By Will Burchfield
In Bob Quinn's first year as general manager of the Detroit Lions, the team is in position to win its first division title since 1993.
Look at what's fueling this team. Look at what's pushed it to the precipice of the impossible. There's the late-game magic, for sure, and a forgiving schedule to boot. But there's also the ability to compensate for missing players, the means to soldier forward with diminished ranks. In a word, it boils down to "depth."
It's something the Lions have lacked in recent years, which partly explains their running mediocrity. To lack depth in the NFL is to lack a life raft out at sea. When injuries strike, the ship will take on water and bring the team down with it.
But this year, the Lions have stayed afloat. Despite a storm of injuries that began in Week 1 (not to mention a rogue wave of a retirement in the offseason), they have kept their heads above water and rowed -- in somewhat listing fashion -- to nine wins in 15 games. One more win this Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, and the Lions will reach land.
Quinn, of course, has been at the helm the whole way.
It began in earnest at the draft, where Quinn fortified the team in the trenches, while diversifying the backfield and the secondary. First-round pick Taylor Decker has started every game this season at left tackle and second-round pick A'Shawn Robinson has been a force at defensive tackle. Seventh-rounder Dwayne Washington has proven to be a strong downhill runner and fourth-rounder Miles Killebrew has begun to live up to his reputation as a hard-hitting safety.
That's without mentioning third-round center Graham Glasgow, fifth-round linebacker Antwione Williams and sixth-round defensive end Anthony Zettel, all of whom have made meaningful contributions in their rookie seasons.
In free agency, Quinn proved similarly shrewd. Knowing he needed to make up for the retirement of Calvin Johnson, he spent big on Marvin Jones and then made subtler improvements in Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts. Together, along with Golden Tate and Eric Ebron, they've given the Lions one of the most versatile arsenal of receivers in the league. (Heck, Detroit's passing attack has looked so efficient at times this year that it's been suggested the offense is better off without Megatron.)
Quinn's offseason work has been validated by adversity. The Lions have been without their starting running back for 14 games (Ameer Abdullah), their next-starting running back for five games (Theo Riddick), their best linebacker for 11 games (DeAndre Levy), their best pass-rusher for three games (Ziggy Ansah), their best cornerback for three games (Darius Slay), their starting tight end for three games (Eric Ebron) and their starting center for three games (Travis Swanson). Somehow, someway, they've won nine games and are on the cusp of an achievement 23 years in the making.
"I think that's a result of the guys in our personnel office doing an unbelievable job identifying players, getting a sense of what we've been doing as a staff and being able to plug guys into those spots," said coach Jim Caldwell. "That's not easy to do. Guys that can come in and function for you and function well, which Bob and his staff have been just tremendous at."
It'd be a stretch to say the Lions have fully recovered from each of the aforementioned injuries. The running game has been stalled throughout the season, the linebacker corps has often looked vulnerable, the pass-rush has been hot and cold, and the secondary, especially last week against Dallas, has been exposed too frequently.
Still, in each instance, the Lions have received enough of a boost from the fill-ins and mercenaries to keep pace in the NFC. That's a tribute to Quinn, who either had the help waiting or went out and got it.
From within, the Lions have been aided by Washington, who has shouldered a heavier load in the backfield; Killebrew, who has added a new dynamic in the secondary; Glasgow, who has filled in with aplomb for Swanson; and Zettel, who continues to grow as a pass-rusher. And don't forget about Kerry Hyder, who the Lions could have given up on months ago. They kept him around because they saw something in him and now he leads the team in sacks.
"Look how many young guys we have playing for us," said Caldwell. "You've got two rookie linemen playing for you, shuffling in some rookie guys all over the place. A defensive tackle that's playing really well for us is a rookie and you couple that with a lot of veterans that have come in and given us some special help like Anquan and Andre. I mean, it just goes on and on, both sides of the ball."
Quin has also treated the Lions' injury woes from the outside, with midseason acquisitions such as linebacker Josh Bynes and defensive end Armonty Bryant. Bynes, originally released in September, was brought back in October after the Lions parted ways with Kyle Van Noy. He's been an undoubtable upgrade, registering 36 tackles over eight games and stabilizing the Lions at the linebacker position. And Bryant, though now on injured reserve and likely done for the season, gave the Lions' sluggish pass-rush a shot in the arm in October, notching three sacks in four games.
All of this comes back to Quinn and his staff, including director of player personnel Kyle O'Brien and chief of staff/assistant to the GM Kevin Anderson, both of whom Quinn brought with him from the New England Patriots' organization. Their collective savviness in evaluating players and identifying talent, something for which the Patriots are known, has afforded the Lions the kind of depth they haven't had in years. And they've weathered a tempest of injures as a result.
Quinn and Co. haven't been perfect, of course. They swung and missed on free agents such as Stevan Ridley, Geoff Schwartz and Justin Forsett, while the jury remains out on draftees Joe Dahl, Jake Rudock and long-snapper Jimmy Landes. Landes, in particular, may have been an example of a team trying to be too smart.
But look where the Lions are, against all they've endured. One win away from the NFC North title. One win away from hosting a playoff game. (Five wins away from...well, let's not go that far. Not yet.) The Lions weren't even expected to be competitive this year if they stayed healthy. Instead, they've been crushed by injuries and find themselves on the cusp of the unthinkable.
Depth is like oxygen in the NFL, and the Lions, thanks to their rookie GM, are still breathing in the thin air of late December.
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