Now What?

I lay out what’s next for the Lions.

On Saturday, November 28th, Matt Patricia was fired as Head Coach of the Detroit Lions, and Bob Quinn was fired as General Manager.

There’s plenty to say there, but not much of it would be stuff you haven’t heard before. In the end, 2018-2020 will be looked back at as an especially dark period of professional football in Detroit.

Patricia and Quinn are gone, which deserves to be celebrated. But the mess they left behind is still here, and will take multiple years to clean up. Lions owner Shelia Ford Hamp and team President Rod Wood, along with assistance from Chirs Spielman and others have begun a GM and Head Coach search, and who they hire will direct the future of the team.

I’m not here to tell you who they should hire, because honestly I have no clue. But here are some sobering observations. There could be as many as 8 openings for a GM and coach in the NFL come January, and the Lions’ candidate pool will likely not include hot NFL names like Eric Bieniemy, or college coaches like Matt Campbell and Lincoln Riley. The roster is a total teardown without many trade-worthy assets, and they don’t have a ton of draft capital. The opening in Houston with Deshaun Watson, and the likely openings with the Chargers with Justin Herbert, or the Jaguars and Jets with high draft picks will be more attractive. It’s worth noting that Matt Patricia was considered one of the top candidates in 2018, he had his pick between the Giants and the Lions, so just because you don’t get a ‘top candidate’ doesn’t mean you’re doomed.

With that said, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that Sheila Ford Hamp and Rod Wood don’t know how to make the right decision, and starting off with limited options makes things more difficult. Sheila only owns the team because she was born into it, not to mention she was also part of the decision to keep Quinn and Patricia going into 2020. Rod has been with the Ford family business a long time, then became Lions President in 2015. In his introductory press conference he said he was “not a football guy”, which is him freely admitting that he would have no idea how to pick a GM or a Head Coach. On top of that, with the Lions still having to pay Patricia and Quinn through 2022, I’m not sure Sheila would be willing to write a blank check to lure a top choice away from a better situation. Chris Spielman will likely be deciding who the next GM is based on what he hears from an x’s and o’s standpoint. Spielman is on the Lions Mount Rushmore and understands the pain of this fanbase. While he’s better than the Erinie Accorsi led search which gave us Bob Quinn, he’s also on record in 2019 with tweets supporting Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, saying “but blowing it up is not the answer”.

So that’s that. Unless the organization goes completely senile and hires a Bill O’Brien, a Mike Pettine, or a Marvin Lewis, I won’t have much of an opinion on who they choose. What I will have opinions on is the decisions that the people who are hired make. So let’s fast forward to 2021, and the Lions have named their next GM and Head Coach. Now what?

Matthew Stafford

The first big decision the next men in charge of the Lions will have to make is what to do with Matthew Stafford. Stafford was the 1st overall pick by the Lions in the 2009 draft, and has been the Week 1 starter ever since. He owns practically all the Lions passing records, even interceptions, as he just passed Bobby Layne for that honor in Week 13. I suppose you really do die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

In my mind, the new leadership has three different routes they can take with #9.

Option #1: They decide to keep him as the franchise QB, and run the rebuild around him.

Some GMs, look no further than Chicago’s Ryan Pace, can be fired for never finding the right QB, despite building a solid roster everywhere else. Stafford is an immensely talented player who will be 33 at the start of next season, which means he could play in the NFL for 6-7 more years. The next GM may view Stafford as a QB capable of winning a Super Bowl, and that the past regimes simply haven’t done enough to build the right team around him.

This would still be a rebuild, and Stafford’s willingness to be part of it would absolutely figure into this scenario. But it’s possible the next GM and Coach would rather stick with a proven player rather than to jump into the pool of rookie QBs. Also consider that the Lions will not have a top selection in the 2021 draft, where it’s likely top options Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will go in the first two picks.

Staying with Stafford and not using the team’s already limited pick supply on a position where you already have a starter could seem like the most logical option, assuming Stafford’s willingness to be part of the process. The roster has plenty of holes elsewhere, and swinging and missing on a QB with a high pick will only make the rebuild more difficult.

Option #2: Keep Stafford, but draft his replacement.

In 2017 the Chiefs selected Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick, and sat him behind established veteran Alex Smith for a whole season. The strategy has paid off big time, and whoever takes over in Detroit may want to follow the exact model.

As I mentioned above, the Lions will be unable to select from the top tier of QB prospects due to the fact they have five wins already. With three games left to play a lot can happen in the draft order, but more than likely they will be jockeying for position with other QB needy teams who aren’t putting on the tank shows happening with the Jets and Jaguars.

