Niyo: Fan apathy sets in as Lions' season circles the drain

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The numbers are dwindling now.

In the stands. On the sidelines. Everywhere but in the loss column, and, perhaps, the locker room, though it’s always difficult in the NFL to separate the true believers from the ones who are just trying to survive.

But what about the owners’ suite? That’s the audience everyone’s waiting to hear from now, and really the only one that matters in the short term, as the Lions’ regular season nears a merciful end and the attention shifts to where it usually rests with this franchise.

On the job security of a head coach and his boss, and whatever rationalizations that will follow a late-December decision about their fate.

Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably didn’t tip any scales. But it didn’t quell any doubts, either, as the Lions rallied from an abysmal start — outgained 236-1 in total yards in the first quarter — yet still managed to lose by three touchdowns to a middling opponent, dropping their seventh game in a row and guaranteeing a second consecutive season with double-digit losses.

Asked afterward if he could put the frustration he’s feeling into words, Matt Patricia — now 9-20-1 in 30 games as the Lions’ head coach — politely declined.

“I mean, I don’t think you ever want to put frustration into words,” he said, “because it never comes out right.”

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Ugly outing for David Blough, secondary

Fair enough, but the fans don’t have to abide by that golden rule. Certainly not in this city, after all they’ve been through with this franchise.

And Sunday they probably spoke loudest with their silence.

Or their absence, more accurately.

A banner with Lions owner Martha Ford's likeness with the words "Sell The Team" is unveiled during a missed Tampa Bay field goal attempt in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

'It's not easy'

Rough estimate, I’d say there were probably 15,000 empty seats at Ford Field for this one. And even the announced attendance of 56,515 was the smallest for a Lions home game in more than three years, dating to a win over the Rams on Oct. 16, 2016. To find a lower attendance figure in the Lions’ den before that, you have to go all the way back to 2010 — two head coaches ago — near the end of an infamous stretch of awful football that saw the Lions lose 47 of 52 games.

Among those who did show up Sunday, the Fox TV cameras managed to find some who were offering signs of protest. Like the group that showed up wearing “Sell the team” T-shirts, several of them hoisting a large banner that said the same alongside the owner’s likeness. Then there were the fans who wore paper bags over their heads — one with frown drawn on it, another with a beard and a No. 2 pencil.

Hardly a consensus, obviously, but certainly not a ringing endorsement of the status quo. And for that, we may have to wait a couple more weeks, when the season is over and the current regime’s fate is officially confirmed.

Patricia usually spends some time chatting with the Lions’ brass on the sideline well before kickoff on Sundays. This time, it was a rather lengthy session — close to 20 minutes, all of it seemingly amicable — with owner Martha Firestone Ford and vice chair Sheila Ford Hamp and her husband, Steve.

More: Sean Murphy-Bunting is Bucs’ hero during ‘big family reunion’ in Detroit

More: 'Means a lot': Bucs' Breshad Perriman adds career chapter to family's story

Hours later, Patricia, whose contract runs through 2022, same as general manager Bob Quinn, wasn’t about to reveal anything substantial about what was discussed.

“No, a lot of general conversation and just catching up,” he said. “We had the meetings this week, so just kind of talking a little bit. That’s about all.”

And that’s about all we’ll get until the season’s over I imagine, though the Ford family has preemptively given the thumbs-up signal in the past, leaking reports about plans to bring back a coach or GM — or both, as it were — before Week 17’s final snap.

With two games left and nothing likely to change on the field, maybe that’s what we’ll get this time, too. The Lions already have a dozen players, including several starters, on injured reserve, and you can expect at least a couple more names to join that list after Sunday’s loss, as defensive tackle Mike Daniels, guard Kenny Wiggins, running back J.D. McKissic and linebacker Devon Kennard were unable to finish the game.

“It’s not easy,” Patricia said, “but it’s part of the deal.”

How much of a mitigating factor that might be in ownership’s 2020 decision remains to be seen. Particularly the back injury that has sidelined starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions are now 0-6 since his season unofficially ended.

Regardless, the way the Lions’ defense has played certainly shouldn’t be glossed over. Not when you consider that’s supposed to be Patricia’s calling card.

'Not happy'

The last three home games, the Lions have given up a combined 1,223 passing yards to Dak Prescott, Mitch Trubisky and now Jameis Winston, who threw for 221 yards in the first quarter alone — only Peyton Manning and Jim Kelly have thrown for more in the last 40 years, according to Elias Sports Bureau — as the Bucs jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.

The start was so ugly that Patricia gathered his entire defensive unit on the sideline after that second touchdown drive — a 99-yarder — and read them the riot act. After the game, the coach declined to offer any details on what was said in that animated exchange.

“But I would say, obviously, I was not happy with where we were at and how we were starting,” he said. “I don’t think they were happy with it, either.”

To everyone’s credit, they did stanch the bleeding for a while. Long enough, in fact, that the Lions had the ball and a chance to tie this game midway through the fourth quarter.

The defense made some adjustments, and players like Danny Amendola — one of the ex-Patriot veterans that Patricia’s leaning on as this season has gone sideways — made some plays. It was Amendola who finally sparked the offense in the second quarter, chucking the football into the stands after one first-down grab — “Just trying to get some juice going,” he later explained — and then making a circus catch on a 46-yarder to set up the Lions’ first touchdown in that third-quarter rally.

“He’s one of the most competitive guys that we have — he plays so hard,” Patricia said. “I’ve known Danny for a long time, I love him to death, and I’d do anything for the guy.”

He’s far from the only one, to be clear. And the fact this team hasn’t rolled over undoubtedly is part of the sales pitch ownership is hearing each week. Whether they’re buying it or not, or how much it’s worth to them, only the Fords can say for sure.

But until they do, many of those not-so-cheap seats will remain empty. The rest will be filled with discontent. Or Packers fans, in a couple weeks.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo