Wojo: Lions going nowhere, with or without Matthew Stafford
Chicago — They knew this day would come, inevitably. And yet when it arrived, and Matthew Stafford finally had to cave to the pain, the Lions weren’t ready for it. Frankly, they weren’t ready for much of anything.
It’s the story of their season and the story of Matt Patricia’s failing regime. It was about as miserable as you’d expect, as the Lions struggled against a struggling opponent, falling to the Bears, 20-13, Sunday.
Where do they go from here? Nowhere, pretty much. They’re 3-5-1, in last place in the NFC North, and their quarterback has a back injury that may sideline him a few more games. Or it might not. Trying to get straight answers on Stafford’s injury is an exercise in futility, and another case of the Lions outsmarting nobody.
Patricia said they decided Sunday morning, after consulting with doctors, that it wasn’t safe for Stafford to play. National reports said he has bone fractures in his back, separate from a similar injury suffered earlier, and also last season. If it was that serious, why the pretense that he’d play? Why the unrelenting secrecy, even within their own locker room? Why was backup Jeff Driskel, who’d started five games in his career and never taken a snap for the Lions, not sure he was starting until a few hours before game time?
“We were hoping by the time we got to (Sunday), we’d be able to (clear Stafford),” Patricia said. “And unfortunately, it wasn’t safe to put him in that situation. Talking with the doctors, it wasn’t the right thing to do. It’s day by day, week by week, we’ll see how it goes.”
Stafford wanted to play, and he split practice reps with Driskel during the week. But after 136 consecutive starts — a remarkable streak he’s rightly proud of Stafford was forced to sit, and the Lions once again showed how little they have to lean on. That’s on Patricia, and also squarely on GM Bob Quinn, who still, after four years, hasn’t bolstered the anemic running game.
Driskel was fine, all things considered, completing 27 of 46 passes for 269 yards and showing toughness and athleticism on the run. He threw one brutal interception and one 47-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Golladay. As the Lions tried to complete a rally from a 20-6 deficit, their last two drives sputtered, finally ending at Chicago’s 25 on an incompletion into the end zone.
'Tried our best'
The Lions generally play hard and are one of only three teams (Kansas City and San Francisco the others) that have led in every game. But they don’t have any consistently credible way to win these games, outside of hoping Stafford gets hot (and now, gets healthy). Still no running game, and incredibly, Driskel was their leading rusher with 37 yards. Still no semblance of a shutdown defense, as they let downtrodden Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky get off the mat and throw three touchdown passes.
Chicago (4-5) had lost four straight and the city was about to rebel against Trubisky. Knocking him around was the Lions’ main hope, and they did sack him five times. But he also escaped pressure and made enough clutch throws to win it.
“When we calmed down and settled down, we locked in,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “We played our hearts out. We fought. We tried to do our best that we can.”
Not good enough, not this season, not last season, not the season before, not … aw, you know where this is going. The Stafford injury is a tough blow but the Lions won’t get sympathy from anyone. With Driskel’s start, exactly half the teams in the league have played multiple quarterbacks.
The Lions have been lucky Stafford is one of the most durable players ever, and they’ve taken it for granted. They haven’t had to rely on their No. 2 quarterback since Shaun Hill started 10 games in 2010. Quinn hasn’t ever really developed a backup, signing Driskel in September after an offseason quarterback gong show that included Connor Cook, Tom Savage, Josh Johnson, David Fales and Luis Perez, as well as current third-stringer David Blough.
The Lions were supposed to fix their defense with fortifications on the line and the addition of Trey Flowers, who has played better. Yet their defense entered Sunday’s game ranked 31st.
Quinn’s quest for a running game has been fruitless, and of course it hurt when Kerryon Johnson went down. But again, where is the depth? The Lions have been shuttling backs on and off the roster so regularly, they need to install a turnstile for the practice squad. J.D. McKissic, picked up on waivers Sept. 1, runs hard, and rookie Ty Johnson shows occasional flashes, and Paul Perkins is the latest veteran who may not be here long.
The receivers usually are excellent, but Golladay and Danny Amendola dropped a couple passes and no one bailed out Driskel when he really needed it. The Lions did scrap to the end, and afterward expressed genuine regret about not pulling it out for Stafford.
“Us, his teammates, are heartbroken for the guy,” tackle Taylor Decker said. “He wants to be out there as much as we want him out there. It might not sound like a good answer, but you got to go forward with business as usual. I thought Jeff (Driskel) did a phenomenal job stepping in. If he was nervous, we couldn’t tell.”
Driskel showed some poise, and if he has to start this weekend at home against the Cowboys, perhaps he won’t be quite as erratic. The Lions did control the game statistically — 357-226 in total yards — but remember, the Bears were a mess and Trubisky was teetering.
Maybe the Lions did as well as they could, considering their injuries, but if so, that’s still damning commentary on the roster itself. And now with the playoffs no longer realistic, Patricia will have the difficult task of keeping his team together, as plenty will be fighting for jobs. Yes, even the coach himself.
“It’s really kind of easy for us, we shut everything else out,” Patricia said. “If you start diving into all that other stuff, it’s just a lot of negativity. I want to look at our team and say, wow, we really came out and fought hard. Everyone’s gonna try to pile on the situation, but these guys just played really hard. They tried to do everything they could to win.”
Not good enough, again. The goals will change, especially if Stafford is out longer, but the accountability shouldn’t. Quinn was supposed to have a roster by now that could withstand a lot, even the loss of the quarterback. Patricia was supposed to have a team by now that could dictate with its defense, and it’s not even close.
The dark day arrived and the Lions weren’t prepared for it, and don’t look prepared for much. This never was all on the quarterback, no matter how often people tried to suggest it was. It’s on the GM and the coach, more than ever.