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The Lions closed the preseason with an ugly 35-17 loss to the Browns. Does it matter? Justin Rogers and John Niyo of The Detroit News discuss. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News

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Detroit — Officially, they’re calling this a work in progress.

But by the time the Lions had wrapped up an ugly preseason with a 35-17 loss to the Browns on Thursday night, it was painfully clear — and audible — what the most pressing problem is for this franchise at the moment.

It’s not simply the gap-toothed defense or the sluggish offense we saw here in August. It’s not the backup quarterbacks or the No. 2 cornerback, either.

No, it’s the fact that before the regular season even starts, the fans are beginning to feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods once again.

Not with the hiring of Matt Patricia, mind you. But with the moving of the goalposts, as a franchise that was ready — and more than willing — to fire a coach after consecutive-winning seasons in order to “take this team to the next level” now is talking about taking everyone on a “long journey.”

That was what Patricia was saying late Thursday night, after his team was booed off the field for the second time in as many games at Ford Field this preseason.

“This isn’t a sprint that’s gonna take place overnight,” Patricia said. “This is something that’s gonna take a long time to do. This is something that is a change in the way we’re doing things to really try to make it a sustainable situation.

“We’re not trying to do something that’s just gonna happen for the one day and then not the next. We’re trying to do it consistently over a long period of time.”

All of which makes sense in a vacuum, I suppose. But none of which will sound all that encouraging to the paying customers, who’ve been hoovered before by the Lions.

“Obviously, this whole thing is gonna be a work in progress,” added Patricia, who’ll spend the next few days huddling with general manager Bob Quinn and his staff trying to cut-and-paste the Lions’ 53-man roster together. “I don’t think you can sit here and say we’ve got it all nailed down. That’s not how any season goes.”

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But the way this preseason has gone, it has to give everyone in Allen Park pause. The first-team offense played eight series in three games and managed to score a total of nine points. The retooled defense couldn’t stop the run and didn’t do much else, only doubling its preseason sack total — from one to two — when Christian Ringo dragged down Brogan Roback in the final minutes of Thursday’s game.

Stuck in time

All of which leaves the Lions right where they were at the end of last season, or worse, counting on Matthew Stafford's right arm and the promise of a serviceable run game.

That the starters didn’t see the field Thursday was truly the only nice thing you could say about what the Lions did offensively against the Browns, a team that really shouldn’t have better depth than anybody coming off an 0-16 season.

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Yet with backups going up against backups, Detroit rushed six times for two yards in the first half Thursday, and the Lions finished the preseason averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

And once again Thursday, neither of the Lions’ backup quarterbacks did much of anything to show they’re ready if called on. Jake Rudock got the start, but the Lions managed just two first downs before halftime, and both those came via penalty. Matt Cassel, the veteran who figures to get the nod as No. 2, entered the game to run the 2-minute offense just before halftime and after moving the ball across midfield, he threw a pick-six on a third-and-1 toss.

Then Patricia came as close as he has to boiling over on the sideline this preseason, when the Lions essentially gave the Browns three shots at the two-point conversion, first with a roughing the passer penalty and then by lining up with 12 men on the field. After rookie Dontrell Hilliard scored easily on the ensuing snap, the TV cameras showed Patricia sharing his, um, frustration with defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.

So, yes, this was bad, and it felt worse. But this being the preseason, it’s hard to get too worked up about any of it, which was something Cassel, entering his 14th NFL season, noted afterward.

“When it comes to the regular season, it can be a completely different story,” he said. “There have been teams where we are 0-4 and look like a disaster and we end up going 11-5.”

And as every Lions fan recalls, there have been teams in this town that were 4-0 in the preseason that went on to redefine what a disaster looks like in the NFL.

Failure to fly early

Likewise, you can look around and find plenty of good teams that had their struggles this preseason. The Eagles’ first-team offense didn’t score a point in three games, though I’m guessing the fans in Philadelphia aren’t fretting too much about the defending Super Bowl champs.

And if you go back to last August you’ll find no defense allowed more points in the 2017 preseason than Patricia’s Patriots unit. (New England’s lone preseason win came at Ford Field, by the way.) That defense also got off to a rocky start in the regular season, allowing an average of 32 points per game in a 2-2 start. But the Patriots allowed just 14.4 points over the next 14 games — fewest in the NFL — to reach the Super Bowl.

So I suppose that’s the message Patricia was trying to deliver Thursday night.

“Everybody’s not starting where they left off last year,” he said, just in case the fans had forgotten what they’d heard from management back in January and February. “Everybody starts over."

Either way, though, what Patricia said next everyone can agree on: "There’s a lot of work to be done.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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