The Lions were nursing a slim lead late in the football game. They held the ball and needed to only eat some more clock before relinquishing the pigskin with a punt deep into their opponent’s territory.
They do that, and victory would almost certainly be theirs.
Suddenly, the addled quarterback faded back to pass.
“What is he doing?” the Lions’ Hall of Fame linebacker asked on the sideline as he watched in horror as the play unfolded. “Why is he passing now?”
The pass on the muddy field in Green Bay was intercepted. After a long return and a few obligatory running plays, the Packers’ Paul Hornung kicked a chip shot field goal and the Lions, victory once so close, let the game slip through their hands.
That was the scene in Green Bay in October, 1962, when the Lions lost a gut-wrencher that effectively killed their Western Division title hopes. The loss divided the offense and the defense. Defensive tackle Alex Karras, in a blind rage, threw his helmet at QB Milt Plum’s head in the locker room afterward. Joe Schmidt, the aforementioned Hall of Fame linebacker, was angry and confused.
The talented Lions, playing their hearts out in Green Bay, were clotheslined by their own coaching staff. Everyone knew a running play was in order, not a pass.
Fast forward 48 years and some change later. The situation was eerily similar.
Center Dominic Raiola struggled to find the words to describe what happened on the Ford Field playing surface in the latter stages of the fourth quarter and overtime of Sunday’s poisonous 23-20 loss to the New York Jets.
“This is,” Raiola finally said, “the worst loss I’ve ever experienced here.”
Raiola has been a Lion for 10 years now. The team’s record since his arrival from college is a ghastly 35-117. So when Raiola says Sunday’s loss to the Jets was his worst ever as a Lion, that’s like a TV critic calling William Shatner’s latest performance the worst he’s ever seen from Captain Kirk.
But who can blame Dominic?
The Lions and their fan base have complained about the officials conspiring against them. They’ve had their wind sucked out of them because of injuries. They’ve cursed themselves for taking a gun out and firing it at their foot, repeatedly.
They shouldn’t have to worry about their own coaches placing the gun in their hands.
The Lions were robbed yesterday, only it was an inside job. Friendly fire got them.
The Jets didn’t beat the Lions Sunday. This game was embezzled from them, from within. The coaching staff cooked the books and left the team winless.
Head coach Jim Schwartz ought to be arraigned this morning, not giving a press conference. He took a football game from his team that they fought like mad to grab. The Lions were sitting on the brink of respectability, until Schwartz pushed them off the cliff.
How else to explain it? How else to atone for what happened at Ford Field, when the Lions had the football, their opponents sans timeouts, and an easy way to bite off 40 seconds or so from the game clock?
How else to explain the goofball decision to try a bootleg pass on a 3rd-and-five with a third string quarterback who hadn’t played until the last few minutes? How else to explain why you would try a pass instead of a run? How else to explain why you’d be so gracious as to stop the clock for your guests?
The Lions shouldn’t have tried that pass in Green Bay 48 years ago, and they shouldn’t have tried it yesterday.
Maybe with Matthew Stafford in the game, you might entertain thoughts of a pass in that situation; after all, a first down would have effectively sealed the Lions’ win. But with the less-than-accurate Drew Stanton—and that’s when he’s been playing all afternoon—behind center, it’s Football 101 to hand the ball off and consume clock.
Or, at least I would have thought so.
You know what happened. Stanton’s clumsy rollout and badly thrown pass fell incomplete, and the clock stopped cold, like a bad heart.
1:54 remained when the Lions lined up for a punt. The clock should have had at least 40 seconds shaved off that total when Nick Harris took the snap.
As it was, the Jets got the football back with 1:43 left, instead of the sub-1:00 that should have been remaining.
Sure enough, Jets QB Mark Sanchez took advantage of the extra time and led his team to a tying field goal at the end of regulation.
The Jets won the coin toss and marched forthwith to the game-winning field goal.
And that’s why the Jets are going to the playoffs and the Lions are among the NFL’s dregs.
This one hurts bad, maybe more than all the other losses this season. Heck, maybe Raiola is right; maybe this is the worst loss since 2001.
Where do you want me to start?
The Lions were looking at a 3-5 record, and three wins in their last four games, including three straight at home. They were looking at 3-5 with the usually woeful Buffalo Bills and newly-woeful Dallas Cowboys next on their schedule. They were looking at, perhaps, 5-5 when the fans reconvened at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day.
How would that have been, huh?
The Lions would have, finally, beaten an elite team, one that folks are pumping for the Super Bowl. They would have gotten people talking about their resurgence. The players would have gained untold confidence.
The North Division would have been back in play. The Packers are 6-3, but a 3-5 record doesn’t put you that far out of the hunt, for either the division or for a Wild Card spot.
The second half of the season would have been as interesting as it’s ever been around here in years, if not the most interesting since B.M.—Before Millen.
Instead, the Lions are a yawn-inducing 2-6 with nothing to play for—again.
There’s oh-so-much difference between being 3-5 and 2-6 in the NFL.
Schwartz admitted he blew it. He’s pleading guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion, which isn’t likely to be too receptive to his confession.
Schwartz is every bit as culpable for Sunday’s loss as the NFL rulebook was for what happened to the Lions in Chicago in Week 1.
But this is worse. The Lions were backstabbed by their own coach.
Schwartz, in trying to describe what happened during the two-minute warning timeout, told the media that he didn’t do a good enough job impressing upon Stanton how OK it would have been to even take a sack, rather than throw an interception or incompletion.
Again, with Stafford in the game (he went down with another shoulder injury minutes earlier), Schwartz likely wouldn’t have had any concerns impressing the circumstances upon his franchise QB. Stafford gets it.
Remember, this is the young man who scrambled off the ground last year against Cleveland and ran back into the game, his left shoulder on fire, because he knew the rules: the Browns called timeout so Stafford could re-enter the game instead of missing one play due to injury.
But even with Stafford in the game, a run would have been the correct call, because it was the safest call. Some have already publicly defended Schwartz’s “aggressiveness” (i.e. MLive’s Tom Kowalski, for one), going so far as to say it was refreshing to see a coach depart from the norm.
To those folks I say, how “refreshing” does 2-6 look this morning?
Sometimes the play-it-safe way of coaching in the NFL is the surest path to victory. And I’m sorry, but at the end of the year coaches are judged by wins and losses, not by how aggressive they are.
Jim Schwartz went FUBAR on the Lions at the worst possible time.
They sit this morning in the NFC North basement, 2-6 with their hearts ripped out.
Add the coach to the growing list of their antagonists.