Monday, November 14, 2011

That Sinking Feeling: Are The Lions Down and Out Again?

Is a glove-wearing quarterback Detroit's latest example of futility, or an injury-related one-off?

There are plenty of NFL teams in peril right now. The Eagles can't buy a win, the Jets are clearly not ready to make that next step, and the Bills have suddenly lost their mojo. Add the Detroit Lions to that list, because even though the Lions are 6-3 and would make the playoffs if the season ended today, their latest effort at Soldier Field in Chicago yesterday points to the fact that the Lions are not built to gain the hard yards in the frigid November and December weather where NFL legacies are forged.

And we all know what the Lions legacy has been for Detroit up until 2011. Ineptitude would sum it up nicely. Detroit is an organization that hasn't sniffed the playoffs this century, and is just a few years removed from its record-breaking exercise in futility, that hapless bag-over-the-head season that now stands as the worst in the history of the NFL.

Things looked far different for the Lions in first five weeks of the season, but since then Detroit has slipped badly. Two consecutive home losses were long forgotten when the Lions blitzed the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in Denver for its franchise best sixth consecutive road win two weeks ago, but doubts are surfacing once again after the Lions put forth an epic stinker reminiscent of their woebegone days, turning the ball over six times and breaking the franchise record for passing attempts in a game, with a woefully inaccurate and mysteriously gloved quarterback in 40 mph winds.

After the dust finally settled in Chicago, the truth was painfully evident: Detroit is dangerously close to sinking back into the ineptitude that has characterized the franchise since Barry Sanders impromptu retirement.

Nobody said it was going to be easy for Jim Schwartz and company to turn the tide for this franchise, and really it's no surprise that the young Lions got shellacked by the revenge-seeking Bears at Soldier Field, especially after the upstart Lions carved them up before a National TV audience in Detroit. But when we consider not that the Lions got shellacked, but HOW THEY GOT SHELLACKED -- doubts about the rest of the season start to seep to the surface.

Doubt No. 1: Why is Matthew Stafford playing with a glove? Okay, we now know that Stafford had a fractured finger, but really, is that any excuse for how poorly he played? If Stafford is really the leader that the franchise wants him to be, then he would have used his head to dumb down his game, make safe, short throws, and let the defense do what it does best.

Instead, behind 20-6 early in the second half, Stafford panicked, and it showed.

He threw two horrific pick-sixes at the start of the second half, and the game was history after that. One was a 40 yard across-the-field throw that wouldn't have gained more than two yards if it was completed, and the other was an ill-conceived throw into double coverage.

What was he thinking? Was he thinking? Does he think? Stafford has a cannon for an arm, and moxie to boot, but in his first full injury-free season at the helm, he has regressed as the season has worn on. Is it because he lacks a running game and a line to protect him, or is it because he's not as committed to the craft as he should be?

Doubt No. 2: Why do the Lions insist on proving to the rest of the league how "nasty" they can be, to their own detriment? Do they want to be the team that every opposing coach and player circles on the schedule? Ndamukong Suh is a great player, but every time I see him try to take somebody's head off on a play where he is not in good enough position to make a good clean game-changing hit, it makes me wonder if this guy really has the mental toughness to be one of the best players in the game. I think he'd be better off keeping quiet and saving his energy for the next play.

Doubt No. 3: The Lions special teams have gone sour. They've given up huge yardage in each of their last 4 games, and they aren't getting much of their own. Because of it, the field position battle has been tilted away from them.

Doubt No. 4: Where is the running game? The more obvious it becomes that the Lions can't and won't use the running game to move the chains (or even to chew up clock or get into short yardage situations on 2nd and 3rd down), the easier it will become for opposing defensive coordinators to design a custom-made gameplan to stifle them. The Lions need to find ways to effectively run the ball, or the passing game, electrifying as it was early in the season, will stall.

Doubt No. 5: Are they the same old Lions? Was that Calvin Johnson coughing up the ball early in the first quarter on a huge possession, or was that an impostor? This is the one thing the Lions can control. Even though yesterday's blowout looked bad on the scoreboard, the truth is that the defense was not at fault. The Lions are still one of the better defensive teams in the league, they just need to find ways to grab an early lead so that they can play more to their strengths.

The Lions aren't just playing for themselves. They are playing with the weight of the past on their shoulders, trying desperately to erase the long-held belief that losing just comes with the Silver and Blue uniform. Maybe they just need to relax?

As the Lions head into a week 11 clash with the reeling but dangerous Carolina Panthers, they are in grave danger of falling into disrepair. With one of the toughest schedules in the NFL down the stretch (Panthers, Packers, Saints, Vikings, Raiders, Chargers, Packers), they need at least three and probably four wins to earn a post season berth.

The high hopes and undefeated dreams of the first five weeks have turned into scratching and clawing for survival down the stretch. It's the Lions, so it shouldn't be a surprise. What would be surprising, is if the Lions find a way through.

The franchise is at a turning point as I write this. The current Lions have gone a long way to prove that they're not the same old Lions anymore, but they've still got a huge mountain to climb.

If they can't make it to the top, they'll risk rolling all the way back to the bottom. And if that happens, who knows when they will make it back to the spot where they stand right now.