Feature Photo: Stacy Revere, Getty Images (Detroit Free Press)
The Detroit Lions had fairly low expectations to begin the 2016-2017 NFL season. The loss of wide receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement was initially perceived to be a monumental deficit to the roster, as Johnson had been seen as the deep threat down the field during his seasons in Detroit. The Lions quickly responded to the announcement of his retirement by signing free agent wide receivers Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin during the offseason. With the addition of new free agents, the Lions added more versatile and balanced receivers, as veteran wide receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones lined up on the outside complementing each other nicely, with veteran Boldin creating mismatches in the slot.
With this loss of Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford was faced with high expectations to carry the team and spread the ball out better on the field. On the contrary, the retirement of Johnson may have been a blessing in disguise for Stafford as he lost the safety blanket of Johnson and had to start making more quick, effective and efficient decisions as the leader of the team. He relied less on making the big play and began to carry the load while settling for short, effective gains on the offensive end.
Photo by Kirthmon F. Dozier / Detroit Free Press
The Lions began their 2016-17 campaign on a 1-3 stretch, but the main issue was the team’s defense. Against the Lions, opposing offenses got inside the red zone with ease. Furthermore, the offense was inconsistent, scoring 39 points on the road in a close 39-35 win against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, to dropping three straight close games capped off with a struggling effort to score in a 16-14 loss on the road against the Chicago Bears in Week 4. Following the Week 4 loss, it began to look like the season was over with the playoffs seeming more and more like a longshot.
However, the turning point came in Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles when cornerback Darius Slay lived up to his name “Big Play Slay” as he picked off Eagles’ quarterback Carson Wentz while rising above wide receiver Nelson Agholor to force a fumble with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter. Following the defensive effort, the Lions took a 24-23 lead off a 29-yard field goal by kicker Matt Prater. Slay again made another defining play with under 1:30 left to play in the game, as he picked off Wentz to seal the 24-23 win. Following this game, the team quickly began to generate a tremendous amount of momentum. With the momentum, came a personality while letting the league know something was brewing up in Detroit. Their effectiveness in the clutch soon ushered a new moniker: “The Comeback Kids.”
The game against the Eagles in Week 5 was a nice spark for the Lions, but it was just the start of something special. The true season-defining moment came on the road against a tough Minnesota Vikings defense in Week 9. The Vikings had started 5-0 and were considered to be an early Super Bowl candidate at that point in the season. By this point, comparisons were being made between the Vikings defensive roster and that of the Seattle Seahawks’ and Denver Broncos’ stud defensive squads. Early on, the matchup against the Vikings seemed to be over already, with a devastating loss about to hit the Lions, end all of the team’s momentum and force them to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
The Lions were able to claw back into the game but blew the lead they had built up in the fourth. With under 25 seconds remaining, needing a field goal to tie the game. Stafford was quickly able to hit an extremely efficient bullet pass deep across the field, finding Andre Roberts for a monumental gain. The Lions had no timeouts remaining, the entire offense quickly rushed up the field and was able to successfully spike the ball with two seconds remaining on the clock. Then came out kicker Matt Prater who drilled a long range, 50-yard field goal to send the game into overtime shocking the entire Vikings stadium. In just 25 seconds, the Lions were able to hurry down the field with Stafford leading the charge late in the 4th quarter, and with Prater’s big leg, they were able to send the game into overtime.
In overtime, all it took was a screen pass from Stafford to wide receiver Golden Tate off a clean lateral movement to send safety Harrison Smith to the ground, while juking another defensive back en route to a dive into the endzone. The unthinkable had happened; Detroit had won the game 22-16.
Photo by Butch Dill / Associated Press
As the season went on, so did the magic. The Lions were able to pull off multiple come-from-behind wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11, 26-19, and the Chicago Bears in Week 14, 20-17. With five straight wins at the end of Week 14, the Lions were one of the most talked about teams in the NFL. Detroit made national headlines during the season for all of the comebacks they had made in the fourth quarter of games. On the talk show The Herd by Colin Cowherd, analyst Peter Schrager even called Matthew Stafford, quarterback, the “best quarterback in the NFL.”
The team was on fire, taking over the league by storm. Simply put, they were red hot.
Despite their fifth straight win against the Bears, the game came at a high price; during the game, Stafford suffered a joint dislocation and torn ligaments to his middle finger on his throwing hand.
Photo by Kirthmon F. Dozier / Detroit Free Press
With the leader of the pride hounded by a nagging injury, the magic suddenly disappeared; the Lions closed the season losing three straight.
They couldn’t produce enough offense and they could not get stops against some of the hottest teams down the stretch, including the playoff-bound New York Giants (Week 15: 17-6), the Dallas Cowboys (Week 16: 42-21) and the Green Bay Packers (Week 17: 31-24).
Though regarded as “clutch” for much of the season, many had thought that the Lions had run out of their magic with the late losing streak. And with the losing streak came the question of how big did Stafford’s finger injury play on all of this.
The Lions ended up making the playoffs but had a matchup against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card. However, the Lions didn’t stand a chance, as they suffered a 26-6 blowout loss as the Seahawks denied the Lions to hang around in a close game. The depleted offensive line was not able to facilitate things in order for the offense to be able to effectively produce to keep up with a strong defensive team.
What really went wrong was the excessive amount of injuries. Running back Theo Riddick was put on Injured Reserved in the middle of the season while Travis Swanson and Ameer Abdullah were also placed on IR. The injury bug even caught offensive tackle Riley Reif, putting a gaping hole in the Lions offensive line. With the depletion of offensive linemen, the Lions simply could not stop pressure from opposing defensive lines in the closing weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs, leading to their early exit. Who knew the season of comeback magic would come down to a depleted offensive line and a banged-up quarterback with an injury to his throwing arm.
Photo by Rick Osentoski / Associated Press
The Detroit Lions will be back, however, maybe they still have some of the comeback-win magic left in them. After all, they were known for making clutch comebacks for much of the season.