A year ago, the Detroit Lions believed they were headed to the playoffs. With a 6-3 record, and with several of their division rivals facing uncertainty at the quarterback position because of injuries, the Lions felt they were in prime position to win the NFC North. Instead, the team went 1-6 down the stretch, a slide that kept the team from playing meaningful end-of-season football and cost Jim Schwartz his job as coach.
Fast forward to the present day, and the Lions again believe they are playoff-bound. This year, however, is a bit different. The 2014 Lions started 7-2 before dropping two straight in November, leading some to wonder if this team was going to collapse once again. Instead, Detroit has bounced back by winning three straight games, vaulting them back into first place. The team is now one win away from clinching a playoff berth, with a chance of winning the division this weekend at Soldier Field when they face the Bears.
Much of the credit to the turnaround goes to new coach Jim Caldwell, the man who replaced Schwartz and altered the identity of the team. Detroit still plays with a fast and aggressive defense and looks to utilize its playmakers for big gains on offense, but the Lions under Caldwell play smarter and with more discipline. The changes did not happen overnight, but there are a lot of reasons the team is in a better spot than it was at this time last year.
"More so than anything else, I would attribute it to the young men that we have here in this program," Caldwell said Wednesday on a conference call with Chicago reporters. "Guys that were hungry, that were looking for an opportunity to get better every single day. We have a real unusual group of leaders at every position and a great staff of guys who have done a great job communicating what we want them to get done on both sides of the ball."
The Lions replaced Schwartz – a coach with a defensive background – with the offensive-based Caldwell. Still, the biggest improvements from the team have come on the defensive side. A year ago, Detroit allowed 376 points and ranked 16th in yards allowed. This season (through 14 games), opponents have scored just 238 points and the Lions rank second in defensive yardage.
Detroit is strong at every level of the defense, but especially up front, where tackle Ndamukong Suh sets the tone for the entire unit. Suh, who has 6.5 sacks on the season, told reporters that the players have a strong rapport with the new coaching staff, which has allowed the whole team to benefit. The improved communication has allowed the players and coaches to figure out what the group does well, leading to better play on the field.
"It's a combination of things (that have made the Lions better). We still have a pretty solid group of guys that were here last year and that played their heart out and we've added some good pieces," Suh said. "It's truly a give-and-take relationship and constructive criticism on both sides. We find that happy medium and it has been good for us, we've found a way to make it very successful."
Transitioning from the fiery Schwartz to the more calm and reserved Caldwell has been an adjustment for the Lions. But it's difficult to say the transition hasn't been a successful one. The Lions are playing better and have been able to handle adversity better in 2014 than in years past. Part of that is the players buying into the new coach's philosophy, and part is the coach adopting his teachings to the talent and personalities already inside the Detroit locker room.
All of it has added up to a successful year for the Lions, one they believe will continue all the way into the playoffs.
"The players have to get accustomed to how you think, what you believe in, how you see things, how you practice, the way in which you practice, so that's all part of that. It's never-ending," Caldwell said. "It started the first day when we arrived and you have to fight for it every single day. I think it was (former Presidential candidate) Ross Perot who said, 'Everything is on the razor's edge' and you have to continue to battle for it so it keeps going in the direction you'd like."