The Lions will be looking at more un-polished prospects such as Trey Lance, Zach Wilson, Kyle Trask, and others. If selected, they may not be ready to start Week 1. With an established starter they can learn from in place already, the pressure to immediately contribute many rookies face would be non-existent. Then in 2022, Stafford would be cut or traded and they would take over.

Again, this situation would require Stafford’s willingness to be a mentor. Alex Smith notoriously was more than gracious with Mahomes, but other QBs put in similar situations like Favre, Roethlisberger, or Eli Manning have been far less interested in playing the Mr. Miyagi role. However with 3 years still left on his deal, Stafford may not necessarily be given a choice if this is the direction the new leadership wishes to go.

Option #3 Trade Stafford this offseason.

The third option would be to cut ties with Stafford completely and make it a true tear-down rebuild. Trade rumors have been with Stafford for the past 2 off-seasons, but this is the first year in which it’s realistic, as there would not be a crippling dead-money cap hit if he was sent to another team.

I believe Stafford could reasonably net a 2nd round pick in this year’s draft. There are enough teams who will be in the market for a QB who would likely rather not go the rookie route. San Francisco, Denver, and Cleveland immediately come to mind, but others like the Patriots, Saints, Giants, and Washington could all be potential suitors.

Stafford is one of two players (I’ll get to Golladay next) on the roster that are real assets other teams would be interested in. If the next GM wants to do a total tear-down, he will have to build through the draft. The Lions don’t have extra picks, and with the draft being hard enough as it is, the next GM will want as many swings as possible to build a contender.

If some of the intrigue on the rookie QBs outside of Lawrence and Fields cools down, and there’s enough interest in Stafford, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility for the Lions to get a late 1st round pick for him. Especially for teams like the Saints or Browns who will be in the playoffs, they may decide getting a quarterback who can get them over the top is more important than some position player they can get in the 20s.

This move would allow both sides to go their separate ways, which may be best as Dan Orlovsky hinted on Twitter.

As for me, I think it’s most likely Stafford is somewhere else in 2021. Stafford is a great quarterback, a great teammate, and a great face of the franchise. Yet, in over a decade, for all the numbers he has put up, you have 0 NFC North titles and 0 wins in 3 Wild Card playoff games. As some injuries and spotty play has piled up over the last three seasons, even by keeping him a season to mentor a rookie, you risk losing trade value if Stafford gets hurt or plays poorly in 2021.

To me, this thing needs a full reboot. Stafford has been the focus of two separate front office teams and three separate coaching staffs, and it hasn’t worked out. Stafford can get traded to a team who views him as the missing piece, and the Lions can get some solid draft value while they still can. While it’s hard to move on, I think it’s the best way to move forward.

Kenny Golladay

Whatever the decision is with Stafford, it will likely impact the fate of Kenny Golladay.

Golladay’s agent had been negotiating with Bob Quinn on an extension for the star receiver, however nothing ever came to fruition. It’s unclear how close to an agreement they got, but with Quinn gone now, all bets are off.

Golladay is one of the few bright spots on the roster, as well as one of Quinn’s best picks as GM. The wide receiver depth behind him is awful, which has shown itself as Golladay has been injured on and off this entire season. Put simply, it’s a different offense when he plays.

Where we had three options with Stafford, the new regime has four with Golladay. So as I slowly turn into Charlie looking for Pepe Silvia, let’s break it down.

Option #1: Let Golladay walk, get a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2022.

In the NFL, if you lose a player who signs a big money deal with another team, and you don’t make a big signing yourself in the same offseason, you receive a ‘compensatory’ selection in the next year’s draft.

As I don’t expect the Lions to be in the market for a high-priced free agent in March, and find it unlikely many players will want to come to Detroit, the Lions would reasonably be in line for a 3rd round pick in 2022 if they let Golladay leave.

I expect Golladay to get anywhere from $18-22 million a year when he signs his first big long-term deal, whenever that eventually happens. The next GM knows Golladay is a great player, and a #1 receiver, but there are reasons to hesitate on giving him big money. Golladay is 27, old for a guy getting his first real contract. He has also only played 16 games once in four years, and it’s looking more and more like he will only play 5 times in 2020. While he is talented, paying a wideout near $20 million a year while beginning a complete re-boot may not in the best interest of the team.

By letting Golladay go, you open up money for others in the future when the team is theoretically closer to contending, and add a day 2 pick for next year’s draft.

Option #2: Sign Golladay to a long-term contract.

As I said, Kenny Golladay is a great receiver who changes the offense when he is on the field. No matter who the QB is, rookie or Stafford, you still need weapons for them to throw to. With it being unlikely that Marvin Jones or Danny Amendola will be part of the future, you’re really looking at nothing in the receiver room if you let Golladay walk out the door.

