Loss to Seahawks shows Lions don’t belong in the upper echelon; not much talent beyond QB, punter, kicker, DBs
Maybe the Detroit Lions should stop using the word “fans” and start using the word “customers.’’ It might help them understand the level of frustration around here.
“Fans” suggests emotional supporters, drawn to worship teams as if they were legendary warriors going on missions that the weak can’t understand.
Nonsense. Pro football is entertainment. The customers pay for it. It’s not their patriotic duty. If they don’t like it, they can walk away.
Which is how folks around Detroit feel way too often in January. Plenty felt it Saturday night, after the Lions melted down in Seattle in the wild-card round, losing their biggest game of the season by 20 points. They looked, quite simply, like they don’t belong in the upper echelon.
Which they don’t. The Lions won nine games. That’s not easy and should be respected. But it’s also one win better than .500, and that’s average, and average is nothing to shout about. Especially when your best football disappears at the end.
The season got tough. The Lions didn’t.
Jim Caldwell talks about winning “quarters” of the schedule? His team effectively lost the entire last quarter. Four straight losses to the four toughest teams they faced. And after not losing any game by more than a touchdown, three of their last four defeats were by double digits.
“It’s a make plays or don’t make plays league,” Matthew Stafford told the media after the loss. “And we didn’t make them.”
Detroit’s wheels came off on the biggest stage. Penalties, dropped passes, questionable play-calling and a soft gut against the run left them scowling en route to a 26-6 defeat.
Even Al Michaels from NBC said Lions fans “are sick of this.”
And he doesn’t even live here!
A defensive disaster
But after 25 years without a playoff win, longtime Lions “customers” could foresee this defeat as if watching a paint-by-numbers portrait.
First possession: dropped pass on third down. Second possession: dropped pass on third down. Third possession: go for it on fourth-and-1, take out your only decent running back — so the other team knows it’s not a run — then see all your receivers unable to get open so you dump it to a backup tight end 5 yards shy of the line of scrimmage.
Off the field again.
Meanwhile, the defense was being sketched with the familiarity of a smiley face. Give up the run. Give up third downs. Give up the run.
Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, averaging 39 yards a game, had exceeded that early in the second quarter Saturday. Rawls finished with 161 yards — a franchise playoff record. Thomas Rawls? Are you kidding?
Sadly, no. The week before, the Lions let a backup Green Bay Packer named Aaron Ripkowski have a career-best rushing game against them. The week before they let Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott gain 80 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 attempts, before he rested the remainder of the game.
And when the Lions weren’t watching running backs rip through them, they were allowing an NFL-record 72.7% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks in the regular season. Sam Bradford of the Vikings hit 84% against them. Brian Hoyer, a backup with the Bears, hit 78%. Case Keenum of the lowly Rams went 27-32 for 84%.
How defensive coordinator Teryl Austin gets rumored as a head coach candidate with those kind of numbers is astounding. The talk should be about how his defense can get to a higher level, not his career.
Those awful passing numbers, by the way, were surrendered in games against lousy teams in which the Lions eked out victories. That was another theme for 2016. When Detroit did win, it usually took last-minute miracles, and every victory was against a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
When the competition got tougher, the games stopped being close.
“It started slow,” Tahir Whitehead told reporters of the season, “and (it) ended slow.”
Here are two numbers that bear that out. In Detroit’s four straight losses to the Seahawks, Packers, Cowboys and Giants:
Zero interceptions. Zero fumbles recovered.
No big plays. No big wins.
Many to blame
“When you play against a good team on the road you have to play stellar football and we didn’t do that,” Glover Quin told the media.
The Seattle defeat was the least stellar of all. While the Lions may argue the score was 10-6 into the fourth quarter, did it ever feel like Detroit was going to win? Did it even feel like the Lions would score a touchdown? Heck, they never got to the red zone. Not once? Not once.
Let’s be clear. The Lions, even in their victories, were usually chasing the game, never owning it, often falling behind by the second half and strategizing how to make a dash to the finish, riding Stafford’s arm and late-game heroics.
But you won’t win against good teams that way. And you won’t win when veterans like Haloti Ngata and Anquan Boldin are drawing needless shoving penalties – Boldin doing it twice against Seattle. That reflects terribly on him, a guy who should know better, and Caldwell, who should not tolerate it. Caldwell said it was unacceptable. Boldin admitted he shouldn’t have done it. All too late.
“It is what it is,” Boldin told the press.
So is this: Boldin came up small when most needed, as did many Lions. The defensive line. The linebackers. Any running back not named Zack Zenner.
Yes, in fairness, the Lions were playing superior teams. That needs to be said. If you accept that they were limited, both in talent and by injuries, then the Lions didn’t horribly underachieve. In fact, they beat most of the weaker teams they played.
And down the stretch they lost to the good ones.
“They were just a better team than us, the ones we lost to,” Darius Slay admitted to the media.
It is what it is.
And it is slightly above mediocre.
Time to demand better
Lions’ ownership and management must see this and not be happy. They must recognize it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you were just starting an NFL team, this might have been a fun season.
But when it’s 25 years since the last playoff win, 23 years since a playoff game at home, you can’t judge it alone.
And before players or coaches take offense to fan criticism, once again, it must be stated: This is not war. This is entertainment. A diversion that charges a ton of money for tickets.
So Lions customers have a right to reject a product that consistently frustrates. They’re not being disloyal. No more than a customer who says he doesn’t want to pay for a cold pizza.
The worst part for Lions faithful is that, after ripping their hair out and kicking their TV sets, there are still no real good options for quick improvement. Fire Caldwell? And then what? Start a rebuilding program with a new coach that eats up three more years?
Lose certain players? Obviously. But some of them are making a lot of money and the salary cap can strangle you.
Pressure on the GM
In the end, this falls on Bob Quinn, who has kept a low profile during this, his first full season as Lions GM. Quinn may be young, but he’s not stupid. Coming out of the Bill Belichick academy, he knows talking doesn’t get you wins, players do.
So it’s on him to get better players. The Lions can’t be this thin at running back. They can’t be this thin at linebacker. Their defensive line, which has several high draft picks, can’t be this ineffective at getting to quarterbacks or stopping certain rushing attacks.
The Lions have a very good quarterback, punter and kicker, and some decent defensive backs. (I’m sorry, but when Slay introduces himself as “Big Play” after two interceptions all year, one solo tackle against Seattle and an average of three tackles a game, it’s hard to keep a straight face.)
It’s also hard to use superlatives for any other Lions position, if you’re being honest. They are average in many spots, less than average in some, and the coaching rarely gets players to rise above their talent. Look at little things, like downfield blocking, open-field tackling, pocket protection, filling gaps, taking the right angles. The Lions are often subpar in these areas.
And that will cost you in the NFL.
So Quinn needs some impressive off-season moves, and the Lions coaches need to demand more all around. There should be consequences to dropping passes. There should be consequences to bad tackling.
Most of all, there should intolerance for mediocrity. Being “pretty good” can be a curse in pro sports, as hard to get out of as a broken elevator.
But it’s no less imprisoning than decades of underachievement and exiting postseasons as if your only purpose is to provide the other team a first-round victory.
“Some things are inexplicable,” Caldwell told the media Saturday.
And some things are not. Customers around here could tell you that a lousy ending to a Lions season is about the least “inexplicable” thing they can think of. And as the Ford family should well understand, that cannot be good for business.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.