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State of the Franchise: Make-or-break year for current Lions regime

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Detroit Lions organization, Lions fans around the world and those of you who have wondered how a hot dog spot called American Coney Island became a Detroit institution:

This is a big year for the Lions, who are still trying to find their way. Or should I say, Patriot Way? I know, I know: cheap shot. But this is a big season for the men in Honolulu Blue. There is reason for optimism: As some Lions fans will point out, their quarterback was having one of his best NFL campaigns before a back injury snapped his streak of 136 consecutive starts and ultimately ended his 2019 season. But there is also reason for pessimism: As other Lions fans will tell you, well, they are Lions fans and they have been down this road before. But what does the road have in store for 2020? Let's take a look forward ... by first taking a step back.

How the Lions got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Matthew Stafford playing at an MVP level. In his first eight games with Darrell Bevell directing the offense, Stafford threw three-plus touchdown passes five times. The 2009 NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick looked better than ever ... until he injured his back diving for the end zone late in a tight loss to the Raiders on Nov. 3.
  • Going undefeated through the first three weeks of the season. Yes, the Lions blew an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead in Arizona to end up with a season-opening tie, but they didn't lose! Wins over the Chargers and Eagles were impressive. Especially the 27-24 victory at Philadelphia. Revenge for Jim Schwartz? DENIED!
  • Taking the undefeated Chiefs to the brink in Week 4. Stafford outplayed Patrick Mahomes, Kerryon Johnson ran for 125 yards and Kenny Golladay had a pair of touchdown catches. With under two minutes remaining, Detroit held a 30-27 lead with Kansas City facing a fourth-and-8 at its own 34-yard line.

The lows:

  • Not finishing the job against the undefeated Chiefs in Week 4. Mahomes dropped back to pass on that aforementioned fourth-and-8, then took off up the middle for a 15-yard scramble. Kansas City went on to score the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds remaining. It was fun seeing Detroit out there competing with K.C. in a game that featured five second-half lead changes, but in the end, the Lions couldn't hang on to win. That last part became a recurring theme throughout the year.
  • Winning one game -- total -- after the Week 5 bye. Stafford played just eight games before the back injury effectively ended his season. The Lions were 3-4-1 with Stafford as the starting quarterback ... and 0-8 with Jeff Driskel/David Blough under center.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Matt Patricia. I like the third-year head man. However, do yourself a favor and toss the phrase "Matt Patricia culture change" into Google. The third headline from the top is, "Matt Patricia trying to change Lions' culture with more physicality." That story is from 2018. The second headline from the top: "Lions' Matt Patricia continues culture change away from Jim Caldwell era." That one's from 2019. And finally, the top headline: "SI All Lions Roundtable: Culture Change Underway for Lions." That's from this past March. It just seems like Patricia has been given an awfully long time to -- say it with me now -- change the culture. It's like hiring a contractor. And he has to take the existing structure all the way down to the studs and basically start over. But you hired the guy two-and-a-half years ago. You were expecting to see some progress in the build at some point, but instead, there is merely a pile of rubble where your new office was supposed to be.

Obviously, Detroit caught some bad breaks early on in the 2019 campaign. I even wrote a column in mid-October highlighting the Lions' profoundly bad luck. And then they lost Stafford for the entire second half of the season. At the end of the day, the team lost 12 of its final 13 games and finished dead last in the NFC North for the second straight season. Some of that has to fall on coaching.

Let's compare Patricia to another defensive branch off the Bill Belichick tree. Brian Flores, who had taken over the defensive play-calling duties from Patricia in New England, was hired last year as the head coach of a Dolphins team at the outset of a dismantle/rebuild. And while Miami's front office was busy trading talent for future draft currency, Flores fielded a team that was competitive, a lot of fun to watch and kind of ended the Patriots dynasty under Tom Brady by shocking them in the season finale. Sure, the Fins went just 5-11, but they improved over the course of the year. In December, people were talking up Flores as Coach of the Year material for clearly getting the most out of an overmatched roster.

The 2019 Lions didn't manage many moral victories, much less real wins. Patricia's 9-22-1 through his first two seasons in the big chair. Jim Caldwell, the man Patricia replaced, averaged nine wins per season in Detroit. So, um, how's that culture change going?

