Louis Delmas gets an earful from Lions coach Jim Schwartz after committing a penalty that set up one of the Ravens' six field goals. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — It’s easy to take the weighty, wide-angle view of the Lions, with jobs and reputations at stake. The odds aren’t good for making the playoffs, which means they’re not good for the coaching staff’s future. That’s generally how it works in the NFL and everyone knows it.
But the Lions must narrow the view, from big picture to snapshot, because even if it seems like it’s over, it isn’t, technically or mathematically. In the aftermath of the 18-16 loss to the Ravens, which Jim Schwartz astutely called a “knife to the heart,” the Lions are down to the long odds, but not implausible odds.
In fact, if you’ll humor me for a second, let’s lay out a scenario. Obviously, any talk of the playoffs starts with this: The Lions have to beat the Giants at home Sunday, then win at Minnesota, to get to 9-7. Set aside your understandable anger and admit both are possible.
The Bears and Packers are ahead of the Lions, but the Bears are the larger obstacle because of Aaron Rodgers’ uncertainty. So if the Bears lose at Philadelphia Sunday night, then beat the Packers in Chicago — again, both possible — the Lions would be in. I’m not here to tease tortured fans, and the number-crunchers peg the Lions’ playoff chances at only 12.5 percent. If the Packers, who host the Steelers, and Bears both win Sunday, the Lions are done.
A lot on the line
But if playing for the postseason or Schwartz’s job isn’t enough, how about playing for their own reputations? That means all of them, from the high-priced quarterback to the touted defensive line. Many around the league have laughed at the Lions, the brash bullies who couldn’t even seal the NFC North when their competitors broke down.
If the Lions squeak into the playoffs, the assumption is the Fords would retain Schwartz, who has two years remaining on his contract. With a 29-49 record in five seasons and a roster more talented than 7-7, he actually might need a home playoff victory to keep his job. To his credit, Schwartz isn’t focusing on his fate or lamenting his lot, and neither are the players. They know why they’re stuck here.
“We haven’t played our best football at any point in time throughout this season,” Ndamukong Suh said Wednesday. “We let go of an opportunity to put these other teams away, and we opened the door back for them. We still have an opportunity to take care of business. That’s what we’ve yet to do — do our part and close the doors. We let a bunch of ants in the house, and now you gotta go get an exterminator to get them out.”
Hmm. After all these games, the Lions are still trying to get the bugs out.
That’s the inexplicable part, although this team has done it so many times, it’s thoroughly explicable. Matthew Stafford has been occasionally horrid the past five games, with 10 interceptions and two lost fumbles. But as much as we scrutinize the quarterback, this is not a one-man slide.
Even with its vaunted line, the defense hasn’t exactly created havoc. Disruptive at times? Sure. Mayhem-makers? Nope.
Desire to win
The Lions are 31st in the league in giveaways with 31, which is awful. They’re 26th in takeaways with a mere 18, nearly as awful. They’re 28th in sacks with 28. For a team supposedly packed with game-changers on offense and defense, they haven’t positively altered many games lately, and that’s how you end up with jobs teetering.
“Am I playing for Jim’s job?” Suh said, repeating the question. “I think that’s a part of it. I’m sure everybody wants to win, owners expect winning. But most important is, you gotta have a hunger to want to be a winner; that’s what I play for. Obviously I don’t want that coach to go anywhere. I love his scheme, love the way things go.”
Suh has played well but has only 5.5 sacks. Rookie Ziggy Ansah leads the team with seven and nobody else has more than 3.5. Gunther Cunningham’s defense doesn’t blitz much because of the weak secondary, but too often the Lions look like they’re sitting back waiting to get beat.
And if the opponent doesn’t do it, they have no problem doing it to themselves.
“The coward’s way out is to point fingers, so put it on the players, not the coaches,” Nate Burleson said. “We just need to finish strong. When you start thinking of the negative things, it makes it bigger than it is. But let’s not misunderstand — if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, there’s going to be some furniture moved around here.”
Since sitting at 6-3, the Lions have lost four of five, and led in the fourth quarter of all four losses. Some of it is suspect coaching, no doubt. There’s also lack of concentration, lack of mental discipline, erratic passing, sporadic playmaking on defense and a stinkin’ pile of miscues.
For better or worse, Schwartz isn’t railing at anything, not at his players, not at his critics, not at his circumstance. In the face of relentless scrutiny, he’s actually showing poise. Maybe now his players will do the same and stomp on those annoying ants, before the alleged exterminators get exterminated.