Detroit — You’re discouraged. You’re bloated. You just spent the weekend watching four NFL playoff games, hunting for hope the Lions aren’t that far behind. And then, in a flash, there it was, a familiar formula.
Follow me here. A perpetually mediocre team hired a GM with a scouting background in New England. The new GM fired the coach after a 9-7 season and hired one with a New England background. The team struggled early this season, was 2-4, and the franchise quarterback was broken, seemingly wrecking its hopes.
Spoiler alert: That team is the Tennessee Titans, the surprise of the playoffs after knocking out the Patriots and Ravens with a formula that should encourage the Lions, and also make them feel awful. Everything the Titans have done, the Lions have attempted to do.
The Titans hired their ex-Pat GM, Jon Robinson, almost the exact same time (January 2016) the Lions hired their ex-Pat GM, Bob Quinn. After two years, Robinson fired Mike Mularkey, who was 9-7, and hired Mike Vrabel, a longtime Patriots linebacker. After two years, Quinn fired Jim Caldwell, who was 9-7, and hired Matt Patricia, a longtime Patriots assistant. The Lions interviewed Vrabel but passed, and Quinn went with the guy he knew better.
So similar, so dissimilar, with one huge difference: The Titans stopped pretending they could simply pin it all on the quarterback and boldly went in another direction.
The Titans now sit one victory from the Super Bowl, a prize the Lions can’t even envision. Tennessee benched former franchise guy Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill and handed the ball to powerful Derrick Henry, who piled up more rushing yards in back-to-back playoff games than anyone in history. The Lions have passively built a roster lacking impact guys, while hoping they could piece together a running game to complement Matthew Stafford.
Quinn has played it safe in four years here, and Patricia has played it stubbornly in his two years. Both must adjust dramatically to keep their jobs. In retaining them, owner Martha Firestone Ford said she expects the Lions to be “a playoff contender” in 2020, and while that seems ambitious when discussing a 3-12-1 team, it sounds like a quasi-mandate.
Time to strike
Call it whatever you want — “win now,” “contend now,” “at least go 9-7 like the good old days now” — but Quinntricia should feel the pressure and push the urgency. That means no more slow-playing by drafting a tight end in the first round. That means if there’s a worthwhile gamble with the No. 3 pick, take it. If Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young is there, you take him, whether he perfectly fits your scheme or not. If Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is deemed healthy and is there, you take him.
Tagovailoa, one of the best quarterback prospects in recent history before his hip injury, is now viewed by some as a major risk. OK, figure it out with the medical reports. And don’t ignore questions about Stafford, who suffered back fractures the past two seasons, curtailing promising efforts.
No more excuse-making if Stafford gets hurt again and the season collapses because Quinn failed to sign a suitable backup. Same goes for the running game, now more than ever, because who knows if Kerryon Johnson will stay healthy to fulfill his strong potential.
I’ve never understood why the Lions’ current regime hasn’t respected and fortified the running game enough. Belatedly, they added LeGarrette Blount last year, after his usefulness was gone. They did the same with C.J. Anderson this year, after his usefulness was gone.
Quinn swears the heightened urgency won’t affect his strategy, especially in the draft, but how can it not?
“When I took this job in 2016, my vision as a general manager was always to have your lens on the short term and the long term,” Quinn said two weeks ago. “That’s not going to change for me. Obviously, we need to win next year. I understand that.”
He should understand even more when watching these playoffs. Three years ago, the 49ers grabbed their quarterback, sending a second-round pick to New England for Jimmy Garoppolo. He tore up his knee three games into 2018 and the 49ers went 4-12. That made this season huge, the third for coach Kyle Shanahan. And with his quarterback healthy and a running game that ranks second in the league, the 49ers went 13-3, shellacked the Vikings and will host the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Obviously, there are different ways to win in the NFL, but the latest path is being plowed with force, not finesse. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, this is the first time in 50 years the top four rushing teams by yards (Baltimore, San Francisco, Tennessee, Seattle) made the playoffs and the top four passing teams (Tampa Bay, Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles Rams) didn’t. It’s an imperfect measure because good teams often end up running the ball when they’re ahead. But it’s still a staggering shift when Henry pounds for 195 rushing yards and the Titans stuff the Ravens and their MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson.
Almost from the moment Quinn got the job, he has hammered the point, without fulfilling it. The Lions had to get tougher in the trenches, had to be able to run, had to take the load off Stafford. They were 21st in rushing this season and still don’t have a powerful offensive line, although not for lack of trying.
Some teams remain contenders because they have star quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson — and sound defenses. In the absence of a superstar quarterback, you can latch onto a superstar runner such as Henry, who led the league with 1,540 yards.
Tannehill is the league’s top-rated passer since he took over in Week 7, but he’s a weapon of choice, not of demand. Henry’s production makes Tannehill effective even when he only throws for 72 yards in a game, as he did in Tennessee’s 20-13 wild-card victory over New England.
Did the Titans stumble into some of this success? Sure. After all, they’ve been 9-7 four straight seasons. But they did draft Henry in the second round and they’ve strengthened their line with guys you might recognize — Taylor Lewan (Michigan) and Jack Conklin (Michigan State). And they had the foresight to recognize Mariota’s shortcomings and develop a contingency plan, acquiring Tannehill from the Dolphins for a mere fourth-round pick.
This is where you sigh, if you’re so inclined. On Oct. 13 this season, the Titans were 2-4. On Oct. 20, the Lions were 2-3-1. The Titans had a quarterback crisis with an ineffective Mariota. The Lions had a looming quarterback crisis with an injured Stafford. Tennessee had a backup plan, a front-line runner and a tough-minded coach the players rally around. The Lions finished the season with David Blough at quarterback and a series of running-back tryouts.
Some of that is injury misfortune. But as you can see on these playoff weekends, options and answers are always available, if you have the insight to find them and the boldness to get them.
Kansas City vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, 3 p.m., Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
Records: Kansas City 13-4, Tennessee 11-7
San Francisco vs. Green Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, 6:40 p.m., Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Records: San Francisco 14-3, Green Bay 14-3