NFL Nation: Dominic Raiola

DETROIT -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Detroit Lions' 35-14 victory.
  • Prior to the game, the Lions honored their late owner, William Clay Ford Sr., with a speech from actor Jeff Daniels, a video and the signing of "Anchors Aweigh." After the game and the Lions' win, Martha Ford, the wife of the late Ford Sr., and their children all emerged with game balls given to them by coach Jim Caldwell. He said he did it to "honor Mr. Ford and his passing."
  • Hilliard
    Corey Hilliard stepped into the lineup at right tackle after the first series, when starter LaAdrian Waddle went down with a calf injury. It felt like déjà vu to Hilliard: Last season he lost a tight battle to Jason Fox at right tackle and then Fox went down in the opener, giving Hilliard a shot. "It's scary how weird that is," Hilliard said. He was also limping in the locker room after the game, but said he's "all right," and that he just twisted himself.
  • Typically after wins, the Lions have had music blaring in the locker room to celebrate. Not Monday night with Caldwell. "New day," Lions center Dominic Raiola said as to why the team didn't have the massive speakers and music going after their win over the Giants.

Lions Camp Report: Day 10

August, 7, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • With receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Eric Ebron -- two of Detroit's biggest offensive pieces both physically and in terms of usage -- not practicing Thursday, there were more opportunities for others to try and stand out during practice. Joseph Fauria, who has been used with the first team often during the first two weeks of camp, saw a significant uptick in reps and appeared to fare fairly well. Fauria is going to make the team, but he needs to prove in this camp he has taken a step from last season, where he was primarily used in the red zone. If Ebron doesn't play Saturday, he'll have a large opportunity to do so before likely giving way to Jordan Thompson and Andrew Maxwell later in the game. Johnson, meanwhile, had an excused absence. With Johnson not at practice, Kris Durham appeared to receive more first-team reps than normal.
  • Speaking of Maxwell, the essentially unknown tight end had the play of practice in a rep with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford fired the ball to Maxwell and it hit off of him. Then, it bounced off of safety Glover Quin and somehow right back into the hands of Maxwell, who made the catch and kept on running. It looked like one of those plays you'd see on an NFL Films highlight reel for years if it happened in a game instead of a preseason practice.
  • DeJon Gomes is making a strong push to win the fourth safety spot behind starters Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo and third safety/special teams leader Don Carey. Gomes has consistently backed up Ihedigbo, including when the starter briefly left practice after being kicked in the leg. Gomes has also shown up a lot on the first-team special teams units, which is critical for any depth player trying to make a roster.
  • As part of the veterans-getting-rest plan mentioned multiple times earlier in the week, rookie offensive lineman Travis Swanson has received a lot of time with the first-team offense, either at left guard spelling Rob Sims or at center, replacing Dominic Raiola. While there is no indication Sims or Raiola have anything to worry about when it comes to their jobs, this sort of experience can only provide value to Swanson both this season and down the road, when he eventually becomes a starter. Don't be surprised to see a lot of him Saturday night, perhaps in multiple positions.
  • The Ford family made another appearance at practice Thursday afternoon. While this is my first training camp covering the Lions, veteran reporter Dave Birkett noted the family has been out at camp more often than in the past few seasons. Of course, the team sort of changed ownership in the offseason after the death of William Clay Ford Sr. His wife, Martha, now is the owner of the team and she was at practice.
  • Darren Keyton missed another practice Thursday, as did Ezekiel Ansah, who continued doing side work. Also missing practice -- and not being in attendance at all -- was linebacker Cory Greenwood. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday night that Greenwood has an excused absence. Both Ansah and receiver TJ Jones remain on the active PUP list.
  • The Lions have their final practice before the preseason opener at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Allen Park. It is not open to the public.
DETROIT -- When the Detroit Lions head into some of their team periods each day, the construction of the offensive line looks a little bit different than it will when the team kicks off the season in September.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell has been adamant about finding his veterans some rest, whether it is sitting Calvin Johnson for a practice Saturday or on a line that played together last season, giving center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims some rest.