While I do think the move with Stafford will have an impact on Golladay, the next GM may think that moving on from Stafford makes it even more important to keep Golladay in the fold. Part of the reason Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow have had successful rookie seasons is because they’re surrounded with talented skill position players. While Tua Tagovailoa has has had his moments, he hasn’t played as well and has considerably worse weapons around him.

Also look at Sam Darnold. Widely considered to be the most talented QB in the 2018 draft, his career has been torpedoed due to a dearth of talent surrounding him. By keeping Golladay, you ensure that if you do eventually start a young QB, he will have weapons to utilize on the outside.

Golladay is a #1 receiver right now, and while that comes at a price, the team will be worse without him, and there’s no guarantee future picks or signings will replace what he brings on Sundays.

Option #3: Franchise Tag Golladay.

The tag number for wide receivers in 2021 is going to be around $16 million. The new GM could simply kick the can down the road and tag Golladay, keeping him in the fold for the upcoming season, but not committing anything long-term considering some of the bloated contracts that already exist on the team.

The kicker to this would obviously be Golladay refusing to play without long-term guarantees, which he would be well within his right to. $16 million would likely be lower than the annual number he would like for a long-term deal. Golladay also continued to play into the final year of his rookie deal, which some players of Golladay’s level choose not to do anyways without a new contract.

If the next GM tagged Golladay, barring injury or a severe drop off in play, his price in the 2022 offseason would likely rise again. You could let him walk then, but then you also risk another injury or a drop in production, which would change the value you could get for a compensatory pick.

This option would be an easy fix for the new GM in the short-term, but one that could cost him in the future. However, with so many other roster decisions looming, taking the easy way out in 2021 could be the best way to move forward.

Option #4: Tag, then trade Golladay.

Since Golladay is on an expiring contract, the Lions can no longer trade him. Therefore, the only way to get picks for him in this year’s draft would be to franchise tag him, then trade him to a team before the draft.

This is the only way to get immediate compensation for losing Golladay, and the pick you get from a tag and trade could be used to add young receiver depth for this year. The money you saved from not signing him long-term or tagging him could also be used on a free agent receiver who costs far less.

This scenario would be a big risk though, as the team who traded for Golladay would then be signing him to a long-term contract. Golladay is a great receiver, but teams may not be willing to give up more than a day 3 pick knowing they have to sign him to a contract as well. Tagging him eliminates any opportunity to get a compensatory pick in 2022, and if no team wants to trade for him, then you franchise tagged a player you never wanted to keep in the first place.

Personally, I let Golladay walk, and collect my 3rd round pick for him in 2022. It’s tough letting good players walk out the door, but this move correlates with my belief that Detroit needs a full tear down.

Realistically, if you hit on a quarterback in the next two years, this team still wont be a contender for 4-5 years, if everything goes well. Golladay’s timeline doesn’t fit in that window to me, as he would be signing a contract for 4-5 years. As I said before, he’s a great player, and a number one receiver. But he is not on the level of a Devante Adams, Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill, or DeAndre Hopkins.

Instead of signing him, you get cheap free-agent placeholders, and draft young receivers that you hopefully can develop. It’s a risk, and there’s no telling who is on the other side, but this thing is going to take time. Golladay and Stafford are the only two players on the team who you can easily get assets for, so it’s best to take the draft pick and move on from a talented player who’s timeline unfortunately did not match up with the team’s.

The Rest of the Roster

Once you get past the looming decisions with Stafford and Golladay, the rest of the roster remains. As it stands now, to me there are 4 categories that players on this roster fit into.

Category #1

Players brought in by Quinn and Patricia who need to be gone in 2021.

Let’s start with the massacre, shall we? And for good measure, I’ll start on defense.

The first thing the next GM needs to do is load the off the ball linebacker room into a rocket ship and shoot them into the sun. Unfortunately Jamie Collins’s contract makes him immovable for now (I’ll get to that category in a moment), but Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai, Christian Jones, and Reggie Ragland all need to go. Davis and Ragland are both free agents in 2021, and they can just walk out the door. Tavai and Jones will need to be released from their contracts, but the team will not incur massive cap hits by doing so. The forgotten man in all this is Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who has remained in Detroit due to his special teams play. He is a free agent in 2021, and the next GM can sign him to a low money deal for special teams value, or let him walk. Either choice is fine.

