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Wojo: Don't blame refs, Lions' enemy is themselves

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions got jobbed, again. Fans will weep and wail, the NFL will mumble about accountability and pledge to do better, and a rule eventually will get changed or clarified.

And then, as the Monday Night Misery fades, the Lions will be forced to confront their own accountability, yet again.

They're 0-4 for the eighth time in history, the most of any franchise, the last winless team this season. They fought admirably in the 13-10 road loss to the Seahawks, and deserved another chance to win (or another chance to lose) after Calvin Johnson's fumble was illegally batted out of the end zone by Seahawks safety K.J. Wright. The back judge, Greg Wilson, should be reprimanded because he was staring right at the play. Officiating chief Dean Blandino confirmed the blown call, which is what he does best.

But it won't correct, or change, anything. And that's the problem facing the Lions, with another tough game at home Sunday against the Cardinals. The schedule has been brutal, the injuries have been brutal and the season is circling the drain. But Jim Caldwell can't think it, can't cave into it and can't let it obscure his team's continuing problems.

National reaction to Lions' bizarre defeat

Human nature is to yell and bemoan, and the occasional flash of anger from Caldwell and players might soothe a few shattered souls. But then they'd be guilty of griping about a circumstance they could've avoided by, you know, not fumbling. So Caldwell calmly and briefly discussed it Monday, and said he'd instruct his players not to talk about it.

"You can act 'Woe is me, that's a bad call that went against us,' " Caldwell said. "That'll distract you and you'll get your ears kicked in come Sunday afternoon. We don't plan to let that happen."

This is not about histrionics, but about this team's tortuous history. Yes, the bizarre situations repeat themselves, but so do the mistakes.

No cursing

Once again, it begins with an offense that hasn't scored a touchdown in its last 15 possessions — albeit against two great defenses, Seattle and Denver. It's centered on the woeful offensive line, which has spawned the league's worst running game, which puts more pressure on Matthew Stafford, which exposes more weaknesses in coordinator Joe Lombardi's system.

On the fateful play, Stafford fired a perfect pass that Johnson caught in stride, then fumbled short of the goal line. Sorry, he can't try to make a desperate lunge when the first down already was achieved, and wrapping the ball up was the smart play. The final drive covered 90 yards — 89½ yards, actually — and Stafford was sharp, six for six. The defense was fierce all night, sacking Russell Wilson six times.

Most figured the Lions would get blown out, so there are glimmers. As the old saying goes with this team, all that glimmers is old.

"We blocked better up front in terms of our run game, we threw and caught the ball — was there an incompletion (on that last drive)?" Caldwell said. "It shows you it can be done. Now, that's my job to get it done, and right now, being honest with you, I'm underachieving in that aspect of it."

Tuesday breakdown: Ihedigbo emerges as Lions' leader

Only one NFL team since the merger has overcome an 0-4 start to reach the playoffs (the Chargers in 1992), so the Lions need some serious overachieving. To suggest they're destined to roam the NFL, discovering unprecedented ways to lose, is really too simple. To believe in some insidious malady known as Lionization may make fans feel better, but it blindly absolves blame.

As much as I'd like to tout the Curse of Bobby Layne, or the Curse of Bobby Ross, or the Detroit vs. Everybody mantra, the Lions do too many things wrong of their own accord. Jon Gruden spent most of the ESPN broadcast sounding disgusted with the running game, which rolled to a tidy 53 yards. At one point he exclaimed, "I give the Lions credit, they're persistent — but these 1-yard runs are killing me!"

Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick came close to breaking a couple, and rookie Zach Zenner showed power on the final drive. But the reshuffled offensive line has no push without Larry Warford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. On the positive side, Stafford wasn't sacked and didn't throw an interception, and against Seattle's punishing defense, he showed poise.

The problem is, every dropback is a short one and every pass a quick one. The Lions don't throw deep because they don't trust the line to protect Stafford, and it's painfully redundant. It seems the Lions always have one exploitable element that renders their perceived strengths less effective.

Star sickness

Johnson is frustrated, although he rightly blamed himself for the fumble. Golden Tate was frustrated after catching three passes for 29 yards, and has only 190 yards in four games. Stafford was asked if this was one of the toughest losses he's incurred.

"It's up there," he said. "To go 90 yards against a defense like that, in an environment like that, not a lot of teams do that. We had our chance, and we didn't get it done."

Caldwell doesn't want Lions to dwell on missed call

The Lions have made a flawed assumption over the years, that singular stars can compensate for weaknesses. They leaned on Barry Sanders, then Johnson, and have tried to lean on Stafford. Without a firm, steady foundation, they're left to the whims of fate, however cruel it may be.

It spins from FlagGate (Cowboys pass interference waved off in playoff game), to ProcessGate (Johnson loses winning touchdown against the Bears because he didn't complete process of the catch) to the latest, BattedBallGate or BatGate, which might lead to Floodgates. It usually ends the same way, with the Lions wondering how it could happen again. The answer is right at the tip of their fingers, never fully grasped.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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