Johnson
Sims
Raiola took a rare day off this week and Sims has consistently sat out part of practice. The veteran, who is coming off a knee injury last season and is in a contract year, said he doesn’t mind not participating in everything because he sees the long-term benefit.

"Just to keep me fresh, give me a chance to recuperate and stuff like that," Sims said. "Make sure I’m ready for the season, you know. Nothing to be alarmed about or anything like that. Just giving me some time at this point in my career."

That could include preseason games. Caldwell would not say Wednesday night how much he plans on playing veterans, including Johnson, in the preseason opener against Cleveland on Saturday night, but that he would be "prudent" in his decision-making.

Considering how he is handling veterans thus far in camp -- especially ones coming off injuries like Johnson and Sims -- it would seem likely they would not see too much action in a meaningless game.

"I plan on playing," Sims said. "I don’t know how many reps they are going to give me, but I plan on doing everything and I’m just excited to get back out there with the guys full-go."

One of the byproducts of sitting Sims has been giving the coaching staff and front office chances to evaluate younger players with the first team. Specifically at left guard, Detroit has rotated in Rodney Austin and rookies Travis Swanson and Alex Bullard with the first unit from time to time during team drills.

Swanson has also worked as center as the Lions drafted him to eventually replace Raiola. Austin is in his third season and is fighting for a job as a backup interior lineman and also trying to prove himself as a potential replacement for Sims.

Bullard is somewhat of a surprise as an undrafted rookie, but he is a player who can play all five spots on the offensive line and could be an ideal practice squad candidate because of it.

"We’ve got a good blueprint that we put in place and they did a really good job in following it," Sims said. "Rodney’s come a long way in the three years he’s been here, and it just bodes well not only for this year with the offensive line, but down the line in the future.

"I’ve always said at the end of the day, I wanted to leave something impressionable here, so I think that’s what we’re doing."

Lions Camp Report: Day 8

August, 5, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • One of the more interesting things to come out of camp on Tuesday was watching Lions running back Reggie Bush running routes with the receivers and tight ends during part of the individual period instead of working with the running backs. This shouldn’t be too stunning, though, considering how Bush has been used in the past and how the Lions could use him this season. Bush ran 51 routes out of the slot last season and 37 routes while lined up out wide. Expect more of that this season if the Saints’ offense is any indication. Last season, Darren Sproles ran 93 routes out of the slot and 27 lined up out wide. If Bush is thrown into that role -- and it would be likely he would be -- then it would not be surprising to see him used in the slot fairly often. It also adds up because one of the things stressed by this coaching staff from running backs is running precise routes.
  • It was another good day for the Lions kickers. Giorgio Tavecchio and Nate Freese appeared to make all of their field goal attempts Tuesday, although it was somewhat difficult to tell without officials signaling in the end zone. Wednesday could be an interesting test for both of them since it will be their first time kicking inside Ford Field, where they will also be Saturday night for the preseason opener against Cleveland.
  • Ezekiel Ansah worked some more Tuesday as he continues to slowly move closer to being removed from the active PUP list and actually being able to practice with his teammates. He did individual work on the side for another practice, and Lions coach Jim Caldwell indicated “he’s progressing well.”

    “They keep ramping up his activity,” Caldwell said. ‘He hasn’t had setbacks so we feel good about where he is.”

    He is one of three players who sat out practice Tuesday along with receiver TJ Jones, who is still on the active PUP list, and offensive tackle Michael Williams, who has missed five straight practices due to injury.
  • Alex Bullard was somewhat surprising Tuesday during practice. He worked with the first team during a red zone period at left guard, spelling Rob Sims. The Lions have appeared to be careful with the reps for both Sims and center Dominic Raiola throughout the early portion of camp. Raiola did not do much work Tuesday, either, being replaced by Travis Swanson. Caldwell said he will give veterans days off from time to time to give them some rest during a long training camp to ensure health during the season. That said, Bullard looked decent during his run with the top unit. He’s still a longshot to make the roster at this point, but he offers interesting position flexibility since he worked at all five offensive line positions during his time at Notre Dame and Tennessee.
  • Cornerback Jonte Green put together another good practice, especially in one-on-one drills, registering a pass breakup. Considering the questions at the bottom of the depth chart at cornerback, Green could be putting himself in position to secure a roster spot at some point.
  • The Lions practice again Wednesday night at Ford Field at 7:30 p.m. The practice is open to the public.

Lions Camp Report: Day 6

August, 2, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • The Lions had a scrimmage Saturday during their yearly family day, dividing the roster into the first-team offense and second-team defense on one side and the second-team offense and first-team defense on the other. The first-team offense and defense had all the typical players save Calvin Johnson, who did not practice Saturday. That wasn’t surprising considering the Lions’ focus on keeping their star as fresh as possible. In their daily switch, LaAdrian Waddle lined up with the first team at right tackle and Corey Hilliard with the second team, but that competition between two players who will make the roster continues. Defensively, Tahir Whitehead received a lot of time at linebacker spelling Stephen Tulloch.
  • Big day for Eric Ebron, who caught a really long pass from Matthew Stafford and appeared to be more confident on the field than he has at any point this camp. It’s still going to be a learning process for him for a bit and there will certainly be mistakes, but Saturday was encouraging. Lions coach Jim Caldwell also seemed comfortable with Ebron’s progress as he learns the multitude of spots he is expected to line up at this fall. Ebron’s play was one of the highlights for the Lions’ offense of the scrimmage considering his issues with drops.
  • The Lions had some issues snapping the ball when Dominic Raiola was not part of the scrimmage. Both Darren Keyton – playing with the first group – and Travis Swanson had bad snaps to quarterbacks, causing issues. In Swanson’s case, it led to a fumble recovery for a touchdown by rookie Larry Webster, one of the better plays the defensive end has made during camp. While Swanson is still expected to be the backup center when everything shakes out a month from now, those issues amplified the importance of Raiola and his presence again this season.
  • Detroit’s cornerback situation behind Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis could get interesting. Jonte Green had his best day of camp thus far, breaking up two passes intended for receiver Ryan Broyles, who has not run with the first team much this camp. Chris Greenwood struggled again Saturday as well as those two potentially compete for one roster spot. Slay, Mathis, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and probably Cassius Vaughn appear to be ahead of both Green and Greenwood on the depth chart – although Lawson is going to mostly play nickel. Still a long way to go in this competition with not much settled in the first week.
  • Another good day for Detroit’s kickers as Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio made all their field goals attempted during the scrimmage, including a 50-yarder from Tavecchio that sailed through the uprights with ease. Unlike last season, when David Akers won the kicking job fairly easily, this season it seems like this could go on for a while. A wrinkle here could be something Caldwell said Saturday – that the team would consider using punter Sam Martin on extremely long field goal attempts. He compared it to his situation in Indianapolis, where Caldwell considered using punter Pat McAfee on long field goals. McAfee never attempted a field goal in a game, though. So something to consider as this competition progresses -- especially as Martin has an extremely impressive camp punting.

The Lions will take Sunday off before practicing again Monday at 8:30 a.m.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Ndamukong Suh might not be under contract with the Detroit Lions beyond this season, but coach Jim Caldwell is confident a deal will get done with the All-Pro defensive tackle.

“Absolutely,” Caldwell said Sunday. “I’m always optimistic. I think you know me by now, and I think without question they are working at it, and I think something will be done at the appropriate time.”

When the appropriate time is, however, is unknown. When the offseason began, both team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew said publicly that they wanted Suh in Detroit and that Suh wanted to stay in Detroit long term. They believed a deal would get done soon, with Mayhew saying at the NFL combine it would be done close to the start of the regular season.

