Four Downs: Draft position, booing Stafford and Ford Field farewells
Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 27-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
A lot of things are going wrong for the Lions, but if there's one positive that comes from this consistent losing, it's that the franchise is lining itself up to land an impact player come April.
With the loss to the Vikings, the Lions once again find themselves in position to have a top-five selection in the draft. With the weakest strength of schedule of the five teams with 5-10 records, the Lions score a valuable tie-breaker, netting the highest selection from that group.
Obviously, next week's game against the Packers, in Green Bay, is critical. If the Lions lose, the team could technically be selecting as high as No. 2, but would most likely slot into the No. 5 spot.
A win in Green Bay could drop the Lions as low as 10th in the first round, which is still a good spot, but, and we're obviously getting way ahead of ourselves here, could eliminate some of the trade down possibilities for teams looks to move up to grab a quarterback.
All season, win or lose, Lions coach Matt Patricia has praised his team's toughness and work ethic. And without question, those are two critical components to success in the NFL. But after hearing him hit those talking points again in his postgame news conference, I asked him what is this franchise missing if he's pleased with those two areas?
"Well, I don’t know," Patricia said. "Again, a few plays here or there, we have to do a better job of execution. Whatever it is in those situations, I think it’s different, but it is a tough squad."
This is about all we're ever going to get from Patricia. In many instances, he's quick to point the finger at himself, but he does it so often that it becomes meaningless. He's probably never going to criticize the play-calling or talent, which are both massive issues right now.
The Lions need such a huge influx of talent, both in the starting lineup and throughout the roster's depth, that it's starting to feel incomprehensible they'll be able to fill all the holes in one offseason. As the bare minimum, the team needs a slot receiver, two tight ends, a guard, a pass rusher, and cornerback upgrades in the starting lineup. And there are at least a dozen depth spots that need retooling.
Down three scores with a little more than four minutes remaining, the Lions pulled starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. The decision to insert backup Matt Cassel into the game was announced over the PA system at Ford Field and was met with a hearty cheer from what remained of the crowd.
It's typically not difficult to figure out the motivation for a crowd reaction, but this one is more complicated. There's a fraction of the fan base that's completely done with Stafford and likely took joy in the shortcoming of his performance, hoping it speeds up a potential franchise exit. There are others, the loyal defenders of the quarterback, who don't want to see him risk further injury to the back that's hampered him this month in a meaningless moment, fearing more than anything that it could carry over to next season. And then there's the pro-tanking crowd, fixated on draft stock above all else, who see the insertion of the backup quarterback as a concession the game's over.
But after trying to decipher and get a grasp on fan sentiment in the moment, you realize the reaction to the benching wasn't grounded in rationality for most, even if one or multiple of the above-mentioned factors lingered in the back of the mind. It was more a cathartic release of overall frustration with the game, the season and, quite frankly, the franchise's history.
Stafford said the fan reaction didn't bother him, but that feels disingenuous. Professional athletes often note they're their own harshest critics, and in most cases that's true, but having thousands of fans boo your shortcomings or cheer your failures must be a heaping mound of salt in a fresh wound.
As for Stafford's long-term status with the franchise, it remains inconceivable he's going anywhere this offseason, with a boatload of dead money still attached to his deal. But we can reasonably consider 2019 a make-or-break year in the marriage. The cap ramifications of moving a different direction in 2020 are manageable for a franchise that can't see a light at the end of the tunnel with its current setup.
There are probably around two dozen players who won't wear a Lions uniform in Ford Field again after Sunday's home finale. It's difficult to imagine the team re-signing a player like running back LeGarrette Blount, who capped a spectacularly disappointing year with 26 rushing yards on 10 carries and two drops in the pass game.
Cornerback Deshawn Shead also did himself no favors with his defense of Minnesota's Hail Mary.
The most difficult goodbye might be veteran safety Glover Quin, who still has a year left on his contract, but has long seemed headed for a split with the team. He was on the field just 63.9 percent of the snaps, his second-lowest of the season, continuing his concession of playing time to rookie Tracy Walker. Plus, Quin was beat for a touchdown in the second half, losing a man-coverage battle against Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Even if it's time, we shouldn't lose sight of what Quin brought to this franchise for the past six seasons. He's been invaluable, both on and off the field. He proven to be an outstanding playmaker, with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. And in the locker room, he was the epitome of a veteran leader, accelerating the development of a number of young players, including Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs and Walker.
In addition to the players playing their last home game for the Lions, it's becoming impossible to imagine Jim Bob Cooter coaching another game for the franchise after next week. The offense is in one of its worst ruts in years, scoring 17 or fewer points in five straight. And while the mounting injuries have plenty to do with that, Cooter's play-calling, especially in the red zone, has been frustrating to watch down the stretch.