Now to the defensive line. Danny Shelton and Nick Williams should get cut to make room for other younger players, and Everson Griffen can walk out the door as a free agent in 2021. The next Lions GM has a decision to make with Romeo Okwara, the only effective Lions pass rusher this year. He is 25 and a free agent in 2021, I expect he will get contract offers somewhere in the range of $8-12 million per year. Signing him may not be the worst move, but I’d be inclined to just let him walk in the hopes of maybe even collecting a later compensatory pick. Keep in mind, if you let Golladay walk, and sign Okwara, you likely miss out on a compensatory 3rd round pick in 2022.

In the secondary, cutting Desmond Trufant is a must. It’ll trigger a cap hit of six million which isn’t great, but you simply need to have a full season with Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah at corner to see what you have there. Will Harris is one of the worst picks of the Quinn era and should be cut immediately. Duron Harmon is a free agent in 2021 and he can be shown the door. Jayron Kearse is a free agent in 2021 and I like him a little just because of his size and physicality, I would not be against bringing him back on a cheap deal, but if he left it would not really matter.

Should the Detroit Lions keep playing Will Harris? - Pride Of Detroit
Will Harris once returned a fumble for a touchdown in the preseason against the Texans and I thought he might be good. Turns out he stinks.

On offense I’ll start at receiver. Marvin Jones has been a very solid Lion, but on an expiring contract at the age of 30 with slowly declining play, it’s time to move on. Danny Amendola should not be brought back, and obviously Mohammed Sanu should not be part of any long-term plans in Detroit. Jamal Agnew can stay or go if he wants to, I wouldn’t pay him over $1 million a year. He has speed and return game value, but that’s about it. So far he has failed to carve out a role on defense, and the wide receiver experiment has failed.

I don’t have too much to say about the O-Line in this category (trust me, I’ll get to Big V), other than that Oday Aboushi can stay or go as a free agent in 2021.

At tight end Jesse James should absolutely get cut, and Issac Nauta was already cut after Quinn left. At running back Adrian Peterson should be sent to go vulture carries from younger, more talented backs somewhere else. Kerryon has been a bust but he’s here through 2022 and with his pass protecting value there’s no real reason to cut him this year, but he is not part of the future.

At QB, much will depend on what happens with #9, but David Blough should probably call a realtor.

On to the next one.

Category #2

Will be in Detroit due to their contracts, but are not part of the future.

Unfortunately there will be remnants of the Quinntricia era in Detroit for years to come, as there are certain players who I wish the team could part ways with in 2021, but it would be too costly to do so.

The first of these players is Big V, brought in by Quinn to replace Graham Glasgow. He’s constantly hurt, can’t start over Oday Aboushi, and so out of shape that he missed significant time in the Jacksonville game because he needed oxygen. Unfortunately he’s under contract for 4 more seasons, and while he can be cut in year 3 or 4 of his deal, the next GM is stuck with him for now.

Lions place OL Hal Vaitai on IR, add WR Mohamad Sanu to 53-man roster
Vaitai is a 5 year 50 million dollar mistake.

Trey Flowers was always going to end up being overpaid as an end rusher due to his lack of sack production, but now it’s going to get real ugly. Quinn backloaded his deal, and for the next two years Flowers would carry a cap hit of $26 and $11 million if cut. In the final year of his contract, the cap hit would be $5 million, which isn’t as bad but still not great. While Flowers is a good player, and a good guy in the locker room, he’s nothing special. Unfortunately he will be overpaid in Detroit for at least the next two seasons.

Justin Coleman may get cut in the offseason, but that would carry a cap hit of $6 million. I just don’t see it happening after likely taking on Trufant’s cap hit, which is also $6 million. Coleman has been another disappointment, a Quinn signing that is paying elite money for the position for a middling player. The one caveat to this is that if the next defensive scheme brought in features more zone coverage, Coleman’s play could improve. He was brought in from a heavy zone scheme in Seattle, and Quinn seemingly tried to fit a square peg in a round hole by forcing him into Patricia’s man-heavy play calling. However even if he does improve, Coleman will be in his 30s once this team is a couple years into the new regime, and likely not part of the future.

As mentioned above, Jamie Collins will be on the roster again next year, as cutting him would incur a cap hit of $11 million. He’s not as bad as the other linebackers, but that’s not saying much. Collins is only on a three year deal and he can be cut for minimal losses in 2022, so he is on one of the least damaging Quinn contracts. Still, Collins is proof that keeping Quinn and Patricia in 2020 only made the hole for the next regime a deeper one to climb out of.

Category #3

Could be part of the future and will be evaluated by the new leadership for future contracts.

Starting on defense, Tracy Walker will have one more season to show he can be a starting safety in the NFL. I will give him the benefit of the doubt for now and say his up and down play was due to Patricia’s dumb scheme and idiotic safety rotation, but Walker needs to show some consistent playmaking ability in 2021 if he wants a good second contract in Detroit.

