The Best 3-13-1 Team Ever
The regular season has ended and with a 3-13-1 record, the Detroit Lions are last in their division but not last in the league. That "honor" goes to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who fired their head coach, Urban Meyer, midway through the season for being an abusive asshole. Generally, first year coaches don't get fired, but when you assault one of your players, that's an immediate sacking and violation of any reasonable contract. He had a 5 year, $60 million contract, which is stupid high for a coach, and now Urban isn't going to see even $12 million of that.
Dan Campbell didn't get sacked. Not even a warning. Ownership knows how up the creek the team was this year. If the previous coach, Matt Patricia, had this team this season, they would have been the first team to go 0-17. They would have given up on him as soon as things got bad. With Campbell, these players were giving it everything they had (except for Jamie Collins and he got released for that, the lazy bastard) every game. Six of their losses were within one score. Two were because of career long field goals, one of which was a new NFL record! The tie would have been a win if not for picking a shitty replacement kicker for the week, which was quickly rectified. Their three wins were against the 13-4 and NFC North winning Packers, the 11-6 and wildcard Cardinals, and the 8-9 Vikings, making their strength of victory .627, which is pretty big.
What I saw this year which I haven't seen before is a reliance on undrafted free agents and raiding every team's practice squad for talent. Joining Detroit's practice squad this year was probably the best chance you were ever going to have of playing in an NFL game. The Lions were absolutely destroyed by injuries, so for any salty Packers fans who claim that the only reason the Lions won because the Packers played their backups in the second half, the Lions backups beat your starters in the first half. There were maybe 5 Week 1 starters in that game. Everyone else was a Week 1 backup, a free agent, or came from a practice squad (maybe even yours). The Lions were in cap hell so they couldn't shell out on big name talent, but it's turning into an investment in the future. Those free agents on prove it deals and practice squad guys that got signed are cheap through the end of the contract and aren't likely to stray if you can keep them. If they get a chance to develop and put up some big numbers, they'll also be valuable in trades later if they ever want to go elsewhere.
I cannot say enough about play calling since Dan Campbell took over those duties. Jared Goff has looked more confident, has thrown further downfield than before, and is looking beyond his first read more often. I think having the head coach in his ear is helping. New offensive plays have been written to take advantage of the situation given the players on the field instead of those that might be injured. Finally, there's a whole lot of trickery going on. Dan just throws the kitchen sink at teams that completely outmatch the Lions on paper in order to gain an edge by the element of surprise. It's super effective, to the point that the longest pass this season was thrown by a wide receiver on a halfback pass!
I foresee this team having a winning record 2 years from now and making the playoffs on a regular basis in 3 so long as this progression from Week 13 (the first win) on continues. Keep developing fresh talent. Keep the players so fired up that they'll run through walls for each other. Keep the occasional trick play in there to throw defenses off. These are the keys to the Lions seeing the playoffs on a continual basis.