Wojo: Darius Slay stays, which is fine, but Lions still running in neutral

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Matt Patricia’s Lions are caught in the NFL’s middle, not good enough to make a serious playoff run but not bad enough to tank and rebuild.

Detroit — This is the problem when you’re stuck in the middle, muddling along. The Lions are as middlin’ as it gets in the NFL, 3-3-1 with a favorable schedule and an unfavorable track record.

They’re not Super Bowl contenders and barely playoff contenders, yet they’re not out of it. That puts every decision on a razor’s edge between bold and dumb, between going for it and waiting for it. In this case, Lions GM Bob Quinn did the safest thing imaginable at Tuesday’s trade deadline. He punted.

For the record, almost everyone across the NFL punted, with none of the rumored blockbusters coming to fruition. Not exciting, not bold, and for the Lions, an acknowledgement they don’t know where they’re headed yet, or how long it’ll take to get there. They weren’t willing to trade Darius Slay, which is good (for now). They weren’t able to add a running back, which is head-scratching.

With their running game in shambles, it was irresponsible not to deal for any back, even beyond the big names — Le’Veon Bell, Melvin Gordon, Rashaad Penny — reportedly available. Kerryon Johnson is out until late in the season and the backfield consists of Tra Carson, Ty Johnson, J.D. McKissic and Paul Perkins (check your local listings to confirm). That means Matthew Stafford’s very good season will have to become spectacular for them to go anywhere.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Lions sit right now, punting and playing for field position, stuck between the now and the later. Trading Slay would’ve been a move for the future, and if the Lions did it for anything less than a first-round pick, it would’ve been a mistake, an overreaction to Slay’s emotional response when Quandre Diggs was dealt. It would’ve been a sign of surrender, and Quinn and Matt Patricia are in no position to surrender, although Slay still could be shopped in the offseason, with one year left on his contract.

No dumping zone

If the Lions were asking too much for Slay, that’s fine. I hate the idea of dumping for the sake of pride or punishment, and when healthy, he’s still an upper-tier corner.

It’s also logical to assume other teams were asking too much for the top backs, and the Lions couldn’t spend a lot of draft capital, even though Bell, Gordon or Penny would’ve provided an immediate impact. If they really thought they were contenders this season, you figure they’d have done it. But by doing nothing at the position, they gave themselves little chance, with their running game already ranked near the bottom of the league.

Of course, they respectfully disagree.

“We’ll continue to hone in there, but we like the guys that are in the (running backs) room, we like the team, we like the skill sets that we have,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “We just have to kind of refine what’s going to be best for their roles.”

The Lions couldn’t afford to be reckless, and in the grand scheme, the trade deadline is hardly an optimal path to contention. Most teams agree, based on the inactivity, with only one small deal Tuesday. It’s also not like the Lions were chewing it up when Johnson was healthy, as he rushed for 308 yards and 3.3 yards per carry.

The Lions are admitting growth must come from within, which puts the pressure squarely on Quinn and Patricia, where it belongs. They finished 6-10 last season, and although Stafford is off to one of the better starts of his career, they could be wasting his 11th season. It’s on Stafford to make it work too, and he seems to be grasping more of Bevell’s offense each week.

Idling along

Now the Lions idle at another fork in the road, too early to put a fork in them, too late to revamp the roster. This was a chance to refine it, though, and it’s disappointing they didn’t do anything. It’s far from shocking, and again, barring a No. 1 for Slay or stealing a back for a mid-round pick, the margin between bold and dumb was narrow. Quinn hasn’t been shy about taking risks, so this had to be prohibitive, especially with the Lions way behind Green Bay (7-1) and Minnesota (6-2) in the NFC North and on the edges of wild-card contention.

It’s uncertain whether Slay wanted to go anywhere, as he later backed off his comments following the Diggs trade that “nobody’s safe." Slay likely will be gone next season anyhow, for contractual reasons. But right now, Patricia’s defense needs him more than ever, especially if the Lions opt for more blitzing to generate a pass rush. It also needs Trey Flowers to crank up his production, and Damon Harrison to stay healthy, and young safety Tracy Walker to rebound from injury.

“I like our team,” Patricia said. “We’re always trying to compete, always trying to get better — certainly so are the other 31 teams in the league. There actually wasn’t a lot of movement by anybody.”

Apparently, it wasn’t easy to make a move with the roster, and it won’t be easy to make a move up the standings. The Lions sit where they’ve sat for a while now, running in place, unsure when to be bold, unclear which direction to go.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski