Today, we say goodbye to the 2011/2012 Detroit Lions, a team that inspired, enraged, and thrilled us.
It may have taken a year or two longer than we anticipated, but the Lions finally rose from the NFL's junk heap this season. The pieces had been in place, but it wasn't until now that they finally came together.
The Lions became a team to be feared, and not necessarily liked. They are no longer losers, and they may no longer be lovable, either. Given the choice, I'm sure Lions fans would make that trade.
Ultimately, the Lions' undoing was running into a Saints team firing on all cylinders, playing in perhaps the toughest road building in the league. You could label the Detroit secondary a fatal flaw if you wanted, and yes, they had their breakdowns against the Saints, but I'd still argue that that same Lions performance from Saturday night would've been good enough to beat most teams in the league.
Looking to the future, there are two names that almost ensure that the Lions are going to be competitive for a while — Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Stafford finally showed what he can do when he stays healthy for a full season, and had Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers not eclipsed Dan Marino's single-season passing-yardage record, Stafford himself would've only come up 46 yards short of it.
We've gotten a little casual with the word "elite" recently, but if Stafford can build on this year and continue to improve, he'll be right on the cusp of that category. And if your team has a quarterback like that, then you have a good team.
Then there's Calvin Johnson, the single-most indefensible position player in the league. That's the beauty of Stafford and Calvin Johnson — it's not like a defense can be drawn up to stop those guys. Calvin Johnson will beat two or three guys. NFL history has shown that teams with elite quarterbacks can score points against anyone. The Lions could get there.
There are stars on defense, too, of course. Keeping Cliff Avril will be difficult for the club, but important, because with a year of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley getting better, that defensive line can be even nastier than it was this year. So good, in fact, that even modest improvements to the secondary could make a world of difference.
The only reason to be concerned about Detroit's future is Ndaumkong Suh's behavioral issues. Even that barely registers as a blip in the Lions' future, but it is an issue — continued 15-yard penalties, suspensions, and questionable behavior after traffic accidents could turn into a problem. Jim Schwartz might want to tone his act down a little bit, too.
There's no reason to believe that this team can't make another leap — from promising team to playoff team this year, and from playoff team to legitimate contender next year.