Very soon, the Lions will be forced to tell us who or what they are, because the messages are still mixed. They’re not as bad as they showed last season, but they’re not exactly a playoff team, either.

GM Martin Mayhew bears the same mark, and the same scrutiny.

This regime deserved time after inheriting the 0-16 roster, but that was five years ago, and the Lions still have not defined who they are. It can’t just be Matthew Stafford flinging the ball to Calvin Johnson because that’s what it was last year, and the Lions went 4-12. That’s also pretty much what it was in 2011, when the Lions were a 10-6 playoff team.

The truth is, neither of those seasons defines them. This season will, and if you’re forcing me to pick, I think they’re closer to the playoff team than the last-place team. They improved in the offseason, adding safety Glover Quin, runner-receiver Reggie Bush and pass-rushing first-rounder Ezekiel Ansah. They’re still not nearly as set as the Packers or Bears in the NFC North, and probably are comparable to the Vikings.

But there’s a reason NFL numbers-crunchers are branding the Lions a likely bounce-back team. They were minus-16 in turnover differential last year, and that’s unlikely to happen again. When the ball hit the ground, the Lions fell on it only 32 percent of the time, one of the worst fumble-recovery rates in the league. They were 3-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer, worst in the league. Quirky stats like those suggest the Lions should be better.

Stafford must improve

They also should be better because Stafford should be (has to be) better. The Lions gave him a new contract, although both sides hedged slightly with only a three-year extension. Stafford, 25, ranks in the top 10 among quarterback salaries but his production reflects his inconsistent game, straddling the brink of, well, what?

With his strong right arm, he likes to wing it, and Schwartz likes to let him. But a little less winging and a little more sound football would make sense. Stafford has posted impressive numbers — nearly back-to-back 5,000-yard campaigns — and an NFL-record 727 passes last season. He also carries a few awful ones — 17-29 as a starter, including an astonishing 1-23 against teams that finished with winning records. While he didn’t earn that mark by himself, quarterbacks and coaches are the ones who tote the numbers.