Cincinnati – The Detroit Lions were supposed to make easy work of the Cincinnati Bengals. They were supposed to go into Week 17, against an equally hapless Packers team floundering without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and potentially sneak into the postseason for the second consecutive year.
Ten wins looked inevitable, and by hitting the benchmark, playoffs or not, it probably would have been enough to justify another year for coach Jim Caldwell.
But things didn’t go as planned, and following the embarrassing 26-17 loss to the Bengals on Sunday that knocked the Lions from playoff contention, it’s time to hop off the three-year run on the treadmill of mediocrity.
Caldwell elevated the Lions to a higher level than the previous coaching staff, and mediocre is a significant bump from where the franchise was a decade ago, but expectations have changed and the Lions haven’t been able to climb out of the league’s middle class.
The franchise hasn’t hosted a playoff game in a stadium that opened its doors in 2002, hasn’t won a division since 1993 or won a playoff game since 1991. Caldwell has taken the Lions to the brink of those modest goals a couple occasions in four years, but no progress can be claimed in year four.
General manager Bob Quinn said it best, nearly a year ago, following the team’s ouster in the wild-card round.
“Whether you don’t make the playoffs and it’s Week 17 and you go home, or you make the wild-card weekend like we did and go home, it’s still the same feeling at the end of the day, that the season wasn’t good enough, and that’s the bottom line,” Quinn said. “Our goals are higher and we’re going to work hard to achieve those goals.”
The Lions made Quinn’s decision a relatively easy one with the way they played Sunday. There is no viable excuse for the loss. The Lions had everything to play for, while the banged-up Bengals, who lost starting running back Joe Mixon and star linebacker Vontaze Burfict to injury in the first half, only had pride as a motivation. And after getting walloped by the Vikings and Bears the past two weeks, that hardly looked like they had much of that coming into Sunday.
But the Lions played down to their competition – a hallmark during Caldwell’s tenure – had an inexplicably bad game plan that focused on grinding it out on the ground, and showed little urgency when the situation called for the utmost.
Despite paying quarterback Matthew Stafford and his golden arm more than anyone in NFL history, two receivers on the cusp of 1,000-yard campaigns, a slew of passing game matchup pieces and favorable conditions to sling it around, the Lions finished with 110 passing yards and seven points in the first half.
Three of the Lions’ first four drives saw the team open with runs on both first and second down. Each series predictably ended in a punt. The one where they scored, four plays, four Stafford passes, including a pretty deep ball that resulted in a 33-yard touchdown.
The Lions’ also lacked ruthlessness, the desire to put their foot on the throat of an opponent, another Caldwell trait. In the first half, the team faced two fourth-and-1 situations near midfield and punted both times. In the third quarter, with a fourth-and-2 from the Bengals’ 5-yard line, they settled for a field goal and a four-point lead.
Quinn made the decision to stick with Caldwell when he came on board two years ago and I didn’t criticize the move then and won’t now. The two clicked immediately and the veteran coach and rookie general manager tried to make it work.
And while the job lifespan of the average general manager is a little longer than a head coach, it’s not long enough to afford tying a third year to more of the same. It’s time for Quinn to make his own hire – whether it’s an option he knows well, such as one of New England coordinators or potentially Houston’s Bill O’Brien if he doesn’t survive Black Monday, or a fresh-faced coordinator from outside his current circle. That strategy has worked well in Los Angeles, where Sean McVay made the Rams a legitimate Super Bowl contender in his first season.
Change doesn’t guarantee success, but things have peaked with Caldwell at the helm. Much has been made of the Lions wasting the careers of Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, both generational talents at their position, but it’s time to express concern that they’re also wasting Stafford’s talents.
After years of being overvalued by the fan base because of his gaudy statistics, Stafford has legitimately evolved into one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the game the past two years. But the team has nothing more to show for his individual progress.
It’s not easy to suggest a coach, and by extension, his staff, lose their jobs. These are people I respect, and I know the players, to the man, adore Caldwell. But there are lofty expectations in professional sports. Progress is needed to justify tomorrow, and the past three years, the Lions haven’t made any.