Allen Park — The playoff odds look insurmountable because, well, they practically are. But they’re just discernible enough to keep the debate alive, the debate we conduct late in many Lions seasons.
For players and management: What are you playing for?
For fans: What are you rooting for?
Players and coaches – especially a first-year head coach like Matt Patricia – have careers and reputations to build, and remember, this was not supposed to be a rebuild. Even at 5-8, victories, big or small, still matter.
But fans have draft picks to dream about, which theoretically get better as the team loses. Logically, I get it, everyone wants a higher pick. But the concept of tanking stinks in any sport, and in the NFL, it’s not nearly as feasible as some think.
It comes at a cost, and emotionally, it’s much easier for fans to divest themselves from the competitive nature than it is for a team or a player.
“I just feel like fans are fans, players are players,” Lions safety Glover Quin said.
“Fans talk about that. I don’t think you’ve ever heard a player say, oh, we’re gonna tank for a draft pick. Nobody goes out there and tries to get beat up on.”
No, nobody does. Some teams do start planning for the future, sitting veterans to look at young players, but it’s rarely widespread, as in other sports.
If the three worst teams in football — Raiders, 49ers and Cardinals — are “tanking” for the top pick, why did all three pull big upsets the past two weeks?
It’s a bit more complicated for the Lions (5-8), whose playoff chances hover around 3-4 percent, depending on which predictive machine you use. That’s miniscule, realistically not even worth talking about, unless you inspect the NFC wasteland, which has become Survival of the Unfittest.
The Lions’ remaining games are at Buffalo (4-9), home against Minnesota (6-6-1) and at Green Bay (5-7-1).
Each is winnable, and also losable. The other contenders for the final wildcard are Minnesota (6-6-1), Carolina (6-7), Philadelphia (6-7), Washington (6-7), Green Bay, Tampa Bay (5-8) and the New York Giants (5-8).
I’m not trying to tease you, just bear with me. The defending champion Eagles have fallen apart and might sit Carson Wentz the rest of the season. Washington is still trying to pretend Mark Sanchez can play quarterback. The Lions beat the Panthers and hold the tiebreaker. The Packers fired their coach and the Vikings fired their offensive coordinator.
About a half-dozen scenarios have to happen, and the odds of all occurring are puny. But taken individually, with so many injuries on so many teams, each outcome isn’t ridiculous.
Of course, the longest shot is that the Lions win their last three, although their defense is playing better. But the other shots?
Tampa Bay, the Giants and Carolina all have to lose just one game. Hey, that’s doable.
Washington and Philadelphia have to lose twice. Given their quarterback situations, not unreasonable.
The Vikings have to lose two more and the Packers have to lose once. The Lions play each, so they can handle some of the heavy lifting themselves.
Sounds like a plan! Right? Uh, right?
“Obviously, I’m not blind, I’m not oblivious to the (playoff odds),” Quin said. “I’m not dumb either. … We can talk about every kind of scenario, oh if this team loses and this team loses — but what happens if we lose? We focus on us and we’ll see where it falls. None of that stuff matters if we don’t take care of our business.”
They have to think that way, and even if it doesn’t happen, there’s benefit in playing hard to the end. The Lions have a rookie coach who got off to a horrible start, and his hard-driving ways didn’t immediately connect with players accustomed to Jim Caldwell’s low-key manner. If Patricia – and GM Bob Quinn – are to gain anything from this season, credibility is paramount.
Stir more doubts
You finish 5-11 after Caldwell’s back-to-back 9-7 marks, you stir more doubts, inside and outside the locker room. Sure, you’d get higher picks, but the Lions already are outside the top five, which is where the game-changing players are plucked.
And I’m sorry, losing more games to improve the chances of not making a draft gaffe doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in a young management group that ostensibly harbored playoff aspirations.
Quinn already bought some leeway by trading Golden Tate for a third-round pick, so he’s not averse to forward-thinking. But that was a business move based on Tate’s expiring contract. Any other business move now would look bad.
Sit Matthew Stafford with a sore back? How do you think that would resonate in a locker room where players are fighting for jobs and risking injury too? And it’s not like the Lions need to look at backup Matt Cassel.
Rookie Kerryon Johnson hasn’t practiced in a month with a knee injury, so keeping him out makes sense. But other key pieces, especially on that improving defense, need time together in Patricia’s new scheme.
Since tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison Sr. was acquired Oct. 25 from the Giants for a fifth-round pick -- one of Quinn’s best deals -- the run defense has gotten legitimately staunch, third in the league the past five games. Jarrad Davis, A’Shawn Robinson, Romeo Okwara, Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs have played better as they’ve gotten more comfortable in the system.
There hasn’t been much growth on offense, and Stafford has regressed in Jim Bob Cooter’s outdated system. But the defense, coordinated by Paul Pasqualoni, has gotten tougher, now ranked 12th in the NFL.
“We knew we’d have a little bit of a learning curve, and it was trial by fire the first few weeks,” Davis said. “Everything is on the up and up right now.”
Change the culture
Part of Patricia’s charge is to change the culture of the league’s ultimate treadmill team – the Lions are 62-63 since 2011. Part of Quinn’s charge is to upgrade the talent to help change the culture, but tearing down and tanking was never part of the plan.
For fans, it sounds fanciful.
For players, it sounds borderline offensive.
“If you’re gonna tank in something, you tank in basketball or baseball, where it’s not physical,” Glover Quin said. “You go out on a football field, you’re gonna get yourself hurt, so you better come ready to play. Anytime you got an opportunity to play, you learn a lot, you get more comfortable with teammates, it just builds the relationships and the rapport.”
The overwhelming odds are, the Lions won’t make the playoffs and also won’t get a top-five pick. The painful odds are, we’ll resume this tedious old debate next season.