Detroit — Of all the ways for a season to crumble, this wasn't supposed to be it. But there it was, on explicit display — passes sailing, footballs caroming, even coaches yelling.
The Lions have collapsed, and at the desperate, defining juncture, it was their starry strength that let them down. Something hasn't seemed right with Matthew Stafford and the offense, and on a telling Sunday, it fell apart.
For a while, this was promising, and the crowd was noisily into it. Then it ended dismally, as the Lions blew a late lead and fell to the Packers, 24-20, to drop to 4-6. A Thanksgiving Day meeting with Houston looms, and while the record is beyond repair, someone needs to fix that offense, and someone has to shoulder the blame.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's job should be in jeopardy, and not because of the animated verbal volley by receivers coach Shawn Jefferson on the sideline, a strange scene caught by TV cameras. The offense is in disarray, and it's not as simple as pinning it on the quarterback. Oh, Stafford was awful at times, tossing two interceptions and losing a fumble.
The receivers and tight ends, from Calvin Johnson to Titus Young to Tony Scheffler, didn't offer enough, occasionally running routes that looked like they were drawn up on an Etch-a-Sketch. Linehan's conservative play-calling doesn't help, with the Lions' maddening inability, or unwillingness, to throw deep with any regularity. The pattern of undisciplined play under Jim Schwartz is another symptom.
But the stunning part is, after several years of continuity — same coaches, same quarterback, most of the same receivers — the Lions offense looked like it had practiced together for about 10 minutes.
"I didn't play my best, we didn't play our best as an offense," Stafford said. "Disarray's probably not the right word. Coming into this week, we were the No. 2 offense in the league. If that's disarray, then OK."
High-powered offense struggling
Stafford blamed himself, while admitting there was miscommunication with receivers. His first interception was a side-armed fling that Casey Hayward easily grabbed. On the key interception — returned 72 yards for a touchdown by M.D. Jennings — Stafford threw high and behind Scheffler, who got two hands on it but couldn't bring it in.
Stafford completed 17 of 39 passes for 266 yards, and some were heaves with no receiver in sight. Others were dropped. Others clearly were sloppy routes. Johnson caught five passes for 143 yards but the great Megatron isn't immune, dropping one early that contributed to another puzzling slow start.
I don't get it, honestly. Sure, the Lions miss the professionalism of injured receiver Nate Burleson, and Young is flighty and immature, readily bumped off routes. When an offense that's supposed to be high-powered, with so much invested in it, doesn't produce consistently, you look at coaching.
Schwartz has to look at something, because playoff hopes are crushed.
"There were a couple times where we misfired on passes, a couple times we had chances and we dropped balls, and a couple times we had miscommunication in route adjustments," Schwartz said. "We didn't do a good enough job of pass-protecting either."
It didn't help that left tackle Jeff Backus departed with a hamstring injury. Rookie Riley Reiff was thrown in and the Packers attacked him. Stafford was sacked five times and forced to run way too often.
The game was lost on the Lions' final two drives, not counting their Hail Mary heaves. They led 17-14 and had a first down at the Packers' 10, and ran the ball twice before Stafford threw an incompletion toward Young, who was smothered. A pass to Johnson was never attempted and the Lions settled for a field goal and a 20-14 lead.
Stafford a shadow of himself
The Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who had been under constant pressure from the Lions' defensive line, suddenly shook free and marched 82 yards. Randall Cobb scored on a 22-yard pass, and with 1:55 left, Green Bay was on top 21-20.
Plenty of time for Stafford, Johnson and company, right? Ha. Stafford threw four straight incompletions. The last pass on fourth-and-15 didn't have a chance, and oddly, Scheffler appeared to be running the lone deep route.
After that, Jefferson was seen making a loud and brief "suggestion" to Linehan. Schwartz said he didn't want to discuss the coaches' exchange, but in the closing minutes of a game the Lions had every chance to win, frustration was rampant.
"Anytime you're not successful, nothing's gonna look good," Schwartz said. "We gotta make more plays for our quarterback. Not every pass is gonna be 100 percent perfect. A couple times, we had balls go off our hands.
"That's not just Matt, that's the whole offense."
Forget all the yards that, technically, give the Lions the second-rated offense. After his brilliant 2011 season — 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions — Stafford is a shadow of that. He has dealt with a sore knee, but that doesn't fully explain just 12 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
It begins with a disconnect, which leads to disarray, which inevitably produces disaster. The Lions are right there, betrayed by an offense that sometimes ignites in the fourth quarter, but doesn't ignite often enough. The pieces might be here, but this offense right now is exactly that — in pieces.