December 31, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Josh Katzenstein

Matthew Stafford, players deserve more blame than Jim Schwartz for Lions' nosedive

Matthew Stafford finished with 29 TD passes, 20 interceptions, and a passer rating of 84.2. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Two running backs eclipsed 100 rushing yards against the Lions in 2013.

One was Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s rushing champion this season. The other was Minnesota’s Matt Asiata.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz was fired after a five-year record of 29-51, and after his teams went 2-14 in the second halves of the last two seasons, it was probably the right decision.

But the failure of the Lions in 2013 falls more on the supposedly talented roster than on the coaching staff, and specifically quarterback Matthew Stafford. As several Lions players said Monday, Schwartz put the team in position to win games, but the players are the ones who failed.

Lions president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew said all the right things Monday when they described what they are looking for in the next head coach, because someone who can make the players believe they can get over the hump will help.

However, the idea that some type of mental makeover by some great motivator is the only thing stopping the Lions from being a playoff team is false.

This is the NFL. Most of the players are paid millions to win games. Speeches from a coach and punishment for errors are fine, but if players don’t have the right motivation, that’s their fault.

The Lions lost six of their last seven games this season because the players made countless errors, not because Schwartz failed to instill the right mindset.

Even though the Lions’ finale against the Vikings was meaningless in the standings, they were still trying to win the game because, as I said, that’s their job. Instead, Asiata, a third-string running back, ran for 115 yards on just 14 carries against the defense, and Stafford led the offense to just 13 points against a team that allowed 30 points per game this season, most in the NFL.

Matt Asiata?

I’d like to think I follow football closely -- both NFL and college -- but I must admit I’d never heard of Asiata before he scored three touchdowns against the Eagles in Week 15. I’m guessing many in Detroit hadn’t heard of him until Sunday.

Asiata played special teams for the Vikings last season after going undrafted out of Utah. He also had three carries for 9 yards and a 2-yard catch. From what I gathered from combine results, Asiata is a slower, less explosive and less powerful version of Lions running back Joique Bell, which basically makes him a fullback.

That’s who beat this supposedly talented Lions team Sunday.

Many national analysts have labeled the Lions’ coaching job the best of the six current openings, and while that may be true, this team isn’t a juggernaut in the making as some suggest.

The Lions have only two players that would absolutely start on every team -- wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. They might even be two of the three best players in the NFC North.

But after Suh and Johnson, where is all of this talent? Rookie right guard Larry Warford was outstanding this season, but there’s no telling what his future holds. Center Dominic Raiola had the best season of his career, but he turned 35 Monday. Running backs Reggie Bush and Bell are a solid tandem, but neither will ever be as good as McCoy, Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles.

On defense, Nick Fairley is a top-tier defensive tackle when he wants to be, and rookie end Ziggy Ansah showed potential but still isn’t a finished product. Linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch and safety Glover Quin are good, but not great. Safety Louis Delmas was once a blue-chipper, but if he can’t be better than he was in 2013, the Lions need to upgrade.

When the going got tough ...

Then there’s Stafford. Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan defended Stafford until their bitter end, and that may have been their biggest failure during their time with the Lions.

When the going got tough this season, Stafford was abysmal. He was awful. He was atrocious and dozens of other descriptors that mean bad.

In the last eight games this season, Stafford completed just 54.1 percent of his passes, had 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 72.1.

It’d be a lot easier to make an argument that Stafford was the worst quarterback in the NFL during the second half of the season than to argue he’s one of the 10 best quarterbacks moving forward.

This was Stafford’s fifth NFL season, and he threw 19 interceptions and lost four fumbles. Of the six quarterbacks who threw 19 or more interceptions in 2013, only Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton made the playoffs.

With a win over the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers on Thanksgiving, Stafford is now 2-27 in his career against teams that finished with a winning record. In 61 games, Stafford has thrown 73 interceptions.

Sure, a new quarterback coach could help Stafford, but he has to spend the entire offseason improving on his own. When Stafford brushed off the idea of seeking a quarterback guru this offseason and said Monday he played “really good football” under Schwartz and Linehan, it showed that he might be OK with the status quo.

He shouldn’t be, and neither should the rest of the players. A new coach could help the Lions next season, but their "talented" players have a lot of work to do, physically and mentally, if they want to make the playoffs next season.