December 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

John Niyo

Lions' woes go way beyond Matthew Stafford's Sunday debacle

Glendale, Ariz. -- Matthew Stafford wanted to take the blame for it all Sunday.

And for one day, that's fair enough. Stafford didn't single-handedly lose this game to the hapless Arizona Cardinals, but he sure tried, playing the starring role in an embarrassing 38-10 defeat.

As the Lions quarterback so bluntly put it afterward, "That's about as bad as I can play."

One can only hope, right?

But there's a reason his head coach, Jim Schwartz, later grumbled this was "as mad as I've been in a long time."

That's because this goes beyond the Lions' franchise quarterback throwing off his back foot or trying to force the issue. It goes beyond a line that gets knocked on its heels or an offense that keeps spinning its wheels. It goes beyond a special-teams unit that can't seem to get out of its own way or a defense that leaves everyone wanting much more.

It goes beyond Sunday, that's the point.

This debacle of a season — going from double-digit wins to double-digit losses with alarming imprecision — has to be viewed as a systematic failure, not an individual one. And solving that isn't going to be easy.

It'll require changes, absolutely. Probably not at the top, though it's a legitimate question to ask in the wake of this latest flop. Schwartz has lost 10 or more games in three of his four seasons as a head coach, a fact that's mitigated only by the miserable roster he inherited.

Then again, Martin Mayhew's record isn't any better since officially taking over as general manager in 2009, and it's finally his roster now, isn't it? Paris Lenon's starting for the Cardinals defense, not the Lions. And Kris Durham's starting opposite Calvin Johnson, not Larry Fitzgerald.

Further down the pecking order, though, you certainly can demand change within Schwartz's staff and throughout a lineup that returned 21 of 22 starters from a year ago yet has so little to show for it.

Continuity's nice and all, but it can't be the only answer, not when things go stale and turn sour the way this season has for the Lions.

"I don't think it's ever beyond repair," guard Rob Sims said. "It's only beyond repair when upper management and ownership says you can't do it anymore.

"There's always room to fix it. Nobody's quitting. It's just unfortunate. You can't let these opportunities pass you by — in your life, in your career. And I think a lot of the guys in here realize that and understand that."

Tied for worst record in NFC

Now, understand this: When things go from bad to worse, as they have in the second half of 2012, it's usually not very pretty. (Lions fans should know that by now, shouldn't they?) And often it's not as bad as it looks.

But Sunday's loss to the Cardinals was as ugly as it gets, and as embarrassing as it has been for this franchise since at least the end of 2009. If not the winless 2008 season.

This was a Cardinals team that hadn't won since September — they'd lost nine a row — and was coming off a 58-0 loss at Seattle. This was a team playing musical chairs at the quarterback position — stuck with rookie Ryan Lindley under center when the music stopped this week — and coming off consecutive games without an offensive touchdown.

This was, in short, a chance for the Lions to snap their own four-game skid and save a little face. Or at least save themselves from further ridicule.

Instead, they got slapped with another reminder of just how far they've fallen from last year's postseason cameo. And slapped with another humiliating defeat, leaving them tied with Philadelphia for the worst record in the NFC and third-worst in the league.

The Lions haven't proved anything this season, other than that they're not nearly as good — and certainly not as deep — as advertised. More troubling, though, is that on too many Sundays like this, they don't appear to have improved a thing, either.

Other than their draft position, that is. Which, by the way, might be the only good news for Lions fans after this one. A top-five pick certainly is plausible now, with home games remaining against Atlanta and Chicago.

At this point, what else do they have to play for this season, besides their jobs and an individual record or two for Calvin Johnson?

"Oh, we're gonna play 'em out," Schwartz said. "Believe me."

Baked by turnovers

Whether you believe him or not after Sunday's effort, his team obviously is beyond help at this point. But the Lions aren't above charity, as they showed again, effectively handing Arizona four touchdowns with brutal turnovers.

Start with the three interceptions Stafford tossed, two of which were returned for touchdowns and the other brought back to the Detroit 3-yard line. Add another fumble on a muffed punt return by Stefan Logan — blame Pat Lee, who'll be gone before you know it, for that one — that set the Cardinals up for a one-play, 5-yard drive, which is about all Lindley could honestly muster.

Throw in the dropped passes and the penalties, including a delay-of-game flag that nullified a fourth-quarter score and preceded Greg Toler's game-clinching pick-six, and you've got the kind of loss that is both inexplicable — the Cardinals passed for 104 yards and rushed for 99 — and all-too-predictable.

"Christmas came early here in the desert," Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Santa made a delivery (here) and we're all happy with the gift we received."

He was talking about your Lions there, folks. The gift that keeps on giving.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had two interceptions returned for touchdowns Sunday. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News