There is not much doubting that the Detroit Lions have taken a step back this year. The biggest problem is that they actually over achieved last year in their 10-6 season. It appears the front office believed their own hype and failed to make moves in the offseason in order to improve this team.
While one would assume that Coach Jim Schwartz has some say in player moves, in the end Martin Mayhew has the final call. As was discussed earlier this season, Mayhew's draft failures and lack of vision have hampered this team.
Between drafting busts, reaching for players or just failing to draft for need, Mayhew has consistently hurt the teams by his choices. This year he drafted Riley Reiff and Ryan Broyles, both offensive players.
This came on the heels of giving up 480 yards to a backup quarterback to end the regular season and another 466 in their first-round playoff loss. There were cornerbacks available that could have stepped in a help the secondary immediately, but they failed to draft any early.
Reiff and Broyles may end up being decent picks, but one would expect that at least your first-round pick would start right away and ideally your second as well. Neither of these players were able to start until injuries gave them an opening. This is a team that needed help right away, not depth players.
Instead, over the past couple of years, the team has drafted busts and mediocre players. Titus Young has twice been suspended from the team for his behavior. Brandon Pettigrew is an average tight end who cannot seem to hold on to the football, yet the team wasted a first-round pick on him. Jahvid Best had a known concussion history, yet the team still blew a first-round pick on him.
Best may never play football again, and because of the pick they wasted on him, they needed to turn around the next season and use a second-round pick on another running back, Mikel Leshoure. That was a pick they should have been able to use to fill another need. Instead they find themselves constantly have to draft to correct their mistakes.
Successful teams are able to find mid- to late-round picks that make solid contributions to the team. Sammie Hill is the only such player that they have drafted. In addition they have not been able to make a big splash in the free-agent market.
The team came out of a decade long slump to make the playoffs last season. While that was great, there were holes that the team greatly needed to fill. Four times they were able to come back from deficits of 17 points or more. While that is great to see a team never give up, it does show some serious issues on the team.
This year they have continued to fall into deep holes in the first half of games but have not had the luck to fight their way out. This is due, in part, to not addressing obvious needs in the offseason.
Jim Schwartz brought a lot of confidence into his role as the Lions coach. After years of questionable coaches, fans thought they finally had the right one. While Mayhew has not done the best in giving him all the tools he needs, looking back at Schwartz’s moves, he may not be able to use them right anyway.
Now it is no secret that many football players are not choir boys. The league makes regular appearances on the police blotter, and every team has players in trouble. The Lions have gone overboard in this area. Entering this season multiple players kept getting into trouble, to the point that you have to question the discipline and leadership of the team.
Last season Schwartz had a major overreaction to Jim Harbaugh’s postgame handshake. At the time it was written off by many as being caught up in the moment, but that attitude spreads to the team. Last year they took were the third-worst team in the league with 7.9 penalties a game; this year they are only slightly better with 7.0 per game.
The penalties are not the worst of the on-field issues. Ndamukong Suh is a walking time bomb. In his short career, he has quickly gained the reputation as a dirty player. Even the most ardent Lions fan has to question his repeated offenses.
At some point the coach must call him out for his actions, sadly nothing has happened and yet again we have a question incident with Suh during the Texans game. It seems as though the team lacks control.
The best thing in favor of Mayhew and Schwartz has been that they are not Matt Millen. After years of complete ineptitude under Millen, anything would have been an improvement. While it doesn’t take much to improve and 0-16 team, they were able to return the team to the playoffs despite a flawed team.
They have reached the end of the “at least they are not Millen” period.
The Thanksgiving Day game may have been the last free pass Schwartz has with the team. While there were several times that the team could have won the game and blew it, two of the biggest gaffes came on Schwartz’s blown calls.
By now everyone has seen the video of Justin Forsett’s bad touchdown call. The refs blew the call by not blowing the whistle on the play when it was painfully obvious he was down. Regardless, since it was a scoring play, it was automatically reviewable.
Schwartz let his emotions get the best of him and threw the red flag. This meant a 15-yard penalty on the Lions and the play is no longer reviewable. An obvious play that would have been over turned ends up standing as a touchdown.
While not reviewing that play may be the dumbest rule in sports, it still does not excuse Schwartz. He gifted the Texans a touchdown which cut into the team’s 10-point lead. While many were unaware of this rule, a similar incident just happened last week. Atlanta Coach Mike Smith threw a flag on a questionable turnover which made it unreviewable. The league warned other teams about the rule, so it should have been fresh on Schwartz’s mind.
The second error happened during overtime. On 3rd-and-long he elected to go for the field goal. While this is not uncommon to go for a winning kick on third down, the problem was the distance. Sure Jason Hanson is the best distance field-goal kicker in league history, but why chance it? Even for Hanson a 47-yard attempt is not a gimme.
Many coaches kick on third in order to avoid a bad snap costing them. At the distance they were at, a sack may have taken them out of field-goal range. If that were to happen, then they could play the field position game and pin the Texans deep in their zone on a punt.
Instead of trying to get few yards closer, Schwartz had Hanson kick the field goal. He hit the upright and missed, allowing the Texans to come back and win the game.
The team has fallen behind in all but two games this year, and based on last year’s series of comebacks, this is a long term problem that the coach has not overcome. Another issue is player movement.
Suh has not been as dominant since his rookie year. While some of the blame falls on him, a coach needs to put him in position to succeed. Just look at how the Giants use Jason Pierre-Paul. He is constantly moving up and down the line forcing the offensive line to react rather than control the situation.
At this point the team will not rebound to make the playoffs, so there is no benefit of an in-season firing. Mayhew should not get another chance to mess up another draft and needs to be let go as soon as the season is finished. Schwartz is on the bubble, and he has the final five games to prove that he can not only handle the team but himself as well.
It does appear time to move on. Mayhew and Schwartz have been stepping stones in the journey of progress, but they do not appear to be the ones who can take the Lions all the way to a championship.
PJ Sapienza is a featured columnist covering the Detroit Red Wings as well as many other sports.
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