Allen Park — This was June, but the conversation was about January, and what most of us now realize was the Lions’ last, best hope for ending that insufferable, interminable playoff drought.
That wild-card loss in Dallas — a game that brought Ndamukong Suh to tears and ended, fittingly, with Matthew Stafford getting sacked and fumbling — was the ultimate stomach-churner for the Lions. There was a terrific start and a glaring officiating mistake, yet in the end, this was simply another frustrating failure, one that assistant coach Jeremiah Washburn, whose offensive line had come undone down the stretch, described as “a sick feeling.”
Nothing like what he felt Monday, I’m sure, when Washburn and fellow line coach Terry Heffernan were fired by the Lions along with offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi — ballast thrown overboard as the 1-6 Lions headed across the Atlantic Ocean for a game in London.
But even as that news broke, hours after a beleaguered Jim Caldwell suggested “no changes” were in store for his listing ship, I couldn’t help but recall that offseason chat with Washburn. I’d asked him about the line’s struggles in the first season in Lombardi’s new scheme — Washburn’s unit had played quite well in 2013 under Scott Linehan — and he admitted they “fell short of expectations.” But it wasn’t the scheme, he insisted.
“It makes sense,” said Washburn, one of the few remaining holdovers from Jim Schwartz’s coaching staff. “It’s an offense that makes sense. The way (Lombardi) calls plays, the way we organize it as a staff.”
And yet four months later, here we are, in the wake of another embarrassing offensive display Sunday against the Vikings, trying to make sense of this latest staff reorganization while arguing about what’s next.
Therein lies the problem, though. Inside the bubble, everything “makes sense.” Inside this organization, rationalization appears to be the rule, not the exception. And while everyone tries to connect the dots to plot the future — Is Caldwell the next to go? Is Martin Mayhew’s time up? Is the Ford family finally ready to give up the ghost? — it’s worth remembering that.
It’s all relative, as Mayhew often says. And that’s especially true with this franchise. Compared to his predecessor, Matt Millen, Mayhew’s record as GM (41-62, not including that 2008 interim stint) looks like something it isn’t: acceptable. So does his draft history, despite the fact that only six of the 29 picks from his first four classes are still on the roster.
Excuses don’t cut it
But the reality is the Lions aren’t demonstrably closer to the vision Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand outlined when they were promoted to their current jobs following that 0-16 season in 2008. When Lewand painted the pair as change agents and insisted, “I think you can look at that one of two ways: You can look at holding everybody responsible and brooming the entire building, or you can say, ‘What did we learn from that?’ ”
Seven years later, that question surely must be asked again by ownership. And based on Monday’s bloodletting, I imagine it will be over the next couple months, though it’s anyone’s guess as to what Martha Ford really is thinking at the moment.
Again, though, as we all sit around the trash can warming our hands with another NFL season in Detroit, this is the underlying problem: Change comes too late, if it all, to the Lions, because for every mistake or misstep this organization makes, there is an excuse disguised as a reason.
Which is why on Monday we heard Caldwell say he still had confidence in Lombardi’s scheme because “we’ve won before, and that leads me to believe we can do it again.” Never mind that it was the defense that did most of the heavy lifting in that 11-win season in 2014, while the offense ranked in the bottom third in the league.
Or why when the Lions let their best defensive player walk in free agency back in March, eight months after the team had tabled contract talks in a show of force, Mayhew sugar-coated Suh’s departure by saying, “In the long term, I think we’re going to be glad we don’t have that contract on our books.”
Corner not being turned
Or why they replaced their first coach, Jim Schwartz, with a second choice in Caldwell, convinced he’d be everything his predecessor wasn’t, almost as if that was the only problem.
Or why they didn’t start breaking Stafford of his bad habits until they decided to break in an old offense with a young offensive line.
Or why … well, why bother? The fans here don’t need anyone to recite the list to know what’s wrong, just as they didn’t need to see the Lions offense get undressed Sunday to know changes needed to be made.
“Obviously, nothing is ever done in a vacuum,” Caldwell said Monday in announcing Lombardi’s dismissal.
But, obviously, everything the Lions do is, because the echo chamber in Allen Park has a way of drowning out everything else. And we’ve seen the results, whether it’s drafting Eric Ebron over Aaron Donald or getting caught off-guard by Jahvid Best’s concussions or running a toss sweep on third-and-13 trailing by two scores in the fourth quarter.
Three weeks ago, Caldwell insisted the Lions were “right there,” ready to turn the corner.
“You just can’t see it,” he said, “but we can.”
And now? Unless you’re wearing blinders, you can see it: It’s time to burst that bubble.