Amani Oruwariye has developed into a nice player for a 5th round pick, and I look forward to seeing a full season next year with him and Okudah starting. Oruwariye has shown some good playmaking ability and has great size and speed for a corner, but definitely has looked lost against top tier receivers. I put him in the same category as Walker, and would love to see what he can do on a defense that doesn’t only run man and can actually pressure the QB.

Detroit Lions News: Amani Oruwariye deserves a bigger piece of pie
I gave Oruwariye a 2nd round grade in 2019 and Quinn got him in the 5th, one of the few day 3 picks he hit on.

Da’Shawn Hand and Austin Bryant have flashed on the d-line but neither have flourished, mainly due to injury issues. If they can put together a full offseason and stay healthy in 2021, they have a chance to get signed to second contracts by the next GM, but I wouldn’t count on them going forward.

On offense, T.J. Hockenson is one of the league’s better tight ends. He isn’t worth the 8th overall pick, but it’s not his fault he was taken there. I’d like to see him become a better threat in the red zone and become a more effective blocker, but he likely will get his first Pro Bowl invite this year and is one of the few young players on the team that is a surefire starter going forward.

From a pure football standpoint, Frank Ragnow is probably the best player Quinn drafted. The guy is tough as nails, and is able to bottle up the stronger interior lineman in the NFC North like Akiem Hicks and Kenny Clark. Ragnow is controlled for the next three years on his rookie deal, and I would hope he is signed long term after that.

As for the rest of the offensive line, Joe Dahl and Tyrell Crosby are under contract next year and are good backups who have seen a lot of playing time due to injured starters. Despite all the injuries and mistakes by Bob Quinn, the o-line has played well given the circumstances, and I give a lot of credit to Hank Fraley the o-line coach for that. Whoever the next coach is, I would like to see Fraley stay on the staff if possible.

Not include in this list is the 2020 rookie class. With them under contract going forward, guys like Okudah, Penisini, Okwara, Swift, Jackson, Cephus, and Stenberg figure to be part of the future, but it’s difficult to judge them off of a season where they had no real offseason with COVID and got drafted by a GM played for a coach who got fired midseason. Swift has shown the most promise out of all them, guys like Okudah, Owkara, Jackson, and Stenberg becoming solid starters could speed up the rebuild process.

Category #4

Part of the future and already signed to long-term deals.

Taylor Decker.

That is the list.

Decker was Quinn’s first ever pick and he signed him to a long-term deal before the 2020 season started. Decker is a very solid left tackle and is having a career year this season. Having him on the blind-side for years to come is a huge help to the next GM, as left tackle is one of the 3 most important positions on a football team.

Will the Lions make Taylor Decker the NFL's highest paid left tackle?
Decker is the only player who is good locked up for the long term. With the receiver room in potential shambles next year, maybe he could split out wide a couple times too.

For now, this is what awaits the next GM and Head Coach of the Detroit Lions. Whoever it is will be the 7th GM and 18th Head Coach of the Super Bowl era. Will they break the mold and bring success to Detroit, or fall by the wayside along with all the others who have called the shots and roamed the sidelines in Honolulu Blue?

Forward down the field.

DT at 3? It’s More Likely Than You Think.

Look at any mock draft, and at #3 selected to the Detroit Lions will likely be Jeff Okudah, cornerback from Ohio State.

The pick, in the eyes of a mainstream media member, makes too much sense. With the Lions trading away Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles, there is now a hole at corner in the defense. Simply draft, plug, and play Okudah. Problem solved.

However, a Lions fan has to take a look at the secondary and wonder if it really is the top need for this team. With the signing of Desmond Trufant from the Atlanta Falcons, the Lions get a veteran starter who has a chance to revive his career in the Motor City. In Atlanta, Trufant was utterly mis-used by Dan Quinn’s zone heavy scheme, and I believe in a man-oriented attack Trufant will have more success.

Falcons-Rams inactives: Desmond Trufant officially out
Trufant at Ford Field in 2017.

Justin Coleman will return as the slot corner in 2020, and Tracy Walker will be returning at free safety. These are two players who had their fair share of ups and downs in 2019, but ultimately would be starters on most teams in the NFL.

Duron Harmon was added in a trade with the Patriots for the pick Detroit acquired in the trade for Quandre Diggs, and I would expect him to take the starting strong safety spot in 2020. Will Harris the rookie who struggled replacing Diggs is still there to be developed.

That just leaves the other starting corner position, to which I will re-introduce you to Amani Oruwariye. Oruwariye was a 5th round pick in the 2019 draft who played sparingly but admirably, even notching an interception in his rookie campaign.