March came and went, and other than a change in Suh’s agent from Relativity Sports to Jimmy Sexton and CAA, no contract was agreed to. The offseason continued to progress, and then ESPN Insider Chris Mortensen reported last week that a team source was not optimistic a deal would be done before training camp begins Monday.

While this would appear to be a distraction heading into camp, Caldwell said he has experience dealing with players entering the final year of their contract.

“I’m not worried about it in that regard because Tom and obviously Martin and ownership will get that taken care of, and I’ve been through it a few times,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been through it with Peyton [Manning], and I’ve been through it most recently with [Joe] Flacco, and so there’s a number of guys that are going through that throughout the league and our team is no different.”

Caldwell said he would not be treating Suh, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft who has a $22.4 million cap number this season, differently than before. He was pleased, though, with how Suh showed up to camp, saying he is in the best shape he’s ever been in.

Players also insisted Suh’s contract situation would not be a distraction as camp begins, saying Suh is under contract and will be in camp. Suh told The Associated Press on Saturday that he felt his contract status would not distract him as the season approaches.

As far as selling Suh on remaining in Detroit long term, opinions differ on how to do that. Longtime center Dominic Raiola said winning this season would be a good way to sell Suh and other players on wanting to stay with the Lions.

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch said he wouldn’t have to sell staying in Detroit to Suh.

“We don’t have to say anything to Suh,” Tulloch said. “Suh’s a businessman, as we all know.”
DEARBORN, Mich. -- Walking in from the distance, slowly creeping closer to his former teammates and still friends for part of this reunion weekend, Nate Burleson looked like a giant traffic cone.

This may have been a charity softball game put on by Detroit Lions Stephen Tulloch and Dominic Raiola, but the former receiver made sure that even as he visited his old team, he wanted to make sure everyone knew where he went as well.

[+] EnlargeNate Burleson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsFormer Lions WR Nate Burleson said he's glad to serve as a mentor to his new teammates in Cleveland.
Hence the orange shirt, orange shorts and straw hat with an orange piece of cloth on it. Make no mistake, Burleson is a Cleveland Browns wide receiver now. Detroit may feel like his second home, but his job is now a state away.

“I’m enjoying it, man. I’m having a good time,” Burleson said before the Tulloch charity softball game Saturday. “We’re a young team. We’ve got a good team. It’s good to be a part of a team that’s doing something.

“It’s similar to the situation when I came here. It wasn’t a desirable place, but Cleveland is one of those places where they deserve to have a good season.”

Much like he tried to do with the Lions the past few seasons, Burleson is aiming to be a mentor to a young team with stars like Josh Gordon and Johnny Manziel. Considering Burleson was close to retirement after being released by Detroit in February -- he said he had conversations with a television network for an analyst role this season -- he understands part of his role with the Browns is to teach the young players to become professionals.

Even as he started his time in Cleveland, he wasn’t sure how everything would go. He looked around and saw players a decade younger than him. Then he worked through one-on-one drills and everything still felt like it was working out well.

So he knew he made the right decision to return for at least one more season in the NFL. After all, television networks aren’t going anywhere even if he was on the move from the Lions.

Burleson had indicated throughout last season he wanted to finish his career in Detroit. He had made plans to do so, but understood he was an injury risk after missing almost half of the 2013 season with a broken forearm suffered in a pizza-related crash on Interstate 696 in Michigan. The season before, he broke his leg on Monday Night Football.

For a team that is focused on winning now, they couldn’t take that risk. Burleson played in 15 games the past two seasons, totaling 66 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns.

“There’s no hard feelings, I think mostly because of the injuries,” Burleson said. “When I was on the field I was productive. I feel I was a great complement to Calvin [Johnson]. Just too many injuries and as an organization, I understand it. It would have been great to have me back for one more year but there’s such a big question mark, 'can he stay healthy?' Unfortunately, that’s part of the game and I was OK with it.”

There wasn’t anything wistful for Burleson about his return to Michigan this time. He continued to mesh with his old teammates on offense -- they were Team Raiola in the softball game -- but his next trip back might carry a bit more emotion.

