Niyo: Lions' talk of path forward carries directionless tone

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — They’re either in denial, or they’re dumbfounded. Or maybe they're both.

Whatever the case, if you were a Lions fan looking for answers about the path forward — or even an honest assessment of where this franchise stands after a disastrous 3-12-1 season — you probably came away from Monday’s season-ending news conferences feeling the same way you did every week for the last three months.

Convinced that they don’t know how to climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. Or that they’re all that clear on the reasons why they’re where they are in the first place. Which is in last place. Again. Nearly two years after general manager Bob Quinn fired Jim Caldwell after back-to-back winning seasons and brought in his pal, Matt Patricia, to “take us to the next level.”

They are nowhere near that now, obviously. But ask Quinn how close he thinks this franchise really is to the playoff team ownership is ostensibly demanding next season, and about all you’ll get is a knowing smile.

“That’s the money question, right?” he said Monday, a day after his team’s ended its season with a ninth consecutive loss — the franchise’s longest skid since the winless 2008 debacle.

Just don’t expect a definitive reply, because there is none at this point.

“When you win three games, it’s not just one thing,” Quinn said. “We sit there every week and we evaluate the games and look at the roster and the scheme and all that, and it was hard this year for us to point at one thing. …

“This was an abnormal year for us. And it’s something we’re really gonna have to dive into, because we sit there scratching our heads every week where we didn’t finish or we were two plays away or bad call here or bad break there, dropped pass there, and it adds up to our record.”

Lions general manager Bob Quinn speaks to the media during Monday's season-ending news conference.

Not exactly the plan

Problem is, it’s starting to sound like a broken record with this regime, all this talk about foundations and building and a blueprint only they can see. 

So as earnest as Patricia sounded Monday, when he vowed, “It’s gotta start with me. I’ve got to get better, which I will,” it doesn’t mean a thing, really. Same with the head coach’s insistence that “I’ll never accept losing, I’ll never accept complacency.” Because after going 9-22-1 in his first two seasons on the job, that’s exactly what ownership tacitly has done by bringing him back for a third.

And as Quinn awkwardly described his own endorsement of the Patricia plan to ownership, the reasoning sounded about as flimsy as you all feared.

“In terms of talking to Mrs. Ford and her family,” Quinn explained Monday, “the foundation that’s here and the good things that have happened — even though they have not equated to wins — to scrap that and start from scratch would be taking a step back.”

Which would be understandable, if not for the fact the Lions already have done just that. When you’re picking third overall in the draft, there’s not much room behind you on the ledge, quite frankly.

And, yes, Quinn admits this wasn’t exactly what they envisioned when he hired Patricia back in February 2018, then gave him the green light to start tearing down much of the structure he’d helped Caldwell build, alienating veteran players in the process.

“Matt wanted to change some things and he has,” Quinn said. “It’s taken a little bit longer. The bottom line is we’ve got to do more to win. … I think it’s just a process it takes longer for some teams. Some teams hit it right off the bat. And unfortunately we’re in the position where going into Year 3 we’ve got to step up to the plate.”

Just what that means exactly, only time will tell. Coaching staff changes are expected, but Patricia wasn’t offering any hints about that Monday. Quinn, likewise, declined to discuss any of the major contract decisions looming — Darius Slay, Kenny Golladay, Graham Glasgow, A’Shawn Robinson and others.

The team seems unwilling to pay market value for Glasgow going forward — if so, that's one more item on the to-do list — but you can’t help but wonder about Slay’s status entering a contract year. Can Quinn and Patricia really part ways with their Pro Bowl cornerback if the mandate is to make the playoffs next season? (Or at least to play "meaningful games" in December, whatever that means.) The GM claims he’ll keep balancing the short-term and long-term vision the way he has up till now.

“Obviously, we need to win next year — I understand that,” Quinn said, “But when you’re trying to build the organization, you’re trying to create a lasting ability to win.”

No excuses, but ...

We’ll see about that, I guess. Any ability would be a good start, after a season that saw the Lions blow eight fourth-quarter leads, thanks in part to a defense that finished 26th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed. 

But among the other topics Quinn did address Monday, I didn’t hear him admitting to any mistakes that might've led to that. He talked up the big free-agent signings he made last winter, even though Trey Flowers was slow getting going, Justin Coleman’s fast start didn’t last long and Jesse James’ contract felt like a sunk cost well before this season went in the tank. In James’ case, Quinn said the tight end needed to be more involved in the offense, then noted that drafting T.J. Hockenson at No. 8 overall made that difficult. Well, then, whose fault is that?

And even though Quinn began by saying he wasn’t going to make any excuses for the way this season unraveled, he couldn’t help but do just that, pointing more than once to an unwieldy injury list. That absolutely played a role in the Lions’ second-half struggles, starting with the back injury that ultimately sidelined Matthew Stafford for good. But most of the 16 players on injured reserve now still were on the field at midseason, after the Lions had passed the fork in the road.

So if that's where Quinn and Patricia are now — at a crossroads — it's hard to shake the feeling they're still looking for directions. Maybe because they've never been here before. 

The Patriots never lost more than two games in a row during Patricia’s 14 seasons in New England. The closest Quinn ever came to experiencing something like this was in 2000 when he was a scouting intern running errands in Bill Belichick's first season in Foxborough. So the notion they've got this under control, or that they'll get it all figured out, does require a leap of faith.

And for those who aren't willing to make that jump after what we've seen here the last two seasons, I can't blame 'em. The Lions' leadership can't, either, if they're being honest.

“Nobody wants to hear it," Quinn acknowledged. "The fans don’t deserve excuses. They deserve answers."

But for those, they'll have to keep waiting.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo