A few weeks ago I asked if the Lions could make a “Wayne Fontes era” magical run to make the playoffs. After two tough home losses against the Packers and Texans we have our answer – No.
Sitting at 4-7 with five games left to play, the Lions are all but out of playoff contention. Realistically they would need to be 6-5 right now – a two game swing – to have a shot in the loaded NFC. Thinking about some of the close contests the Lions let slip away, it is realistic to imagine the team sitting at 6-5 (or better). But that only adds to the frustration for Lions fans.
What is the team’s problem and how can they fix it? With nine of the twenty-two starters currently not under contract for 2013, there is flexibility to make broad moves to improve the roster. I will take a closer look at those moves in the months ahead. Today we are in search of the big picture reason why the Lions are not winning.
Some fans point to the one constant in all this as reason for the Lions failures – the Ford family ownership of the team. It is an easy mark and certainly there is enough evidence to prosecute the case. Just in recent history (1991-2012) one could point to keeping Wayne Fontes too long as coach and the hiring of Matt Millen as team president. But criticizing the Ford family and writing off the Lions franchise until they sell the team (which I doubt will happen given Bill Ford, Jr.’s interest level) is too easy.
I will focus my attention on the recent regime that took office after the 2008 season when the Lions hit rock bottom with a winless 0-16 record. At that point the Lions were no different than an expansion team – albeit one with a talented, young 6’6” wide receiver.
Slowly this regime drafted talented players at key positions – Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Tackle, Defensive Tackle and Safety. This regime went out into the free agent market and trade market looking for veteran players – Corey Williams, Chris Houston, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Stephen Tulloch, Rob Sims and Nate Burleson – that could fill a football need and also a leadership role.
The group that was put together peaked with a 10-6 mark last year, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. What was masked by a strong 5-0 start in 2011 has continued to plague the team today – the inability to beat the best teams in the NFL. In 2011 the Lions were 1-6 against playoff teams (including the loss in the playoffs to the Saints). This season the Lions have beaten one playoff caliber team (Seahawks), while losing to potential playoff teams – the 49ers, Bears, Packers, Texans and Vikings (twice).
Because of the fourth quarter success of this group, one could mistake this team as clutch. But in reality when the lights go on in the biggest games, the Lions are not up to the challenge yet. The maddening part is that they compete well through out the game. In a five day span, the Lions played the Packers and Texans as well as any team in the league only to fall short at the end.
In both home games the Lions started better than they usually do – putting up touchdowns in the first half. The team has been plagued by turnovers and the inability on defense to cause turnovers all season. Certainly coaching errors – earlier in the year with the special teams coach and then on Thanksgiving with the head coach – have hurt the Lions this season.
In all sports, teams need to learn how to win the big games – the sacrifice and commitment that it takes to compete at the highest level against the best teams. A franchise needs to have that shared, continual experience together to get over the hump.
It is for that reason that I anticipate the Lions will not make broad roster changes or fire the head coach after the season. I think they will make attempts to improve the roster and anticipate changes due to retirement and free agency. Again, we can get into all that in the months ahead. For now I hope to see the Lions finish what has been a disappointing season on a positive note with some wins and momentum heading into 2013.
I have been a die hard Lions fan since 1991. I played football in high school and began a college playing career at Wayne State before hanging up the cleats. I will try to provide a perspective on my favorite NFL team as the season progresses for the Patch.