Since Week 2 there have been questions about why the Lions' offense has struggled, and to a man, players and coaches have given the same response.
"I don't know," left guard Rob Sims said Sunday after a Week 17 loss to the Packers. "We keep working towards it; we're going to get there."
The reasons for the offensive problems — which they have less than a week to correct — are obvious, but nobody wants to place blame on the three men most responsible. As the Lions prepare for a playoff game in Dallas with a maligned offense and a safety-related player violation overshadowing the game for a second straight week, it's become increasingly clear this team suffers from a similar selective accountability problem under coach Jim Caldwell as it did with Jim Schwartz.
The focus of this week and last should've been solely on the games, one in Green Bay with the NFC North on the line, and now one in Dallas, where the Lions will try to win their second playoff game since 1957.
Instead, most of the discussion has been and will be about two of the Lions' veteran leaders whose selfish — and what the NFL considered violent — acts have hindered the team beyond measure. Before Ndamukong Suh had his one-game suspension overturned on appeal Tuesday, it hardly felt like the Lions were in the playoffs.
Here are some of the people to whom Caldwell has given public passes this season: Suh, quarterback Matthew Stafford, center Dominic Raiola, tight end Eric Ebron, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and himself.
Caldwell's defense of his deplorable challenge Sunday after the game was laughable, especially when he effectively told a reporter to learn the rule he actually didn't know. He's had several game management blunders this year, but opposing coaches Mike Smith and Joe Philbin took more grief for their gaffes in Lions wins over the Falcons and Dolphins, respectively, that easily could've gone the other way.
Where are the results?
Caldwell deserves plenty of respect for instilling a winning attitude on a team that's mostly known losing, but games are won on the field, not in the auditorium.
Meanwhile, defensive tackle C.J. Mosley was suspended for a game, and running back Joique Bell and tight end Brandon Pettigrew for a quarter each. Even if those were justified, why does the team punish off-field infractions more than the ones on the field?
Remember, after Raiola and Suh clearly tried to harm other players — though Ted Cottrell's decision to reduce the suspension to a $70,000 fine was appropriate — Caldwell defended both players after the game before, he claims, even watching the incidents.
Meanwhile, the Lions benched strong safety James Ihedigbo in the second half against Green Bay for some missed tackles and assignments, even though he's been a top-five player on the league's second best defense and involved in a team-high eight turnover-related plays (four interceptions, three forced fumbles and one recovery). Yet, during Raiola's suspension, the Lions said the 14-year veteran would definitely take back his starting job even though he could've easily been benched at times this season.
Including Ebron in this list was tough because he's a rookie, but when Caldwell said he wasn't disappointed in the 10th overall pick because of a couple blocks in Week 16, he secured Ebron's spot. The Lions desperately need a No. 3 receiver, and it has to be him.
Now, there's clearly a method to Caldwell's madness. Speaking ill of his players or coaches to the media doesn't help the team. But if Caldwell's message to his team is different than the one publicly, the results have yet to be seen on the field, especially on offense. Caldwell also told players to be on alert after Raiola's suspension-receiving stomp, yet Suh still tried to get away with spiking Aaron Rodgers.
Stafford has had three of his worst games of the season the past three weeks, but Caldwell continues to defend the sixth-year quarterback to a fault. Last Monday after a win over the Bears in which the quarterback threw two red-zone interceptions, Caldwell said Stafford is under-appreciated. Asked about Stafford's performance after the loss in Green Bay Sunday, Caldwell said everyone needs to play better.
The Lions hired Caldwell and Lombardi to fix Stafford and turn an already potent offensive attack into one that protects the ball better, and because the team finished 11-5 thanks to the No. 2 overall defense, many of the issues have been easy to overlook. Those two coaches and the quarterback deserve the brunt of the blame for the surprisingly lackluster unit.
Stafford finished the regular season 25th in completion percentage (60.3), 19th in yards per attempt (7.07) and 21st in passer rating (85.7). He received credit for five fourth-quarter comebacks, but he finished with a sub-90 passer rating in all of them. That's also an incredibly flawed stat considering the two biggest plays on the game-winning drive in Week 16 against the Bears were an underthrown pass that drew a 46-yard pass interference and a handoff to Bell.
But because Stafford threw just 12 interceptions, the coaches can trumpet his improved decision-making.
Meanwhile, those same coaches — besides Lombardi on a couple occasions — won't take the blame for what's been a thoroughly disappointing offense all season. The Lions ranked 19th in total yards this year, and at 340.8 yards per game, they averaged 51.3 fewer yards than last year. They averaged 20.1 points this year, ranking 22nd and down from 24.7 in 2013. And last year, the Lions had Kris Durham, not Golden Tate, as their No. 2 receiver.
The offensive line hasn't been as good this year as in 2013, but it's Lombardi's job to adjust the game plan and have Stafford make quicker passes. Last year, Stafford threw 62 percent of his passes in 2.5 seconds or less, according to Pro Football Focus. This year, that number is down to 55.7 percent.
Lombardi is also responsible for putting the offense in the best situations possible, and he's botched his personnel all season. Against the Packers, Tate played just 53 of 69 plays. Tate struggles as a blocker, but there's still no reason he should be off the field in order to have tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Kellen Davis — who are neither receiving threats nor exceptional blockers — on the field together outside the 2-yard line.
There have been countless times where Johnson and Tate have been off the field at the same time, and the Lions have run predictable and rarely effective run plays. Yet, when asked about taking Tate and Johnson off the field, Caldwell says they play a good number of plays and the team adjusts based on the situation. Most top receivers play close to every snap, and the Lions don't have a good enough run game to willing take their biggest threats off the field unless it's absolutely necessary.