If the 2000s were a “Decade of Dominance” for Detroit’s four pro sports teams – three of the four made their respective championships, and the Lions … well, they held onto the annual Thanksgiving game — then the 2010s were pretty much the complete opposite. Call it the “Decade of Despair,” if you will. (Or just another 10-year span, if you’re talking Lions).
For the first time since the 1970s, no Detroit pro team won a title, and the Tigers’ 2012 World Series trip — in which they scored six runs in a four-game sweep — was the lone championship appearance for the Big Four. (Indeed, the Red Wings were the only team to win a playoff game in the second half of the decade, and even they didn’t make it out of the first round during that span.)
As the close of the decade (thankfully) approaches, we here at the Freep figured that, rather than look back at the highlights and lowlights that were, we’d look at what COULD have been.
All four of Detroit’s pro teams had their “What if?” moments, turning points in a mostly disastrous decade. Here, then, is a look at our three favorites for the Lions:
May 8, 2014: What if the Lions didn’t draft Eric Ebron in Round 1?
What happened: Entering the 2014 season, the Detroit Lions, with new coach Jim Caldwell, held the 10th overall pick in the NFL draft. Though the Lions were seventh in yards the previous season, they were also 13th in scoring, and needed another red zone target to pair with Calvin Johnson. And so, general manager Martin Mayhew took a chance and drafted North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron at No. 10.
Ebron was the first tight end selected that early since Vernon Davis was picked sixth overall in 2006. Ebron was never able to shake the lofty expectations. He struggled with drops throughout his four-season tenure in Detroit; his best season was 2016 when he caught 61 passes for 711 yards. He caught 11 touchdown passes in four seasons in Detroit, before he was released in March 2018. The following season, he finished tied for second in the NFL with 13 TD grabs with the Indianapolis Colts and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
But what if … the Lions took someone else? While the offense was slightly above average in 2013, the defense was average at best, ranking 15th in total yards allowed and points allowed. Many believed the play was to draft defense in the first round, especially with All-Pro Ndamukong Suh entering the final year of his contract — spoiler alert: He would not re-sign. Three picks after Ebron, the St. Louis Rams took Pittsburgh defensive Aaron Donald. All he has done is win NFL defensive player of the year each of the past two seasons.
Taking Donald instead of Ebron is a classic “hindsight is 20-20” call. Donald was thought to be undersized to play interior defensive line in the NFL. But let’s add to that argument. Here are the other six players taken right after Ebron in the 2014 draft: No. 11, Michigan offensive lineman Taylor Lewan to Tennessee; No. 12, LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the N.Y. Giants; No. 14, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller to Chicago; No. 15, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier to Pittsburgh; No. 16, Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin to Dallas and No. 17, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley to Baltimore. Know what all of those guys have in common? They were all Pro-Bowlers for their original teams.
But if the Lions take Donald and he develops into the generational talent that he has become, Detroit doesn’t feel the need to draft a defensive tackle early in 2016. And instead of A’Shawn Robinson (who may be on the next thing smoking out of town after this season), the Lions perhaps draft the player taken right after Robinson: Saints WR Michael Thomas.
Jan. 4, 2015: What if pass interference stood as called?
What happened: A dominant defensive line, anchored by Suh and fellow draft picks Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah, along with DeAndre Levy’s best season as a pro, helped form the second-best defense in the NFL in 2014. The Lions missed out on winning the division but earned a wildcard spot and a trip to Dallas. Detroit jumped out to a 14-0 lead over the Cowboys after a Golden Tate TD catch and a Reggie Bush TD run, and led, 20-7, late in the third quarter.
In the fourth and with the Lions clinging to a three-point lead, Matthew Stafford’s pass to Brandon Pettigrew on a third-and-1 fell incomplete. But, a flag was thrown and a pass interference penalty was called on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens. First down, Lions, in Dallas territory, with a chance to add to the lead, right?
Wrong! Inexplicably, after the penalty was announced, referee Pete Morelli then announced the flag was being picked up. After trying to draw Dallas offsides on fourth down, Caldwell elected to punt from the Dallas 46 yard-line. Sam Martin shanked it for just 10 yards and the Cowboys scored the go-ahead touchdown on the ensuing drive, extending Detroit’s winless postseason streak.
But what if … the flag wasn’t picked up? So let’s pretend the penalty doesn’t get waved off and the Lions get the ball, first-and-10, around the 30-yard line. Detroit had just one field goal and 107 yards of offense in the second half up to that point, and Stafford was 5-for-8 for 86 yards and an interception after halftime. Not exactly inspiring numbers to suggest they were going to score a touchdown and go up two scores. But maybe they gain a few more yards and set up another Matt Prater field goal to take a 23-17 lead.
Would you have trusted the defense – again, No. 2 in the league that season – to keep Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys out of the end zone for the remaining, say, six minutes of the game?
Given their history, it’s probably not a safe bet.
But if they do hold off Dallas — even with a likely loss the following week at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks — it changes the legacies of every person associated with the organization. From Martha Ford, who was in her first season as principal owner after the death of her husband in March, to Mayhew, who would be fired along with team president Tom Lewand in the middle of the following season. To Caldwell, who would have won a playoff game in his first season in Detroit, the first time that would have happened since George Wilson won the 1957 NFL title. To Stafford, who would have shed the scarlet letter and cemented his status as the best Lions QB since Bobby Layne (yes, one playoff win would do that).
And maybe that convinces Suh to stick around, though with the money he commanded, that ship likely had sailed. You may more comfortably theorize it keeps Calvin Johnson around. Remember, he retired after the following season.
Sept. 24, 2017: What if Golden Tate wasn’t down at the 1?
What happened: A surprisingly big game against the reigning NFC champions ended as way too many did for the Lions – in controversy. And the ripple effects are still felt by the franchise.
The 2-0 Lions hosted the 2-0 Falcons, and the home team was down four with under three minutes to play. Stafford seemed to engineer another fourth-quarter comeback, driving down to the 1-yard line with no timeouts and 12 seconds to go. Stafford hit Tate on a quick slant for what seemed to be the go-ahead TD with 8 seconds left.
Ah, but that pesky replay reared its ugly head. And it showed that when Tate secured the low throw with a dive, he was touched by Falcons defensive back Brian Poole, who had his right hand on Tate’s shoulder. At that point, Tate’s left knee was on the ground and the ball had not yet crossed the goal line.
But worse was the 10-second run-off rule that comes inside of two minutes left in either half. Because the Lions had no timeouts left, the run-off ended the game, leaving Lions players, coaches and fans in disbelief.
But what if … Tate wasn’t touched/down and he scored? Because the Lions lost that game, they finished the 2017 season 9-7, a game behind the Falcons for the final wildcard spot. If not for 6 inches, Tate scores, the Lions win that game and qualify for the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under Caldwell.
Which means Caldwell likely isn’t fired by the Lions after the season. And hence, the Lions don’t hire Matt Patricia right after the Patriots win Super Bowl LII. Of course, considering how seemingly dead-set general manager Bob Quinn seemed to be to hire Patricia, who knows if Caldwell survives the 2018 season.
And since that Atlanta game, the Lions are 7-14 at home, entering Sunday’s home finale against the Packers.
Check back to freep.com this weekend for “What if” moments of the decade for the Pistons, Wings and Tigers.
Published at Fri, 27 Dec 2019 11:01:05 +0000