The Lions have dropped five straight and have been eliminated from the postseason. Justin Rogers and John Niyo break it down. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Detroit — They pulled him aside Wednesday night, right before a team meeting.
David Blough had a pretty good inkling of what might be coming, but he couldn’t be sure until he heard it directly from Lions general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia. And truth be told, they wanted to be sure of this, too, before they told anyone else that Blough would be making his NFL debut as a starting quarterback on Thanksgiving Day.
Matthew Stafford remains sidelined with fractured bones in his back, and Jeff Driskel, who’d started the last three games in his place, came away from last week’s loss at Washington with a hamstring injury that severely limited his mobility. So after Driskel took a good share of the first-team practice reps in walk-throughs early in the week, the decision was made less than 24 hours before kickoff.
“They sat me down and made sure I was ready to go,” said Blough, an undrafted rookie out of Purdue whose last start, in case you were wondering, was a 63-14 loss in the Music City Bowl. “It was pretty exciting.”
Pretty daunting, too, if he’s being honest. Blough became only the third quarterback in NFL history to make his first start on Thanksgiving. He’s also the first undrafted rookie ever to start a game for the Lions, excluding the 1987 strike season.
So considering the circumstances — a short week, a lost season, and a nationally-televised stage — nobody would’ve blamed the 24-year-old Blough if he’d been nervous.
Instead, he insisted later, “This is what you dream about as a kid.”
Judging by his first pass attempt Thursday, it felt like the beginning of a nightmare, quite frankly. And depending on your perspective, the way the game ended — with a fifth consecutive loss and the eighth in nine games for Patrica’s sinking ship, this one 24-20 to the Bears — it was just that.
But first, back to dreamland.
'We had a great plan'
Already trailing 7-0 after the Lions’ defense got carved up by Mitchell Trubisky on the game’s opening drive, Blough dropped back to pass on second-and-10 from his own 25-yard line and one-hopped a throw over the middle to tight end T.J. Hockenson. A rather docile holiday crowd — and there were some empty seats at Ford Field, despite that paid attendance of 65,412 — audibly groaned.
But the next play, it was time for something completely different — and unexpected. Blough dropped back again, looked over the middle and then turned to his left and saw just what he and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had hoped to see.
“We had a great plan — on the short week, even — to go into the game and take our shots,” said Blough, a player the Lions brought in via trade with Cleveland — for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2022 — right before the start of the regular season. “We were hoping they would think a guy like me would come in and throw some check-downs, and so we were gonna throw it around a little bit.”
They were right about that, obviously. Right away, in fact, as Kenny Golladay used a subtle double move at the top of his route and went streaking downfield as he left Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara.
“The stars just aligned,” Blough said. “He’s 10 yards open and you can throw a lollipop to him and he can score.”
So he did … and he did. And just like that, Ford Field came alive. Mired in a miserable stretch of another football fiasco in Detroit, this was something to cheer, at least.
Blough’s 75-yard touchdown strike put him in rare company. Only two other quarterbacks since the AFL-NFL merger have made a bigger splash with their first career completions. (One of those — Lions tight end Logan Thomas — was ready if called on as the emergency third quarterback on Thursday.)
More important, it gave his team a much-needed jolt. And after the Lions’ defense forced a three-and-out, Blough and the offense gave the fans even more. Running back Bo Scarbrough, another castoff thrust into a starting role by injuries, bulled his way for a first down. Blough completed a pass over the middle to Marvin Jones for 19 yards. Another for 29 yards to Golladay. And then Blough hit Jones on a wide-open crosser for an 8-yard touchdown to put the Lions up, 14-7.
“Even though it was a short week, we all had a lot of confidence in him,” said Golladay, who’d finish with four catches for 158 yards on the afternoon. “He had a chip on his shoulder during the week. He was very confident. He even told Matty P, ‘I’m ready to rip it.’ He definitely stepped up to the challenge.”
Those who know Blough will tell you they’re hardly surprised by that. A late arrival to the roster, he’s early to the office each morning and seems determined to stick around.
“I think you obviously got a glimpse of him and just what we’ve all seen every single day,” Patricia said. “His confidence, his ability to go out and compete, and his focus and how much he loves this game and what he does — never really any question from that standpoint. … He’s a football player, he just goes out and plays ball, and works really hard at it, and really works diligently to prepare himself.”
Nothing really could prepare him for this, obviously.
He’s actually the sixth of seven quarterbacks the Lions have brought in to vie for backup duty since the end of last season. (The Lions even tried to bring one of those back this week, but reportedly were blocked in an attempt to re-sign journeyman vet Josh Johnson by his XFL team, the Los Angeles Wildcats.)
And according to Blough — his last name rhymes with how, by the way — it was more than self-confidence that carried him through Thursday. He finished the game 22-of-38 for 280 yards and two touchdowns, with a lone interception coming on a last-play heave on fourth-and-22 as the Lions came up short once again.
“I think one of the coolest things, honestly, was all the support I had,” Blough said. “When everybody found out last night, I had to turn my phone off. Family, friends, teammates from the past, everybody saying they believed in me.”
Most of them couldn’t make it to Detroit in time for Thursday’s game, though his wife, Melissa, was in the stands. But that support group included his teammates on the sideline as well.
“That was incredible to me as the guy who’s just been here 10 or 11 weeks, or whatever it is, to know that I had those guys in my corner," he added. "That was special.”
'We just can't finish'
That it was also predictable, in the end, certainly wasn’t Blough’s fault. He had his struggles, sure, and a series of three-and-outs from the offense kept the Bears in this game. Just long enough for the Lions' defense to capitulate in the fourth quarter, as Trubisky — yes, Trubisky — led a game-winning, 90-yard drive for the 24-20 victory.
Thursday’s loss officially eliminated the Lions from the playoffs, the earliest they’ve been eliminated since 2010 in Jim Schwartz’s second season as head coach. Difference is, Schwartz and his boss, Martin Mayhew, were in the midst of rebuilding a team that went 0-16 in 2008. Quinn’s nearing the end of his fourth season as GM, and he brought in Patricia to replace Jim Caldwell, the head coach he fired after back-to-back nine-win seasons.
Patricia is now 9-18-1 in Year 2, and while his team has led in all 12 games this season, it has won just three of them. Seven of the Lions’ eight losses have been by eight points or less.
“We just can’t finish right now,” Golladay said. “It shows.”
In the end, it showed even on Blough’s face, as stood and watched the Bears celebrate that final interception, then jogged off the field and headed straight for a seat on the bench. He threw a towel to the ground in disgust even as teammates — Stafford first among them — came to offer words of reassurance. Later, Bears coach Matt Nagy would do the same, going out of his way on amid the postgame handshakes on the field to find Blough and congratulate him on a job well done.
“I’m thankful for it all, the ups and downs,” Blough said. “I knew there were gonna be some. I wasn’t gonna be perfect. I wanted to give everything I had.”
Thursday, it wasn't enough.
But it was something new, give him that. And something he'll never forget.