Quarterback: Matthew Stafford. While his 2019 campaign lasted just eight games, Stafford posted the highest passer rating of his career at 106.0 -- the only time he's finished a season in the triple digits. He also experienced a huge spike in yards per pass attempt (8.6) and yards per completion (13.4). And he was on pace for 4,998 passing yards, meaning there was a good chance he could've become just the second quarterback in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons (Drew Brees boasts five such campaigns).

Stafford is great. I'm a huge fan. And I have every reason to believe he's going to return from his back injury and crush it again with Bevell calling the plays. But will it even matter? Stafford has been a fine quarterback throughout his entire NFL career, yet Detroit has been largely irrelevant. The Stafford-led Lions have reached the playoffs in three seasons, but it's been one-and-done each time. It's tough for fans of organizations that never seem to get the quarterback position right -- quiet, you -- but it has to feel worse to have a stud at the position but never be able to surround him with the kind of talent to help him reach the next level. It would be like owning an Xbox with no controller. What good is it if you can't make the most of it?

Projected 2020 MVP: Stafford. He could be considered a dark-horse MVP candidate. Then again, if Russell Wilson has never received even a single MVP vote, maybe we should be more realistic here and talk up the potential of a second career Pro Bowl bid for No. 9. Stafford flourished in Bevell's offense last year, so you'd expect more of the same in 2020. Especially if his back is "completely healed," as Stafford's wife, Kelly, announced via Instagram back in March.

2020 breakout star: T.J. Hockenson, tight end. A lot of people called the tight end "Patricia's Gronk" after Detroit selected him at No. 8 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. And those folks doubled down on that sentiment when Hockenson caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. But he never came close to that kind of production again, totaling just 26 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown over the rest of the season. Honestly, not a huge surprise, considering A) the TE position usually takes a few NFL seasons to master, B) Hockenson was limited by injuries and C) Stafford missed half the year. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Hockenson can do in 2020.

If you're looking for a guy who isn't tainted by my fantasy football bias, check out second-year LB Jahlani Tavai. He made some splash plays as a rookie in 2019, just like he did as a versatile star of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. But he was also a liability in pass coverage, which isn't exactly shocking for a first-year player. If Tavai can develop, that would be a huge boon to Patricia's defense.

New face to know: Jeff Okudah, cornerback. The Lions absolutely got a great one in this Ohio State product. He was one of the best players in the draft, a high-end cornerback with a very high floor and an elite ceiling. The only problem I have is that the Lions were drafting for a need at the No. 3 overall spot -- a need they created when they sent Darius Slay to Philadelphia a month before the draft. One thing I've admired about the Patriots in the past is that they typically seem to have stellar corners paired together. Slay and Okudah would have been a pretty amazing combination. Instead, the Lions are chasing, hoping Okudah can be a shutdown corner immediately. Maybe he will be. And if you're the most optimistic of Lions fans, you could call this your Nick Bosa, the Buckeye who changes everything with just one pick. But that would be quite optimistic.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. This is a make-or-break year for Patricia and GM Bob Quinn. Nine wins over Patricia's first two seasons means this team has to log nine Ws in 2020 alone -- OK, at least get to .500 -- or it's going to be over. Lions ownership clearly laid this out last December with the announcement that Patricia and Quinn would keep their jobs, but "our expectation is for the Lions to be a playoff contender in 2020."

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Bears. This is a great opportunity to start the season on a high note. Matt Nagy is 0-2 in openers. And there is a quarterback competition going on in Chicago. This is the time to capture the moment.
  • Week 6 at Jaguars. This could either be a great time to pick up a winnable road game ... or an early battle in the Trevor Lawrence derby.
  • Week 17 vs. Vikings. Hey, congratulations: You don't have to close the season with the Green Bay Packers for a change.

Will the Lions be able to ...

