Matthew Stafford wore black on gray. Not a good sign. He limped across the locker room. Not a good sign. X-rays were coming, he predicted. Not a good sign. And when someone asked if it was a knee or an ankle or both, he pursed his lips and said, “I can’t really tell right now.”
Not a good sign.
We have seen this show before – Stafford seems hurt, Stafford keeps quiet, Lions keep quiet, and like the gospel song, nobody knows the trouble they’ve seen. But it could be trouble and it sure is no fun – not for Stafford, not for the Lions, not for the fans – so it’s a lot like the game Sunday, which was a lot like the game last Sunday.
Last week, coach Jim Schwartz announced, “We’re not going 16-0.”
They’re not going 15-1, either.
At least this one had no handshake controversy. But that’s about all we can say for it.
Stumble, bumble. The bandwagon is moving down the highway. The national reporters are booking other stories. The blinking disbelief of a 5-0 start has been diluted by the mop water of two stinging defeats, both at home, both dotted by bad special teams, too many penalties, an inability to stop huge running plays, and an offense flying a lot lower to the ground than it was a few weeks ago.
So many areas to address
“We started off 5-0,” Schwartz said after the 23-16 loss to Atlanta. “We’ve had a rough spot here.”
Yes. Like sandpaper on bare feet. Last week’s drop to San Francisco was more forgivable because 1) it’s darn hard to win six in a row in the NFL and 2) the 49ers are very good.
Sunday was the Lions’ chance to prove they were very good. You do that by bouncing back. You do that by improving in every flawed area from the week before.
Instead, the flaws remained the same. Which means they may be in the fabric.
Like third-down efficiency. The Lions converted once against Atlanta. Once! Last week they converted twice. Like special teams. Last week, it was one long return surrendered after another; this week, several long returns and a fumble lost that led to a touchdown.
Like penalties. After six last week, the Lions had 10 Sunday – including three in a row near the goal line. Like tripping on big plays. Stafford missed two potential touchdowns to Calvin Johnson, one on a short pass thrown behind him in the end zone, one on a bomb Stafford admitted “I underthrew.”
Like the defense, which continues to be a trick-or-treat bag. There were numerous pressure sacks that brought the crowd to a lusty roar Sunday afternoon. But there were also big runs – a 50-yard burst by Michael Turner – just like last week when Frank Gore sliced gaping holes through the Detroit D.
The worst similarity is that both losses were at home. It won’t get easier on the road next Sunday in Denver, a team juiced by Tim Tebow’s ascension to starting quarterback. And should the Lions be 5-3 at their halfway point, it’s better than last year, but it’s no playoff lock.
Time to get back on track
“Missed opportunities,” Stafford said.
“Too many opportunities,’ Schwartz said.
“Missed them down the field and… everywhere,” Johnson said.
You see the theme. The Lions – who in both losses had the ball in the closing minutes with a chance to win or tie – really did have a chance to run off seven in a row. Instead, they heard occasional boos Sunday. That’s not fair, of course. Given their history, the Lions should never be booed if their record is over .500.
But this team has inflated expectations. And they passed them on to the Detroit populace – and for a while, even the nation.
OK, then. Deliver. All teams speak of missed opportunities and looking at the film. The best ones do something about it.
“We got playmakers on this team,” Stafford said. He’s right. But they need to make more plays. They need to stay on the field longer. And they need to ride that Ford Field crowd over the top to victory.
Stumble, bumble. The hype may be gone, but the team is still here, a good team that can learn to be great. Next week will tell a lot. But I think we all know this:
If Stafford’s limp turns into something bigger, the season could turn into something smaller.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).