guys who can make a big play when needed. Now all Schwartz needs is a team mentality that doesn't include, "here we go again." In other words, when things get tight in the fourth quarter or during midseason, this club -- from the top on down -- has to leave those attitudes at the door and find ways to win a la the Jets, Packers and Bears last season.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.