Niyo: Lack of progress leaves Lions begging for change
Mahatma Gandhi was an activist and a pacifist.
Lions fans are, philosophically speaking, something more like passive masochists.
But even the diehards have to be tired of turning the other cheek at this point, don’t they?
Another season of professional football at Ford Field came to an end Sunday, as the Lions got thumped by the Vikings, 27-9, clinching a last-place finish in the NFC North as the boos rained down from the scattered remains of an announced crowd of 61,641.
And after the players had sought refuge inside their locker room, at least one veteran player was effectively suggesting civil disobedience as a remedy.
Ricky Jean Francois, a 10th-year pro at defensive tackle who isn’t afraid to speak up when he sees something wrong, was trying to make sense of the splintered expectations in Matt Patricia’s rookie season as Detroit’s head coach without sounding like a broken record.
But about all he could come up with was something Lions fans have known forever.
“I think I heard Gandhi say this in a book I read: The only way you can change a culture is you have to change the people within it,” Jean Francois said. “If you want to change the culture, change the people. I’m not finger-pointing who needs to be changed or who needs to go somewhere else. But if you want a different regime, you want a different buy-in or system like that, the only way you get a different culture is to change the people that sit in it.”
And so that’s where they’re at now, apparently, three years into what we were told was a new regime, with Bob Quinn taking over as general manager, and near the end of Patricia’s first go-around as his hand-picked leader.
The more things change, the more the Lions realize that needs changing. And, man, Quinn sure does have a lot of work to do this offseason, doesn't he?
A home season began with an embarrassing self-destruction against the New York Jets ended with another dreary divisional loss to the Vikings. Matthew Stafford, not coincidentally, finished both those games on the sidelines, posting his two worst passer ratings of the season in bookend blowouts.
Stafford's exit was met with derisive cheers as backup Matt Cassel came in to mop up the mess with 4:10 left to play and the game out of reach, the Lions’ season long since over. Later, Stafford’s frustration was both evident, and obvious, as he spoke at the podium, clearly bothered by the performance as well as a lingering back injury.
“Anytime you put a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of time into something and it doesn’t turn out the way you want,” said Stafford, who threw for a meager 116 yards, “it’s disappointing.”
But it’s also telling, in the end. Because while Patricia continues to harp on his team’s toughness and work ethic, it’s obvious that’s not nearly enough. Neither is Stafford's arm talent. Or the Patriots' pedigree that Lions ownership is banking on, literally and figuratively.
The Lions unofficially gave up on the season back in Week 8, when Quinn assessed the Lions’ roster and their record and decided to trade Golden Tate to the defending Super Bowl champs in Philadelphia. They were officially eliminated from the NFC’s playoff chase a week ago in Buffalo.
All that was left Sunday, I suppose, was to wave the white flag. And that appeared to happen at the end of a first half that’d seen the Lions’ defense dominate, for the most part.
But after a 40-yard pass play set up the Vikings’ first score with less than 2 minutes to play, another poor offensive series from the Lions gave Minnesota another crack at it in the waning seconds. And this being late December in Detroit, that meant a Hail Mary was a sure thing. Only instead of Aaron Rodgers, this time it was Kirk Cousins, who heaved a javelin 44 yards to the end zone, where tight end Kyle Rudolph was waiting.
It’s a play the Vikings practice every week without a football, Rudolph said. The idea is to be in the right position to make the play, and Rudolph certainly was. So was Cousins’ pass. The Lions’ defenders? Not so much.
“I didn't have to move,” Rudolph laughed after the game. “Honestly, I caught it before they even realized that I jumped up and caught the ball.''
Replays seemed to confirm as much, seeing as how safety Quandre Diggs was the only Lions player who even left the ground trying to make a play on the ball.
Patricia lamented his players’ alignment and positioning on the Hail Mary, and he accurately described the Lions’ execution as “not good at all” when asked about it afterward.
The same could be said for this team of his with one game left to play in 2018. And what that says about the path forward is anyone’s guess at this point. Certainly, it’s not what Quinn had in mind when he jettisoned Jim Caldwell after back-to-back nine-win seasons and promised Patricia could — and would — do better.
Of the seven new head coaches in the NFL this season, only two — Patricia and Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel — took over teams coming off winning seasons. The Titans are 9-6 and still in the AFC playoff hunt entering Week 17. The Lions, meanwhile, are in the running for a top-five pick in the draft.
Only two of those rookie head coaches have a worse record than Patricia at the moment, too. And one of them — Arizona’s Steve Wilks — reportedly will be fired after next week’s regular-season finale.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine that happening in Detroit, where these New England expatriates both signed new contracts that run through 2022 earlier this year.
But while both can point to areas where the Lions have made progress — the run game with Kerryon Johnson, the defensive front built around Damon Harrison, the growth of Kenny Golladay — that’s still overshadowed by areas where things have regressed.
And not all of it can be blamed on injuries or Hail Marys. Of the Lions’ 10 losses this season — that’s a low-water mark Caldwell never reached in four years in Detroit, for what it’s worth — six have been by double digits, and four of those were at home. That’s the most for this franchise since 2009, Jim Schwartz’s first season taking over after the 0-16 debacle in 2008.
“I’ve never lost 10 games in anything, not ever,” said Diggs, who was at a loss to describe how it feels.
As for how he feels about the head coach, though?
“C’mon, man,” Diggs said, scolding a reporter asking if the team still believed in Patricia.
"Y'all know I don’t like dumb questions. Don’t even bring those questions to me.”
When pressed as to why, he pointed to Patricia’s track record — “He’s been a winner his whole career,” Diggs said — and the players’ effort even as the losses mounted along with the injuries this fall.
All that speculation about a lack of buy-in from the players? Diggs, for his part, isn't buying it.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to get things right and we’re going to play hard,” he said.
But at the end of the season? Something’s gotta change. And if it’s not the culture, it’s the people in it. A whole lot of them.