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Wojo: Lions will scrap, but still on road to nowhere

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford walks off the field after throwing an interception that sealed Sunday's loss.

Detroit — The NFL is the biggest mirage-maker in sports. The difference between winning and losing seems so narrow, and the scores often suggest how narrow, yet the gap still can be monstrous.

The Lions officially are staring into a gnawing gap that has grown, not shrunk, and that makes this season an utter failure, although you probably already knew that. When GM Bob Quinn fired Jim Caldwell and hired Matt Patricia, the intent was to show how close the Lions were. Now at 4-8, with five losses in six games, they’ve shown precisely the opposite.

Oh, the Lions played hard Sunday and battled the powerhouse Rams to the closing minute before falling, 30-16. It wasn’t until Todd Gurley scored on a 2-yard run with 1:54 left that Los Angeles wrapped it up and moved to 11-1. The game may have been closer than the score indicated, but don’t mistake effort for progress.

The Lions have regressed, with four of their past five losses by double digits, with Matthew Stafford and the depleted offense basically just winging and hoping now. Stafford was the one asset the Lions figured they could count on, and now it’s a noisy, necessary debate whether he’s a quarterback that can get the job done.

Patricia and his staff managed to coax a solid effort out of the defense against the Rams, holding prolific quarterback Jared Goff to 207 yards passing. For a short while, there was evidence the Lions could compete with the best. But with this team, it’s always a very short while, and now the sobering reality — it could be a long while before they’re truly ready to do so.

What's the plan?

Where have they improved this season? What happened to the promise this wasn’t a rebuild, that this team was better than its record under Caldwell? What was Quinn’s precise answer when asked in January if the Lions’ talent was better than 9-7?

He said “yes” then, and has said very little since. At some point, Quinn will have to emerge from the bunker and explain what happened, and how he plans to fix it. At the draft, he talked passionately about making the Lions physically and mentally tougher, and in some ways, they are. Their defensive line, with the addition of Damon Harrison and the development of A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, no longer gets completely trucked. When healthy, rookie Kerryon Johnson showed he can be a hard-running star.

Beyond that, what pieces have the Lions added to their foundation? The offense is a mish-mash under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who surely will have to be replaced after the season. The Lions did throw everything at the Rams, including a nifty 11-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to tackle-eligible Taylor Decker. They also tried a double-pass that didn’t work, and a surprise onside kick in the third quarter that Sam Martin botched.

Then, with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter, down 16-13, Stafford was sacked by the great Aaron Donald and coughed up the ball. Moments later, Gurley dashed 13 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

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In his 10th season, Stafford symbolizes the Lions’ uncertainty. He’s stuck between regimes, stuck between the need to take risks and the need to avoid mistakes, stuck between average and a bit above average. It’s the same thing with the Lions’ offense, which has no identity whatsoever. They can run the ball a bit now, but that actually hasn’t helped Stafford as much as it should, and he’s thrown 11 interceptions.

For all the aggressive gadgets they tried Sunday, they still played it safe, still handing the ball to Theo Riddick in second- and third-and-long situations, drawing loud boos. And no, those weren’t “Suuuuhs” for former Lion Ndamukong Suh, who picked up a couple personal fouls and was a general menace, but did no overt harm.

Patricia stood up for his players’ effort, which is fine. But that can’t be a team’s only defining element.

“I give my team credit for being tough,” Patricia said, chomping on the words. “I’ll just tell you, we have tough players, starting with our quarterback. This guy’s one of the toughest guys we have. So everybody’s out there competing, everybody’s out there trying to win.”

Reality setting in

Nobody expected the Lions to beat the Rams, or even come that close. But early in the season, against similar daunting odds, they beat New England and Green Bay, the mirage-makers. It takes so much more to win consistently, so much more than the Lions have, probably much more than Patricia thought he was inheriting.

Remember, it was Quinn who declared the talent level better than 9-7, not Patricia. It also was Quinn who let tight end Eric Ebron leave without a suitable replacement, and later traded Golden Tate for a third-round pick. Those might have made business sense, but also were acknowledgements nothing substantial was going to be won now.

Without explicitly saying so, it was a veiled plea for patience, as reality settles in. Players know the record means nothing now, the playoffs are beyond reach, and jobs are on the line. For the final four games, starting with a trip to Arizona this week, expectations are altered, and everyone starts eyeing the future.

“It’s disappointing to lose, it’s not a good feeling, but I’m proud of our guys,” Stafford said. “A lot of effort, a lot of guys toughed it out and really battled. It was a big challenge. I thought for the most part our guys stepped up.”

The Lions always sound like they have a plan, but you know what they don’t have? They don’t have a program, a dependable system that gets them through tough times. On consecutive plays in the fourth quarter, Romeo Okwara and Eli Harold dropped possible pick-six interceptions, and on the next possession, Stafford fumbled the ball.

When a team doesn’t have anything reliable, everyone tries to be the hero, and every blown play is blown up even bigger. Rams coach Sean McVay praised the Lions for an “excellent job,” even as L.A. clinched the NFC West title in a hard-fought game.

“It just sounds cute, sounds good enough to make a story that, oh, we gave a run at the L.A. Rams,” said Ricky Jean Francois, the Lions defensive tackle who played for Patricia in New England. “But if there were such things as moral victories, a lot more teams would make the playoffs. We just gotta get to that point where we’re tired of losing. That has to irk you. That has to keep you up at night, you have to have a breaking point.”

That’s what the Lions’ new guys always say, and maybe what Quinn and Patricia always thought. Three-fourths of the way through the season, the raw reality has been laid bare, and there’s distressingly little evidence they’re any better than they were a year ago.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski