The Lions were lulled into thinking they were on the brink of consistent success after last year's breakthrough, but they found out this year how difficult winning is to maintain. They lost six games by less than a touchdown, and those six losses represented the difference between 10 victories in 2011 and four in 2012. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has noted several times the Lions were a play or two away from winning several games, but that is a hollow lament. Close games are the primary difference between the NFL's good and bad teams each year. The point is not that you were close to winning. It's that you couldn't do it. That's often what separates 10-6 teams from 4-12 teams.
For the record, I think it would be a quick hook if the Lions fire Schwartz in the coming days. I will say that the biggest pock on his resume, other than a 22-42 record, is that his team is still making way too many mistakes in the fourth year of his program. The Lions finished 2012 with 33 turnovers, the sixth-most in the NFL and their minus-16 ratio ranked was the league's third-worst. They tied for the 13th-most accepted penalties (103). Their brain locks were glaring and high-profile, from Schwartz's Thanksgiving Day penalty for challenging a touchdown to returner Stefan Logan taking a knee on a live kickoff return to center Dominic Raiola mistakenly snapping the ball when the Lions were trying to draw the Tennessee Titans offsides in Week 3. If there is a reason to be concerned about Schwartz's coaching results, it's the frequency of unforced errors. His teams have always played hard. They still don't play smart.
Much like receiver Calvin Johnson a year ago, quarterback Matthew Stafford has substantial leverage over the Lions assuming they want to address his contract in the offseason. Several years of renegotiating have pushed forward some of the cap charges from his monstrous rookie deal. As a result, Stafford's contract projects to count $20.3 million against the Lions' 2013 cap. That's a near-untenable figure, especially for a team with nearly 20 pending free agents. Stafford's performance in 2012 is almost immaterial to this negotiation. He is their long-term quarterback and if he does nothing he will earn $23 million in cash over the next two seasons. The Lions might be highly motivated to extend his contract and lower his 2012 cap hit. If so, they will have to offer him a premium quarterback salary, unless he agrees to a below-market deal. That's just how the business works.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
How in the world did the Lions get Johnson in position to target him on 205 passes this season? I would consider it one of the top accomplishments in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's career. There were certainly some passes Stafford shouldn't have thrown in Johnson's direction, but for the most part over the second half of the season, Johnson seemed to be running free all over the field. For perspective, consider that over the last five years, no receiver had been targeted more than 194 times in a season. And in that case, it took the New England Patriots' Wes Welker 19 games -- including the playoffs -- to do it. Despite exotic coverages defenses played, and even with three other receivers out for the season, Johnson led the NFL with 122 receptions.