The Lions and Browns play in the preseason opener, meaning the first-ever game for Manziel, the first-ever game for Jim Caldwell as the coach of the Detroit Lions and in a small sidebar, the return of Burleson to a place he outwardly seemed to love.

“Have I thought about it? Are you kidding me? Man, I’m racking my brain figuring out what celebration I’m gonna do because I’m gonna get a fine,” Burleson said. “I’m gonna get a fine. Seriously. I'm going to go to my coach and say, ‘Hey, look, I’m going to get a fine. I’m going to do something crazy.’

“It’s going to be a little bit of an appreciation celebration to the fans and the city of Detroit. It’s also going to be kind of a poke in the back saying you should of kept me because I’m still ballin'. Nah, you know me, I’m a prideful individual so I’m going to do something that’s representing Cleveland, representing Ohio, and it’s going to be fun and classy.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The pick: Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas

My take: The Lions knew they would need to draft a center to compete with veteran Dominic Raiola this season -- either to beat Raiola for the starting job or learn from him for a season or two before taking over in 2015 or 2016. While they missed out on Marcus Martin from USC -- likely the top center on their board -- they decided to go with one of the top players remaining at the position.

This is probably also indicative of the team not really liking the available secondary and defensive line prospects remaining. Swanson was the fourth-rated center in the draft by ESPN.com and has good leadership qualities. He is going to be more of a run blocker than a pass blocker at first, but considering what will be around him, Detroit can handle that. This means that almost all of Detroit’s line by 2015 could be players drafted by Martin Mayhew. Swanson could potentially play center or guard, according to Mayhew.

Secondary question: This could mean the Lions, who have obvious needs in the defensive backfield, could go the first two days of the draft without taking a cornerback or safety. Considering those were considered among their top needs in the draft, perhaps the team has confidence in Chris Houston returning to form or the young cornerbacks are coming along better than expected.

What’s next: The Lions will continue drafting Saturday with a pair of selections in the fourth round.
Every day we’ll take a look at one of the Detroit Lions heading for free agency, what he has meant to the team before and a prognosis on whether or not he’ll be back with the club in 2014.

To see the Meet the Free Agents series thus far, click this link.

Free agent to be: Dylan Gandy

Position: Guard/center

Age: 31

Years in the league: 9

What he made last season: $620,000 (cap value); $905,000 (cash value) -- $840,000 (base), $50,000 (roster bonus); $15,000 (workout bonus)

What he did last season: Gandy played in 15 games, mostly as a special-teams player and, due to injuries, as a receiving-eligible sixth offensive lineman. Gandy played 15 offensive snaps last season but primarily served as a backup to center Dominic Raiola and guards Rob Sims and Larry Warford. They missed a combined two snaps all year.

His potential market value: Tough to say. He hasn’t been a consistent starter since the 2009 season, his first with the Lions. It is important to at least have some veteran backups and that he can play multiple positions helps, but it will depend on the needs of various teams on the offensive line. He’ll likely be in a situation where he will be taking the veteran minimum or slightly more.

Will he fit the Lions still: Not particularly. The team has the interior of their offensive line set with Raiola, Sims and Warford all set to come back for 2014, as well as Rodney Austin under contract. The team is also expected to draft a center in May. If the team releases Leroy Harris, who is supposed to count $2,062,500 against the cap next season and didn’t play a game in 2013, perhaps the team could bring back Gandy with part of that cap room.

What happens: Detroit will have other priorities ahead of looking at Gandy, so if he is able to find another offer from a team, he would probably be wise to take it. Unless the Lions are planning on filling every “major” hole through the draft -- receiver, cornerback, safety and potentially tight end and linebacker -- Gandy will not be the first priority and as a veteran could be expensive for Detroit to retain. If he is still around after the initial wave of free-agent signings, then the team could bring him back. But if Harris remains on the roster, don’t expect it. It might be an either/or situation there. He does have some familiarity with new head coach Jim Caldwell from their time together in Indianapolis, so that could be a help as well.
The Detroit Lions solved one of their biggest offseason questions this week, locking up their center position for at least one more season.