Sorry Darius Slay, Amani Oruwariye has been the Detroit Lions best ...
While many think the Lions will take Jeff Okudah at #3, I think the Lions may already believe they have Darius Slay’s replacement on the roster with Amani Oruwariye.

It’s plausible that Oruwariye was drafted as a project to replace Slay as the Lions’ front office likely knew #23 wouldn’t be on the team after 2019. If that is the case and Quinn & Patricia believe Oruwariye can start in 2020, I think they will look to draft a defensive tackle at third overall, or at whatever slot they may trade back to.

In my eyes, defensive tackle is the weakest position group on the team. In the matter of one year, the Lions went from having Snacks Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and Mike Daniels on the interior to Danny Shelton, Nick Williams, and whoever else falls in line behind them. Both Shelton and Williams are rosterable in the NFL, but far from desirable starters. I am also hopeful Da’Shawn Hand can play at the 3T spot but he has had injury issues in both 2018 and 2019 so he is no sure bet to be on the field.

This is why I think Derrick Brown is definitely in play for the Lions at #3 overall. While it is on record that I believe Javon Kinlaw has a higher ceiling than Brown, Brown fits exactly what Patricia wants in a DT. A two-gapping read and react stud who can go into attack mode and collapse the pocket when asked to.

2020 NFL Draft: Why poor combine is concerning for Derrick Brown ...
If Matt Patricia could build his perfect DT in a lab it would look a lot like Derrick Brown.

Also, I don’t think Okudah is this complete product he gets billed as by many in the draft community. Yes, he plays best in man coverage which the Lions primarily use. However, zone concepts still have to be utilized, and from my study Okudah has problems correctly playing his assignment in zone. His 40 time is average for a corner at 4.48, a full second behind his 4.3 Buckeye burner counterparts Denzel Ward and Marshon Lattimore who have gone high in drafts previously.

I believe Quinn would love to trade back inside the top 10 for a team who wants to come up for a QB, but the demand may not be there if some remaining free agent QB dominoes fall certain ways. While the mainstream force feeds you Okudah, I’m telling you to be prepared for the Lions taking a DT at 3.

For the record, I wouldn’t be mad if they did.

The Sneakiest Rivalry in the NFL: Lions vs. Cowboys

Week 4 gives us our 5th installment of what has been the sneakiest rivalry in the NFL over the past decade. Yes, I’m talking about Lions vs. Cowboys, a series where the sub-plots run deep and a close game is always in store. Let’s start where it all began, a week 4 game back in 2011, when the Lions traveled to Dallas.

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Week 4, Lions @ Cowboys

The Lions were in the third year of the Jim Schwartz era, and the team looked like it finally had the talent to make a push at the playoffs. The 2010 season had ended in four straight victories, and that momentum had carried over into 2011, where the Lions had started 3-0.

The Cowboys were in their first full season of the Jason Garrett era. Garrett coached the second half of the 2010 season taking over a 1-7 team after Wade Phillips was fired. He ended the year 5-3, so there was promise and momentum going into 2011 for Big D. Going into week 4, the Cowboys were 2-1.

The game could not have gotten off to a worse start for Detroit, as Dez Bryant had two early touchdowns, then Jason Witten tacked another one on right after halftime. The Lions were down 27-3 with 10:30 left in the 3rd quarter when madness ensued.

Image result for lions cowboys 2011 dez
Dez and Witten celebrate an early score.

Tony Romo was intercepted by Lions linebacker Bobby Carpenter, the former first round pick of the Dallas Cowboys. He weaved his way to a pick-six, and the Lions had life. The Cowboys got the ball back and drove for almost five minutes until Tony Romo was picked again, this time by Chris Houston, who took it 57 yards for the second Lions pick-six of the game.

The Cowboys kicked a field goal on their next possession, but momentum had already swung the Lions way. The next drive the Lions went 80 yards for the score, and Calvin Johnson truly entered the national spotlight with his triple coverage jump ball TD catch. It was his 7th touchdown reception of the season so far, and Calvin had scored two touchdowns in each of the teams first 3 games.

Image result for lions cowboys 2011 dez
Calvin Johnson on some touchdown thing like that.

The sub-plot in all of this is that earlier in the week, Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan said that his defense works against better receivers in practice than Calvin Johnson. 

“We’re going to get after him,” Ryan said. “I know he’s on some touchdown thing like that, whatever.” (Per MLive article by Philip Zaroo)

Tony Romo’s 2nd half meltdown continued, and with the Cowboys up 3 with 4 minutes to go in the 4th, he launched an ill-advised pass to Jason Witten which was picked off by Stephen Tulloch. With 1:40 left in the game, Matthew Stafford threw a fade route to who else but Calvin Johnson to put the Lions in the lead, 34-30. It was his 4th game in a row on that touchdown thing like that. But whatever.

