The cliché about football being a game of inches still rings true in the NFL. And an inch is pretty small. But one thing even smaller and infinitely harder to measure is the difference between quitting and not quitting. It’s as thin as a breath, as narrow as a muscle stretch, as quick as a snap decision.
Sunday at Soldier Field, the Detroit Lions had every reason to quit. It has been a losing season, their head coach was fired, and they were down 10 points in the fourth quarter after a disastrous Matthew Stafford interception. The Bears took possession on Detroit’s side of the field with just 9:22 to go and a 30-20 lead.
The way Chicago had been mauling the Lions’ defense all day, you anticipated a time-sucking drive, a touchdown, and a game out of reach. Another bad loss for Detroit. Another day of making flopping quarterbacks like Mitchell Trubisky look like world-beaters.
Then something changed. Something kicked in. Maybe it was tied to Detroit firing Matt Patricia last week. The lifting of a cloud. Their new interim head coach Darrell Bevell creating a looser, freer atmosphere.
But suddenly, the Lions’ defense stiffened. It held Chicago to its first three-and-out of the day. A minute later, it did it again, this time limiting Chicago to minus-2 yards.
That stuff is contagious. So here came Stafford, shaking off his mistake, taking control at his own 5 yard-line and steering the offense 96 yards for a touchdown. He threw six straight completions, culminating in a beautiful 25-yard strike to Marvin Jones, Jr.
Now it’s a three-point game. The Bears get the ball back. But on third down, Romeo Okwara fights off his blocker, stretches that proverbial extra inch between trying and trying your best, and knocks the ball from Trubisky’s hand, a strip-sack, a fumble, a scramble — and the Lions recover!
That was pure extra effort. So, too, was Adrian Peterson, who, two plays later, despite having been stuffed much of the game, surged through blockers and would-be tacklers and bullied his way five yards into the end zone, slamming the football as an exclamation point.
Lions take the lead. Two touchdowns in a 41-second stretch.
Now, the final effort, because the Bears, at home, wouldn’t give up. They marched 55 yards in the closing seconds, heading toward a winning score. But on fourth and one from the Detroit 20, they handed the ball to David Montgomery to secure a first down. Montgomery had been making the Lions look foolish all game, slipping tackles, spinning from grasps, scoring twice and averaging over four yards every time he touched the ball.
Except this time. The Lions defensive line surged as if it had a battering ram behind it, and defensive tackle Kevin Strong and linebacker Reggie Ragland brought Montgomery down shy of the mark.
The game was over. Lions win, 34-30.
Good things happened
“I wish you could be in this locker room right now,” Bevell told the media after the game. “It’s abuzzing in there. … I think those guys really truly believed in themselves all the way. … They didn’t measure the game. The whole game it didn’t matter when the scoreboard was. That’s what I asked them to do, just keep playing and keep playing and good things would happen at the end. And it did.”
In doing so, the Lions accomplished something under Bevell they never did under Patricia — beat the Bears.
That’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
It’s even harder to believe when you consider how the Lions’ defense looked in Sunday’s first half. They made Chicago, the worst rushing team in the NFL, look like a running back factory. The Bears only averaged 82 yards a game on the ground. On Sunday, they had more than 100 by halftime.
The Lions defenders weren’t tackling anyone. They were getting juked out of their shoes, grasping at air, falling, misreading and getting called for offside penalties. For much of those first 30 minutes, you wanted to once again thank Patricia, the brilliant defensive guru, for leaving the Lions’ defense even worse than when he found it.
Detroit was allowing Trubisky to have his way, the same way they allowed other mediocre quarterbacks to have their way, week after week for the last three seasons. That was also a mark of the Patricia years. As for run stopping? Well. The Bears had three rushing touchdowns in the first half Sunday. The last time they did that was 30 years ago.
Thirty years ago?
It was that type of defensive first half, and nobody expected anything better in the second. Except maybe the Lions themselves. And Bevell.
“His energy is infectious,” Stafford said. “It was obviously a different message from a different guy. I’m not saying anything against Coach Patricia. It was just different, you know? And sometimes that sparks guys.”
Whatever Bevell told his team, whatever adjustments were made, they must be commended, because Detroit was a different defense in the second half. It held the Bears to one touchdown, fewer than 40 yards on the ground, two three-and-outs, and a forced fumble.
These are the same players Patricia had, yet never once under his leadership had they won a game when trailing by 10 or more points. So what changed?
Well. One obvious thing. Patricia’s not there anymore.
I’m just saying.
‘I can’t even think straight’
“My emotions right now, I can’t even think straight,” Bevell said. “… It was a great job of these guys believing from the moment we started until the end. My mentality was that, if I’m going to lead these guys, I gotta have that same belief.
Now, don’t misunderstand. It’s one win. And I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it. No one should. Sunday only lifted the Lions to 5-7. They will likely still end with a losing season. Some fans, I’m sure, are actually angered by the victory, seeing that it pushes the franchise that much further down in next year’s draft.
But the point is the Lions, under Patricia, weren’t doing this type of thing, and on Sunday they did. It doesn’t mean Bevell should be the head coach. It merely illustrates how you can stay with a losing horse too long. I’m glad Sheila Ford Hamp folded her hand with Patricia and Bob Quinn at this point in the season, if only to clean the air of hopelessness for the rest of the year. Let’s see what these guys are made of. Let’s see what they can do when Patricia’s heavy hand isn’t hovering over the controls. It can’t be much worse.
Football is incredibly complex and yet often very simple. You aren’t going to win if you don’t want it as much as the other guy. If you’re not going to make that extra surge, that last stretch to knock a ball free, that final push behind a blocker to reach the end zone.
It’s subtle, but you have to find it somewhere. The Lions found it late in the game on Sunday and they have a win to show for it. That’s all. Nothing more.
Still, for one lonely Sunday in December when we can’t go out anywhere and a blue Christmas may be looming, it sure was a nice change.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.