Bringing back veteran Dominic Raiola was the correct move for Detroit at this time. He was an anchor on the offensive line last season, and had perhaps the best season of his career.

Raiola
Considering the other holes the Lions will need to fill -- wide receiver, tight end, cornerback and safety -- bringing back Raiola gives the team one less thing to worry about, especially as the offense learns Joe Lombardi’s new offensive system.

In theory, the Detroit offensive line will remain intact for a second season, giving the Lions continuity with the men blocking for Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.

Plus, Raiola never wanted to go anywhere else. He has spent his entire career with Detroit. He was more than willing during this season to take a leadership role even though he didn’t have the captain’s ‘C’ on his jersey. Though the Lions struggled through the second half of the season, he attempted to keep things positive and focused on continually trying to turn things around.

He is one of the few Detroit players left from the 0-16 season in 2008, and has been completely focused on trying to return to the playoffs for the second time in his career. He thought he might get there last season, especially when the Lions were 6-3.

But now, as his career will likely be winding down at some point in the near future, he will be even more focused on obtaining that this season.

The second benefit for Detroit bringing back Raiola for another season is he can now play the role of mentor to his replacement. There is a decent chance the Lions could draft a center this season in the later rounds of the draft. By bringing Raiola back, there will be no pressure on that player to start from the beginning.

He can learn for a year and get used to the speed of the NFL -- and what Lombardi and Stafford are comfortable with -- before he really competes for the starting job. That can be invaluable to the Lions as they make that transition.

That Raiola will be around for that grooming process, whether it is for one season or more, will be extremely important for whatever rookie the team is likely to bring in.

The next big thing: Lions

January, 23, 2014
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Now that the Detroit Lions have hired their coach and are in the latter stages of assembling a staff, both head coach Jim Caldwell and the front office can look toward free agency, which begins in March.

The Lions likely won't be massive players here this season, unlike last year when they brought in Reggie Bush and Glover Quin, but they should make some moves. The biggest players to pay attention to, in some respect, are two of their own free-agent veterans. The club needs to make decisions whether to try and bring back center Dominic Raiola and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Raiola seems like an easy choice. He wants to return. He'll likely take less money to return and if Detroit does bring him back, it keeps its entire offensive line from last season intact. Plus, by bringing Raiola in and potentially drafting a replacement for him in May, he can spend a season or two mentoring the younger player.

Pettigrew is the more interesting question, and it might come down to how much Caldwell values what Pettigrew can bring as a tight end versus what other options exist in free agency or the draft.
Over the past two weeks, we looked at critical plays in the 2013 Detroit Lions season, counting back from 10 all the way to today.

Not all of them were bad and certainly, with the way the Lions cratered to a 7-9 finish, were not all good. Some may be have just been fantastic plays.

As always when it comes to these sorts of lists, this is subjective and are plays, for good or bad, that stuck out to me when I made this list. Agree or disagree vehemently, let’s chat about it.

Past plays: No. 10 -- PI in Arizona; No. 9 -- Reggie Bush’s screen vs. Minnesota; No. 8 -- Calvin Johnson gets the drops; No. 7 -- Jeremy Ross’ snow-covered return; No. 6 -- Matthew Stafford’s pick-six; No. 5 -- Mike Nugent’s game-winning field goal; No. 4 -- The kneel to end regulation in Giants-Lions; No. 3 -- Stafford’s fake spike; No. 2 -- Justin Tucker’s field goal

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Don WrightCoach Jim Schwartz made a gutsy call on Nov. 17 at Pittsburgh that changed the Lions' season.
Today, we present what I believe to be the play that most shaped this Lions season.

When: Nov. 17, 2013

Where: Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Detroit Lions, 37-27.

What happened: It was, at best, a questionable call and a gutsy call. It was also a bizarre call and, considering both how it turned out combined with the logic behind it, a silly decision. The Lions led, 27-23, with 12:56 left in the fourth quarter on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. Fourth down. Five yards to go. Logic says kick the field goal and take the 30-23 lead.