The 24-point comeback was complete, and the Lions 4-0 start paved the way to their first playoff birth since 1999. The Cowboys would fall to 2-2, and finished the year 8-8.

Here are the highlights from the game.

October 27th, 2013

Week 8, Cowboys @ Lions

This game, not unlike the previous installment, featured a Detroit Lions comeback, and some bulletin board material involving once again Calvin Johnson. Before the game, Dez Bryant said that he can do “anything that Calvin can”. And up until 6 and a half minutes to go in the 4th quarter, it seemed as if Dez had the upper hand in that day’s battle.

Bryant notched an acrobatic one-handed touchdown grab a-la David Tyree in the first half, then scored a 50 yard catch and run TD to put the Cowboys up 10 late in the 4th quarter.

However, when it comes to Megatron, he will never throw the first punch.

He always throws the last one.

After the big Dez touchdown, on the first play of the Lions following drive Stafford launched a 50 yard bomb to Calvin in what I like to call his “galloping gazelle” catch, plucking the ball out of the air while draped by two Cowboy defenders.

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The Lions would go on to score a touchdown, making it 27-24 Dallas. The Cowboys would then have to punt, and the Lions got the ball back with two timeouts and just over two minutes left in the game.

So this is where the comeback starts, right?

Wrong. The Lions turn the ball over on downs, Dallas now has the ball with 1:14 to go and a 99% chance to win the game. Detroit burns its two remaining timeouts, and on 3rd & 14 Dallas just has to run it and give Detroit the ball back with no timeouts and maybe :20 seconds on the clock left.

They do run on third down, but left tackle Tyron Smith commits a crucial holding penalty, which stops the clock. The Cowboys kick a field goal to go up 6.

The Lions trailed by six with just a minute remaining and no timeouts.

What happens next can only be described as magic.

After a measly out route to Reggie Bush that maybe gains one yard, Stafford maneuvers the pocket and hits Calvin down the middle for a chunk gain that puts them around the 40 yard line. The ball is clocked.

The ensuing play is in my opinion the single greatest throw in Matthew Stafford’s career, and I’ll be damned if any other quarterback in the NFL could make it.

Stafford takes the snap, and begins to roll out to his right. He then cuts the roll-out short short, flips his hips, and unfurls a frozen rope strike to Chris Durham that puts the Lions inside the Cowboys 25 yard line. The ball fits in perfectly over a trailing corner and over-top safety, the turkiest of turkey holes.

The next play is a perfect strike to Calvin, who is knocked down inside the one yard line. With the clock ticking under :15 seconds, the fake spike play begins.

I can’t even write about it, because only the audio does it justice.

Listen here.

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Riley! Riley! Riley!

That Stafford drive can only be described as art that belongs on a mural in the DIA. What’s better is that the touchdown prompted an epic sideline meltdown from Dez Bryant, who’s great game gets completely overshadowed by Calvin and Matthew.

The Lions comeback was so improbable that even the announcers and Fox Sports production team showed where each team would be in their division standings because of the result, the Lions dropping to .500 at 4-4, and the Cowboys at 5-3.

The Lions win a thriller 31-30. Unfortunately, this is where the train stops for Detroit.

You can watch this game in full on YouTube.

January 4th, 2015

Wild Card Weekend, Lions @ Cowboys

The Lions were coming off one of the best regular seasons in franchise history, finishing 11-5 in their first year under Jim Caldwell. The Cowboys had won the NFC East for the first time under Jason Garrett, and both teams had reason to believe that they could be contenders as the NFC playoffs began.

Once more, there was some game-week sounding off from Dallas about a Detroit Lions wide receiver. Except this time it wasn’t Calvin Johnson, they apparently learned their lesson. This time around, it was Lions newcomer Golden Tate. Barry Church said he was looking to get revenge on Tate for a block he levied on Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee that injured him the year before when Tate was a member of the Seahawks.

With Barry Church covering him, Tate threw the first punch in the form of a 51 yard catch and run touchdown on the Lions opening possession. After a Reggie Bush touchdown scamper, the Lions were up 14-0 early.

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Tate’s early score.

However, late in the 2nd quarter Detroit gave up a big play to Terrance Williams, and he went over 60 yards for a touchdown on what was a 3 & 12. The Lions were able to get a late field goal, and went into halftime up 17-7.

The Lions started with the ball in the 3rd quarter, and Stafford had a tipped ball intercepted on the first play. The Cowboys were unable to capitalize however as their stud kicker Dan Bailey missed an uncharacteristic kick from inside 40 yards, crisis averted for Detroit.

