Rogers and Wojo break down Detroit's decision to trade Golden Tate and the team's upcoming matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Everywhere you look there's construction in downtown Detroit. Cranes towering over one block, scaffolding covering the next. This is widely viewed as progress, after decades of urban decline in the city.
In the neighborhoods, though, it’s a different story — and a reminder that progress is measured by perspective.
The same probably can be said for Detroit’s professional sports teams as they — and their fans — continue to break ground on rebuilding projects around town, all part of a Reconstruction Era the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.
But this needs to be said as well. Perspective matters here, too, because how we view the progress — and the plans — depends on how the franchises themselves try to sell them.
The Red Wings and Tigers have openly admitted they’re embarking on full-scale rebuilds, something that late owner Mike Ilitch never would’ve embraced but his son, Chris, finally did the last couple years. So while that means empty seats and plummeting television ratings, it also means more open minds and less criticism. The Tigers flirted with a 100-loss season and the Wings are destined for another lottery pick, but that’s essentially what their fans were promised.
The Pistons, meanwhile, are capped out and talking about winning home-court advantage in the playoffs — “We're not developing, we're not two or three years away — we want to win right now,'' new coach Dwane Casey insisted this summer — so anything less than a return to the postseason will feel like a cop-out.
And then there are the Lions, who’ve long struggled to explain their thinking and now, it seems, no longer care to even try. General manager Bob Quinn hasn’t spoken to the media since the NFL draft in early May, and head coach Matt Patricia’s posture this week has been pretty straightforward.
What message did the team send by trading Golden Tate to Philadelphia this week?
“Right now,” Patricia said, “the message is we’re trying to get ready for Minnesota.”
Fair enough, but the message was a bit different when Quinn fired Jim Caldwell after a second consecutive 9-7 regular season and explained it by saying, “I think we have more than a competitive team to be competing for championships.”
Framed by that kind of talk, the fans’ discontent with a 3-4 start and the Lions’ decision to jettison their leading receiver in favor of a third-round draft pick next April is more than understandable.
Particularly given the current environment here in Detroit.
An expansion team just made the Stanley Cup Finals, and yet the Red Wings began November with the second-worst record in the league. A band of former Tigers All-Stars — and the team president who signed them — just won the World Series title for Boston that they couldn’t win in Detroit. The Pistons, who’ve made the playoffs once in the last decade, just got punked by Spencer Dinwiddie.
And now the Lions have gone and traded away Tate — arguably the best free-agent signing in franchise history, but a player Quinn wasn’t going to pay a ransom to keep — to the defending Super Bowl champs.
If this isn’t what sports purgatory feels like, it has to be pretty close.
It has been 663 days since the last playoff game for one of Detroit’s four major professional teams — the Lions’ 26-6 loss at Seattle. That’s the longest drought for this city since 1981-82. And the best hope to end it probably rests with the NBA team that plays its home games in a half-empty arena.
The Lions, for their part, insist they’re still alive and kicking, despite the mixed signals management sent the last two weeks, trading for run-stuffing tackle Damon Harrison and then turning around and telling Tate to “Fly, Eagles, Fly.”
“The biggest thing for me is just moving forward with what we’ve got — that’s all I can do,” said quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose contract runs through 2022, same as Quinn and Patricia. “I think it’s just on everybody. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We still have a ton of guys on offense that can make big plays for us. They do it probably a different way than (Tate) did it. but I still think we can be very successful in what we want to do.”
The next month — with divisional games at Minnesota and Chicago — will tell us if Stafford’s right or not. Or if Patricia’s message to the players this week “that this also shows a lot of confidence in the people that are in that room” truly resonated.
Beyond that, it’s up to the front office.
The Tate trade leaves Quinn with nine picks in next year’s draft — one in each round, plus additional selections in the sixth and seventh. More important, perhaps, is the salary-cap space Quinn figures to have heading into free agency next March. The Lions are projected to have more than $40 million to spend. And perhaps much more depending on what happens with veterans like T.J. Lang and Glover Quin, among others.
“They’re gonna do what they think is best for the team,” Stafford said, when asked again Thursday about the trade-deadline fallout. “It’s not my decision to see who stays and who goes. It’s not my job, and I understand that. … So I just let them do their job and I’ll deal with whatever comes."
But whatever comes next, it probably bears repeating: Don't shoot the messenger. The players aren’t much different than the fans in that respect.