Not for Jim Schwartz. Schwartz instead chose to fake the field goal, sending punter Sam Martin -- who had never attempted a fake in his life -- running over to the right side. He was hit short of the first down and fumbled. Pittsburgh then drove 97 yards and scored what would be the game-winning touchdown.

But, as Schwartz said, "don't say I'm scared." That call clearly showed that.

What they said about it: Schwartz: “It had to do with trying to make the plays to win the game. We didn’t make it. But look, you could say whatever you want,” Schwartz said. “Y’all say whatever you want about me, OK. Don’t say I’m scared. Cause we ain’t, OK? This team is going to be aggressive. We’re going to play our very best. We didn’t play well enough to win this game, OK. But it’s not because we’re passive or anything.”

Martin: “I got hit by a 350-pound man. I don't think I had the first down, but regardless, that guy made a great play. You have to give him credit. When you looked at initially, it was a big hole.”

Center Dominic Raiola: “I don’t know how much momentum we’re going to lose from this. Going back home with Tampa coming into town, everything’s right in front of us. You know, we’re not, we don’t need a State of the Union. It’s just a loss. We lost, you know. They got us. Just bounce back like we do after every loss."

Kicker David Akers: "It comes down to a mentality. 'Are you going to play it safe or are you going to be aggressive and go after it?'"

How the Lions’ season was impacted: Usually, I’m not a believer in one play or one decision completely derailing a season, but walking down to the media scrum after the loss, I distinctly remember turning to another reporter and openly wondering if that decision shifted the karma of the entire Lions' season. Yes, Detroit's players praised the aggressiveness of Schwartz with the call, but it just simply wasn’t logical. In every game Detroit lost after the Pittsburgh game, the Lions lost a fourth-quarter lead. Turnovers started to pile up by the bunches. Detroit still might have lost the game had Schwartz kicked the field goal. The Lions’ season still might have collapsed. But there was a crack in the stability there. It was a meltdown where the offense, defense and special teams did nothing from the moment the fake was called. Whether the players, coaches or anyone else realized it that afternoon, the fake field goal changed the mood of the season.
Jim Caldwell is the new Detroit Lions coach, and though there has been a lot of consternation about the hire, the Lions will succeed or fail based upon his decisions and his ability to develop players, notably quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Caldwell will meet with the media for the first time Wednesday, and based on what I’ve heard and been told about his interview on Jan. 3, he has a detailed plan for how he is going to fix both the Lions and Stafford.

Those are his two most important tasks as Detroit’s head coach. If he is unable to do that, he’ll join the line of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz as coaches who couldn’t quite reach the level the team wanted.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDeveloping Matthew Stafford is one of the most important tasks facing new Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
If he can succeed, he’ll have a chance to do something only one coach in the Super Bowl era, Wayne Fontes, has even come close to doing with the Lions: turn the team into a consistent winner.

Here’s a look at five things Caldwell will have to do early in his tenure with the Lions.

1. Hire a competent staff: He could have some names as early as his introductory news conference, but Teryl Austin is a name I’ve been told multiple times as a likely defensive coordinator. Bill Lazor was a name for offensive coordinator, but h has been hired by Miami. If Caldwell doesn’t put together a strong staff, that will be an issue early on. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also could end up on Caldwell’s staff.

2. Make smart decisions about free agents with GM Martin Mayhew: Dominic Raiola and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the bigger free agents for the Lions. Raiola is a strong presence in the locker room, and it might be smart to bring him back for continuity on an offensive line that was one of the best in the league last season. Pettigrew could be interesting. He is an important cog, as was Dallas Clark, Caldwell’s tight end in Indianapolis and with the Ravens this season. Of course, Clark is also a free agent, so Caldwell might push to get him to Detroit.