The Lions would add a field goal on the next drive, and that would be the last points they scored for the night.

With two minutes left in the 3rd, Jason Garrett chose to go for it from the 1 yard line on fourth down. DeMarco Murray plowed his way in, and the tide shifted. The Cowboys would make it a 3 point game early in the 4th quarter, then it all happened.

Put simply, this was the beginning of all things unholy when it comes to The Detroit Lions and the referees.

With 3rd & 1 from mid-field, Stafford throws the ball to Brandon Pettigrew, who is clearly interfered with by Anthony Hitchens, and the flag is thrown. Dez Bryant runs out onto the field without his helmet on to argue with the refs, which is a 15 yard personal foul penalty on it’s own, but Detroit will have the ball at the Cowboys 30 yard line with 1st & 10 inside 8 minutes.

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Then, inexplicably, Pete Morelli’s crew picks up the flag.

So what should have been 1st & 10 at the 15 yard line turns into 4th & 1 back at the 50 yard line. At least the Lions should be able to pin em deep.

Just kidding. Sam Martin shanks the punt and the Cowboys get the ball around their own 40 yard line.

The Cowboys then convert a 4th & 6 to Jason Witten en route to a Terrance Williams touchdown with 2:32 left in the game that puts them up 24-20. This still yet is plenty of time for the Lions heroic Matthew Stafford. He’s done it twice before against Dallas, why not a third?

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Terrance Williams catches the game-winner.

Except it wasn’t in the cards. The Lions fail to convert a 4th & 3 just inside mid-field and the game is lost. It was a heart-breaker for the team, as well as the last game in a Lions uniform for fan-favorite Ndamukong Suh. The next season, career Lion and the most skilled receiver to ever walk the Earth Calvin Johnson would retire.

In some poetic justice, the Cowboys would go on to lose to the Green Bay Packers after getting screwed on a going-to-the-ground catch rule with Dez Bryant. It still doesn’t fully erase the sting, and I will forever be queasy when thinking about this night in January.

December 26th, 2016

Week 16, Lions @ Cowboys

The 4th installment of our rivalry features less fanfare leading up to the game, and a less exciting result as well. In all honesty, I feel as if it is one of the Lions most embarrassing losses in the Matthew Stafford era.

The game was on Monday Night Football, and the Cowboys were in their first year with Dak Prescott as the starting quarterback. Romo was healthy but now the back-up, his career fate essentially sealed. Sitting at 12-2, the game didn’t even matter for Dallas, who had locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC.

The Lions, on the other hand, were in control of their own destiny when it came for qualifying for the playoffs, but a loss to Dallas would put the Washington Redskins in the drivers seat for a wild card spot.

So the team with nothing to play for vs. the team with everything to play for, what do you think happens?

Well, if the team that has everything to play for is the Detroit Lions, you lay an absolute egg in prime-time and prove to the world that even if you do make the playoffs, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing anything when you get there.

The Cowboys were a good team in 2016, which is why heading into halftime tied at 21 was a pretty good start for Detroit. Zach Zenner had two touchdowns and 67 yards rushing.

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Doc Zenner had a first half for the ages against Dallas.

In the second half, the Lions got outscored 21-0. Zach Zenner either fell off the face of the Earth or got paged for emergency surgery at Parkland Hospital. After getting 12 carries for 67 yards in the first half, Zenner only got 3 totes for 2 goats in the 2nd half. This change in usage was defended by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter  saying he was at a high snap-count, and that you can’t play 70 snaps a game at running back.

One week later, Zenner played 64 of a possible 66 snaps against the Packers.

This game was capped off with a ‘Philly Special’ type play where Dez Bryant threw a touchdown pass to Jason Witten.

Johsnon Bademosi got roasted in coverage a lot in this game as well with Darius Slay injured. It was the 2nd of 3 straight losses to end the regular season for Detroit, before they flew to Seattle for the playoffs and lost a 4th straight to end the season.

Watch this game’s highlights here.

September 30th, 2018

Week 4, Lions @ Cowboys

It’s a match-up of two 1-2 squads, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

The Lions have momentum coming off a statement win at home against the New England Patriots, and the Cowboys offense looks dead as a door-nail coming off a loss in Seattle.

Both teams still have their backs against the wall, and a loss would almost certainly put the Cowboys and Lions out of the playoff picture in what is a crowded NFC.

Many of the familiar faces from our previous rivalry games are gone, such as Dez, Calvin, Romo, and Witten, to name a few. Jason Garett has been roaming the sidelines for all of these games, but the Lions now send their out their third coach, Matt Patricia, to face Dallas.

The series is tied 2-2, who comes out on top in game 5?

Lions 25, Cowboys 13.