Wojo: Lions fix should start with coordinator Lombardi

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Even by the Lions’ historically low standards, this was pathetic, a farcical array of miscues and missed directions. Matthew Stafford is broken and apparently can’t be fixed, not by this coaching staff, not in the short term, maybe not ever, and something drastic must be done.

Jim Caldwell’s hold on his team is fraying, and so is Stafford’s hold on his position. But the first person to go should be coordinator Joe Lombardi, with the season collapsing under the weight of an inept offense.

Caldwell should fire (or demote) Lombardi and take over the play-calling himself, and if it doesn’t work, we know the issues go much deeper. After the Lions’ 42-17 debacle against the Cardinals Sunday, Caldwell said he wasn’t planning any staff changes. But he has to consider something, because to do nothing is to give up.

Lombardi certainly doesn’t deserve all the blame for the stodgy offense, the inexplicable Stafford interceptions and the 0-5 record, but he’s first up on the accountability block. The fans booed lustily during much of the Cardinals’ romp, and it’s incredible how quickly the season has fallen apart. This was beyond absurd, as the Lions committed six turnovers — three interceptions by Stafford — and generally looked disjointed, dispirited and undisciplined.

How bad was it? One of the day’s loudest cheers came in the third quarter, when Stafford was pulled for backup Dan Orlovsky. Changing quarterbacks was understandable, but it isn’t the answer the rest of this season (although it could be a question after the season). Caldwell also could be fighting for his job, because after a brief respite, the Lions are back to being embarrassing, the league’s only winless team.

Caldwell said Stafford was still his starter, and that the team’s performance was “unacceptable” in all phases. I asked if he felt he needed to pick through his offense and consider moves, and he answered quickly.

“No, I’ve got to pick through myself,” Caldwell said. “That’s probably about the only thing that needs pick-through. I’m not doing a very good job right now.”

Sticking with Stafford is the only reasonable option, which makes the removal of Lombardi the only dramatic change possible. When you have a quarterback with a fat contract, you have to keep trying to make him part of the solution. It’s not working with Lombardi’s scheme, which requires timing, accuracy and quick decisions, and Stafford has been inconsistent in all areas. Yes, the offensive line has problems, but Stafford threw 32 times against the Cardinals and was sacked once, and often abandoned the pocket before it was necessary.

Caldwell knows he has to ride with his quarterback, no matter how much he struggles. But the coach was like everyone else at Ford Field, and with the Lions trailing 35-7, he’d seen enough. Stafford wasn’t happy about it, and said Caldwell told him at halftime he’d be yanked if he threw another interception. And there it was, as Stafford tried to fire the ball to Calvin Johnson, but couldn’t get it over cornerback Patrick Peterson.

“We just didn’t play well and it starts with me,” Stafford said. “I’ve got to play better.”

The Lions expend all sorts of effort to go nowhere, with an endless spate of short passes to Johnson, Golden Tate and Theo Riddick, while the opposing defense waits for the inevitable blunder. Stafford delivered several in one of the ugliest performances of his career, and has eight interceptions in five games.

Stafford may be what he is

He wasn’t the only one to play poorly — Tate and Ameer Abdullah spit up fumbles — but the Lions have banked for so long on their franchise quarterback, almost to a ludicrous fault, they have nowhere else to turn. Orlovsky is the only other active quarterback on the roster, and he’s best known for starting 10 games for the Lions during their 0-16 season in 2008.

There’s no way this team can duplicate that ignominy, but in some ways, it could be worse. After going 11-5 and losing narrowly in the playoffs, Caldwell’s system seemed sustainable. And now the old frustrations have popped back up, from the penalties to the turnovers to the horrible running game. Abdullah fumbled twice (lost one) and was benched for rookie Zach Zenner.

Teammates stood up for Stafford and Lombardi, and there wasn’t much finger-pointing in the locker room. How could there be? Practically everyone did something wrong, as the Lions moved the ball fairly well only to wound themselves again and again.

“We believe in Matt, and I can’t even imagine what he’s going through,” Tate said. “We already know the media’s gonna attack him and blame him, but we all gotta be better. It’s us, it’s not Coach Caldwell, it’s not Coach Lombardi, it’s not any single individual. To come back (home) and let this happen, that’s embarrassing.”

Stafford’s questionable mechanics and gun-slinging mentality make him a difficult quarterback to coach. The Lions have tried to harness him to cut down on interceptions, but it has stunted his confidence. Maybe Stafford always will be what he is — a guy with a big arm and unfulfilled potential — and the Lions have enabled him too long.

Significant change needed

But Lombardi’s offense isn’t taking advantage of his best players, from Johnson to Tate to Stafford. Tate said recently he was told by opposing defenders that they knew what plays were coming. Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu said when looking at game tapes, the Lions offense looked out of sync, and he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more explosive. Sure enough, each of Stafford’s interceptions went right to a defender, as if he knew it was coming.

It’s a puzzle now in desperate need of a solution. Lombardi was asked last week about the notion of “fixing” Stafford and he defended his quarterback.

“I don’t think he’s broken, I think he’s a good player,” Lombardi said. “I think Matt Stafford is a very good quarterback that we’re happy to have. We’ve got to protect him, we’ve got to run the ball better and he’s going to take care of his side of it.”

That’s been the plan for a while, certainly for the two seasons Caldwell and Lombardi have been here. As evidence grows that it isn’t working, something significant has to change.



Lions giveaway

A look at the Lions’ turnovers in their 42-10 loss Sunday to the Cardinals:

14:14, first quarter: The array of turnovers began on the Lions’ third offensive play. On third-and-2, Matthew Stafford saw tight end Tim Wright wide open, but instead of lofting a ball to him, he threw a pass that allowed safety Rashad Johnson to make a leaping interception and give the Cardinals the ball at the Detroit 43.

8:09, first quarter: After gaining 3 yards on a rush, running back Ameer Abdullah lost a fumble as safety Tony Jefferson punched it out before Abdullah’s knee hit the ground. Defensive end Josh Mauro recovered at the Arizona 39 as Abdullah lost a fumble for the first time thus far in his Lions career.

11:10, second quarter: The Lions were moving the ball well before Stafford dropped back to throw a screen to Abdullah on second-and-15 at the Arizona 42. After pushing Lions guard Laken Tomlinson behind the line of scrimmage, Arizona defensive end Cory Redding was in position to make an interception on the short pass, and he returned it to the Detroit 4 before Stafford made the tackle.

3:03, second quarter: On a third-and-15 at the Detroit 15, Stafford hit receiver Golden Tate with a short pass, and as he tried to run toward the first-down marker, safety Tony Jefferson punched the ball free. Arizona safety Rashad Johnson recovered it and gave the Cardinals the ball at the Detroit 4.

10:25, third quarter: The Lions again moved the ball reasonably well, but on fourth-and-3 at the Arizona 45, Stafford threw a pass to Johnson while cornerback Patrick Peterson had him covered perfectly down the sideline. Peterson caught the ball in stride and returned it 40 yards to the Detroit 32.