3. Matthew Stafford: Part of the reason Caldwell was hired was to work with Stafford, with whom the coach met on his interview. Stafford, according to receiver Kris Durham, seemed to like Caldwell. That relationship will be critical to any success Caldwell has in Detroit. He believes he has a plan to fix Stafford -- both Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning are high on Caldwell's ability to help quarterbacks -- and the coach will have to be able to implement that plan as soon as possible.

4. Keep at least two current assistants: This goes with the first point. John Bonamego did a really good job with special teams almost all season, including finding strong gunners in Don Carey and Jeremy Ross. Jeremiah Washburn turned an offensive line with two rookies on the right side into one of the top groups in the NFL, and players seemed to really like him. Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek did a good job with the defensive line, and Matt Burke was strong with the linebackers. Consider at least some of them to keep some continuity.

5. Get out in the community: This might sound silly, but Caldwell is not a popular hire with the Detroit fan base. By all accounts, he is a good, well-intentioned man, so by doing a lot of community outreach early on, he could turn some people who are currently not pleased about the hire. Of course, the best way to do that is to win games, but getting out in the community would be a strong start.
Not surprising at all, really, but Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team Friday.

Suh
Johnson
They were the only two Lions to make either the first or second team, which shouldn't be too surprising considering the plethora of good running backs and linebackers in the league.

The only players who could have argued to be on the team were right guard Larry Warford, center Dominic Raiola and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy.

Levy not making the team is not a surprise, again, due to the difference between 3-4 and 4-3 outside linebackers and the statistics 3-4 outside linebackers accrue. Thought Warford would have a shot to slip in on the second team, but he did not.

Also, Warford was not among the five finalists for the NFL Rookie of the Year. No offensive or defensive linemen were among the finalists. Instead there were two wide receivers (Cordarrelle Patterson, Keenan Allen), two running backs (Giovani Bernard and Eddie Lacy) and a linebacker (Kiko Alonso).

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 24

Biggest surprise: The offensive line was supposed to be one of the biggest question marks for the Lions this season with three new starters and a center who was supposed to be on the tail end of his career. Instead, the group ended up being one of the top units in the NFL. Larry Warford, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, looks to be an anchor at right guard for the next decade. Center Dominic Raiola had arguably his best season and the Lions discovered another rookie, undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle, as a consistent starter at right tackle. Four of the five -- all but Raiola -- are under contract for next season. Raiola has expressed a desire to return if possible.

Biggest disappointment: At one point, Detroit was 6-3 and looked to be in control of the NFC North and a playoff berth. Then everything unraveled. The Lions lost five of their next six to fall out of playoff contention. In each of those losses, Detroit had three or more turnovers. Matthew Stafford, who appeared in the first half of the season to be moving closer to becoming an elite quarterback, regressed. Reggie Bush, brought in as a high-profile free agent in the offseason, had issues with fumbles. Calvin Johnson had the most drops in a season in his career. Almost everything imploded on the Lions, who will watch the playoffs from home again this year.

Biggest need: In the draft, the Lions need to look at a speedy wide receiver on the outside to complement Johnson along with finding a young, shutdown cornerback early on to play alongside Darius Slay, last season’s second-round draft pick. Depending on whether tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Raiola return, those are two other positions to look at, and the Lions could also use depth at linebacker. Perhaps the biggest need of all is a guru to work with Stafford to help fix his mechanical issues and decision making. Whether that person is brought on staff as a dedicated quarterback coach or an outside influence like Steve Clarkson or George Whitfield Jr., Stafford could use some specialized refresher courses at least.

Team MVP: Johnson was the team's best player, and he showed his value when he was out, as the Detroit offense couldn’t move the ball well in games he missed. But the most valuable Lions player this season was linebacker DeAndre Levy. He had career highs in tackles, solo tackles and interceptions this season. But to me, the image of him hobbling out of the locker room after the Lions’ 23-20 loss to the Giants in Week 16, after he legitimately gave every piece of himself to his team only to lose, showed his value. Levy doesn’t say much, but he was the top player on the Lions' defense and consistently made plays for Detroit all season long.

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