Play some defense? The 2019 Lions ranked 31st in total defense and dead last in passing D. Consequently, Paul Pasqualoni is out as defensive coordinator, former Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin is in. Undlin was a defensive assistant for the Patriots back in 2004, the same year Patricia served as an offensive assistant. Anyhow, the one thing I really like hearing about Undlin's approach on defense: He's not the kind of guy who is going to force HIS system, instead letting the players' skills dictate the defensive scheme. And out of deference and respect for the Lions and their fans, I will not make the obvious "What kind of skills does the 31st-ranked defense have?" joke. You're welcome. But, as I consider what could be in store for the 2020 Lions, the defense is kind of a sticking point with me. Teams that have made that leap from obscurity to the playoffs in recent years (SEE: Jaguars, Bears, Bills, 49ers) have typically led with defense. The Lions would either need to improve greatly on D or buck that trend.

Hold on to some leads? The Lions had leads in their first 12 games of the season. They started 3-8-1. They also jumped out to a 10-point advantage over the Broncos in Week 16 before losing 27-17. And they were up 14-0 on the Packers in Week 17 ... clung to a 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter ... and eventually lost on Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal as time expired. That's the kind of year it was for Detroit. And you can take that a number of ways. The Lions were in a lot of games. Maybe they were better than people thought. Or perhaps, they were just the Lions. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But if Detroit is going to make a bid for the NFC North this season, the team must be able to close.

Make the Patriot Way a thing in Detroit? A lot of former Lions have publicly blasted the way Patricia has gone about things in Detroit. Former tight end Hakeem Valles, who played for both Caldwell and Patricia, said the difference between the two coaches is "beyond night and day" -- and not in a good way for Patricia. Glover Quin called Patricia arrogant. Darius Slay said he lost all respect for Patricia after a pair of personal slights in the coach's first year on the job. Could some of this be sour grapes from players who didn't fit into the system? Possibly. But Patricia's approach has to take -- and produce wins -- this coming season. For whatever reason, the coach I think about the most in a situation like this is Chip Kelly. He went to Philadelphia to do things his way. This after the Eagles got rid of Andy Reid because he was successful, just not successful enough. Caldwell was eight games above .500 in his four years as Lions head coach. Through two seasons, Patricia is 13 games below .500. Kelly, of course, didn't make it to Year 4 in Philly.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones were really good last year. Quick, name the three players who had double-digit touchdown catches last year. Who were they??! You probably already guessed Golladay (our Lions MVP prediction in this piece one year ago), because otherwise it would be pretty random to bring that up. And yes, he led the NFL with 11 TD grabs. You probably also want to say Jones, because that would be perfect for my narrative here. But no, the other two were Cooper Kupp and Mark Andrews, who had 10 apiece. Still, Jones finished tied for fourth in the NFL with nine receiving scores. The fact that Golladay and Jones combined for 20 touchdowns is pretty amazing, when you consider they spent half the season catching passes from a pair of anonymous backups (Driskel and Blough). And it should be pointed out that Golladay had seven touchdowns in Stafford's eight games.

... people are overthinking: Using the No. 35 overall pick on RB D'Andre Swift. And by "people," I'm talking about those who have Kerryon Johnson on their dynasty fantasy teams. Just stop. It makes sense that the Lions would want to eventually try to run the football. Bevell runs an offense that thrives on balance. And last year, the Lions ran the ball less than 40 percent of the time. Not to mention, Johnson -- a second-round pick in the 2018 draft -- has missed significant chunks of time due to injury in both of his NFL seasons. Getting somebody like Swift, who could be a serious difference-maker in the backfield, is important. This would open up play-action, as well. Stafford ranked 12th in passer rating on play-action last year, according to Next Gen Stats. He was second in air yards on play-action and first in air distance. The quarterback would benefit greatly if opposing teams actually thought the Lions could run the football.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Lions MUST:

  • Be at least .500. You need tangible proof that your franchise is headed in the right direction. The Lions got rid of a pretty good coach in Caldwell. Now they have to see some evidence that it was a worthwhile move.

In closing

Despite that talk just above about finishing .500, this Lions season feels like it is going to be extreme, one way or another. Either Detroit finally puts it all together, wins the NFC North and Stafford's MVP. Or this team finishes with three wins, lands the No. 1 overall pick, brings in a new regime and trades Stafford to make way for Trevor Lawrence. Good luck, Motor City!

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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