Caldwell has changed the Lions’ attitude, can he change their fortunes?

Jim Caldwell starts his first season as Lions' head coach tonight.

Jim Caldwell starts his first season as Lions’ head coach tonight.

Tonight a new era of Detroit Lions football will begin. Whether it’ll be the same-old same old remains to be seen, but for now it’s a new beginning.

The Jim Caldwell starts on Monday Night Football in Detroit at Ford Field this evening as the Lions host the New York Giants. While many of familiar players will be in the Honolulu Blue, there’s a new aura surrounding the team as the season kicks off. Sure, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are back, and the defense still has a lot of question marks (like it always does), but Caldwell has whipped the team into a different sort of attitude entering the 2014 season. Will it pay off?

Stafford, as I’ve written here before, is the key to how far the Lions will go. If he can limit his mistakes and rally his team to win close games the Lions will have a successful season. Johnson is the best receiver in the game and maybe the most intimidating physical specimen to ever play that position. He’ll have another Pro Bowl season. Returning faces (Reggie Bush, Joiquie Bell) and new faces (Golden Tate, rookie tight end Eric Ebron) will add potent weapons to the Lions offense.

But what about the other side of the ball? Since almost forever the Lions have leaked points like a sieve. Not since the Silver Rush days have the Lions really struck fear in opposing offenses and their not going to scare anyone this season either, at least not past the front line. The Detroit linebacker unit and secondary are very suspect. Ndamukong Suh, Ezekial Ansah, and Nick Fairly are an excellent trio up front when they’re healthy and focused. If Fairly can bounce back and have a fine season the Lions can make opposing QBs feel some heat, but they can’t do it alone. Somewhere along the line they have to stop the passing game with good coverage and smart help beyond the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, Caldwell’s expertise is offense and QB play, which is great for gunslinger Stafford but not that great for the defensive unit, which is playing under a new coordinator. A critical point will be whether the Lions can avoid their real Achilles heel — penalties.

The Giants are vulnerable up front and it’ll be interesting to see how this defense plays in game one under the spotlight of a national audience. Last season the Lions squandered a two-game lead in the division and limped to a 7-9 record. This year their division rivals are all improved (even the Vikings, the only NFC North team to win so far in Week #1). The Lions will be tested for sure, but they also have one of the weakest non-division schedules in the NFL, which means they they could split their six division games and still get 8-9 wins. But first they’ll need to change their personality as a team.

That other Jim (former head coach Jim Schwartz) always seemed to want to be tough, but it came off as phony and the team didn’t seem to respond to it. Caldwell is a tough guy, a disciplinarian and a no-nonsense football guy who has taken teams to the playoffs. He knows hot to get there, now he just needs to convince the Lions that they can get to the playoffs too.