The game was in his hands, and then it wasn’t.
And as initiations go, it’s hard to imagine one being any quicker — or crueler — for a Detroit Lions rookie.
D’Andre Swift dropped a would-be touchdown at the goal line Sunday at Ford Field, all but sealing the Lions’ fate as they let another game slip away to start a season.
This time it was a 17-point fourth-quarter lead that Matt Patricia’s team coughed up to the Chicago Bears in the home opener, an eerily awful reprisal of last year’s road debut when Lions settled for a tie after blowing an 18-point lead.
But Sunday’s 27-23 loss figures to be even harder to shake, for young and old alike.
Not just because it came at home against a division rival. (Lions coach Matt Patricia’s now 2-11 in his tenure against NFC North opponents, by the way.)
Or because it’ll be followed by a trip to Lambeau Field, which remains a house of horrors for this franchise. (You remember last year’s Monday night debacle, right?)
Or because the Lions’ secondary finished this game against the Bears and their beleaguered quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, missing three of its top four cornerbacks due to a hat trick of hamstring injuries. (There’s a reason Trubisky suddenly looked like Aaron Rodgers in the fourth quarter Sunday, folks.)
Cranial crunch time
No, the challenge here will be as much mental as it is physical this week. And for Patricia and his staff — and the veteran leaders in the Lions’ locker room — the concern now is that everything new becomes old again.
That’s what tends to happen with this football team, at seemingly every turn. And that’s why Patricia, who has been around long enough to create his own curses here, made sure he sought out the Lions’ rookie second-round pick as they left the field Sunday afternoon
“I put my arm around him, as soon as we got to the tunnel, and told him he’s a great player,” Patricia said of Swift, the second-round pick who actually had the most snaps (34) of any of the Lions’ running backs in the opener. “The game’s not on him. It’s on me. It’s on the bad execution and bad plays we had toward the end of the game, and the bad coaching. We all had opportunities to do a better job, and we know we’ve got to do that going forward.”
Knowing and doing are two very different things, of course. To wit: The Lions know they can’t keep giving away games, but they keep finding ways to do just that. That’s now 11 blown fourth-quarter leads in 33 games during Patricia’s tenure as head coach, which is a .333 average that won’t get you anywhere near the Hall of Fame. In the NFL, it usually gets you fired, unless you’re in Detroit.
It’s actually eight fourth-quarter flops in the last 17 games for the Lions, if you’re keeping track. And you’ll have to forgive the newest member of the team — a guy who is headed to the Hall of Fame, Adrian Peterson — for saying the quiet part out loud Sunday.
Asked to describe the postgame mood in the locker room, he admitted, “You could feel the sense of ‘God, how did we lose that one?’”
But Peterson, who rushed for 93 yards on 14 carries against the Bears a week after signing with Detroit, insisted he also felt a positive energy there. And it’s part of the message he said he tried to impress upon Swift, the rookie he’s already taking under his wing.
Swift wasn’t one of a handful of players the Lions brought out to speak to the media in a series of video conference calls after the loss. And that’s understandable, I suppose. The lasting image of him from this game will be of him lying facedown on the turf with his fists balled up in a sign of despair after a perfect throw from Matthew Stafford inexplicably fell incomplete.
“He’s pretty upset right now,” Peterson said. “But I just pulled him to the side and said, ‘Hey, it’s all about how you respond to this. Don’t let this get you down.’ I can imagine, in this situation, how he must feel, you know? But at the end of the day, what he showed me today is that he’s gonna be able to help us. He’s gonna win games for us. So keep your head up, man. We’ve got 15 more. It’s a long season.”
But it’ll be an interminable one if they can’t clean up all the “bad football,” as Patricia likes to call it. And soon. Because the painful truth everyone kept pointing to as they deflected blame away from Swift and the game’s penultimate play, is just how many different ways the Lions teamed up to lose this one in the end.
Take the sack Stafford took on second-and-8 from the Chicago 33, a brutal decision that probably took points off the board with 5½ minutes to go.
“Yeah, I definitely wish I’d have thrown it away,” said Stafford, who clearly felt the absence of top target Kenny Golladay as the Bears put a lid on the Lions’ play-action passing game Sunday.
That sack — the only one Stafford took all day — was soon followed by Patricia’s decision to have Matt Prater try a 55-yard field goal to make it a 13-point lead, rather than send out the punt team to pin the Bears deep in their own territory. Prater missed, the Bears took over at their own 45, and five plays later, Trubisky found tight end Javon Wims in the end zone on first-and-goal from the 1, to pull Chicago within a field goal.
And it was on the ensuring series that the Lions made arguably their costliest mistake. After a pair of conservative play-calls — I-formation handoffs to Peterson that forced the Bears to take two timeouts — Detroit was faced with third-and-5 from its own 30 with 2:45 left.
Stafford figured he’d have an outlet in Danny Amendola, who was lined up in the slot. But his route got blown up at the line of scrimmage by the Bears’ Khalil Mack. So Stafford then looked over the middle and rifled a pass to Marvin Jones, who had rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson trailing in coverage but also had a safety, Eddie Jackson, breaking hard on the ball. A deflection popped in the air, the Bears’ Will Fuller snagged it, and if there’d been any fans in the building, the chorus of boos would’ve been deafening.
“Wish I could have it back,” Stafford said later, again stating the obvious.
As it was, all you could hear was the whooping and hollering on the visitors’ sideline, as a team that should’ve been warming up the bus — the win probability charts had the Lions at 96.8 percent before Stafford took that fourth-quarter sack — suddenly realized the wheels had come off for Detroit.
Peterson, for his part, even went back to the first half as he added up all the missed opportunities Sunday. He lamented a third-and-1 carry he failed to convert to start the second quarter, or the cut he didn’t make on his first big run of the day on the drive before that.
“If I pressed the safety and crossed his face to the right, it’s seven points instead of settling for a field goal,” he said. “And then it’s a different game when the ball gets batted and they get the interception and go in and score. It’s a tie ballgame, you know? So it’s the little things like that that we have to be critical about that kind of get forgotten. You only remember what happens toward the end of the game.”
Surely, that’s what Swift is thinking about now, rather than his first career NFL touchdown — a confidence boost, for sure — or the other “heads-up” plays he made Sunday, according to Peterson. But that’s also why the message was repeated more than once in the postgame locker room.
“Do not let this bother you,” Peterson said. “Do not let this linger. Focus on the next game, which is Green Bay. And focus on, ‘When you get in that position, what are you gonna do to capitalize on it?’ That’s all that matters.”
Problem is, that’s all we’ve heard with this team for far too long. But they’re new here, both the rookie and the vet. They’ll learn.