Niyo: No gains, more pain — Lions ready for another regime change

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

When it’s this bad, and getting worse, you can point to just about any moment and frame it as a fireable offense. For most Lions fans, it happens once or twice every week, at least.

But here was another Thursday, in the fourth quarter of what could be — though I do have my doubts it actually will be — Matt Patricia’s final game as the Lions’ head coach.

Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day game was slipping out of reach again, the way far too many games have for Patricia’s teams over the last three seasons. And facing fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line with barely 10 minutes to play, the Lions — already doubled up by the 3-7 Houston Texans on the scoreboard — had no choice but to go for it.

The call was for a quick handoff to fullback Jason Cabinda, who was met in the backfield by Texans cornerback John Reid. And though Cabinda’s legs kept driving, the play was dead on arrival, telegraphed before the snap — a fullback dive? — and stopped for no gain. A few Lions players half-heartedly motioned as if it was enough to extend the drive, but in an empty Ford Field — a setting that allowed a national-TV audience to listen in on the laugh track that is the Lions on Thursday — you could actually hear one of the Texans’ defenders yell, “Get off the field!”

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Secondary shredded like wheat, no answers for Texans’ attack

And so they did, the offense glumly marching to the sidelines, well aware of what would happen next. Houston’s first play from scrimmage was a flea-flicker — Dagger Time,” remember? — and the Texans’ Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson found Will Fuller streaking down the sideline for an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown.

Game over. Season over. And up in the owners’ suite, where Sheila Ford Hamp sat — her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, was also in attendance Thursday — there can be no doubt now. No equivocating about what happens next, perhaps as soon as this weekend, though the harsh reality of a pandemic may play a role in the timing of any such decisions.

It’s past time to admit the franchise’s staggered shift toward this so-called Patriot Way has reached a stultifying conclusion: It hasn’t worked, and it won’t, no matter how hard general manager Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia have tried to reshape this franchise to match their own vision.

More: Turnovers tip Lions’ Thanksgiving game into the tub of holiday horrors

Because what we’ve seen on the field over the last few years was summed up in that one fateful play among many Thursday: Lots of churning, yes, but no progress and no hope.

Banality in defeat

Patricia will never admit that, publicly or privately. And he certainly wasn’t about to in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s loss, this third in three tries on the Ford family’s treasured holiday. Instead, he offered up the same platitudes he always does after a loss, talking about perseverance and hard work.

“We’ve got to just keep pushing,” Patricia said. “There’s never an easy fix. it’s never a magic wand. it’s hard work, that’s what it is.”

He declined to weigh on speculation about his job security, two games past the midway point of a five-year contract he signed in early 2018. (Quinn’s matching contract extension also runs through 2022.) He also refused to bite when asked whether he thought he’ll still be coaching this team 10 days from now against the division-rival Bears in Chicago.

“My focus every day is on the guys in that locker room and working as hard as I can to help those guys be successful,” he said. “So it’s really not outside of that. I don’t think outside of that, I don’t worry outside of that, other than just trying to do the best job I can to help everybody be successful and try to get our team going.”

But this is going nowhere, and with the NFL stage all to themselves, everyone could see that Thursday, as the Texans — a team that already fired its GM and coach six weeks ago — handed the Lions their fourth consecutive Thanksgiving loss and their most lopsided in this showcase since 2010.

Watson carved up the Lions’ depleted secondary, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, while Houston — a team that had forced just five turnovers all season — had three takeaways in a span of eight plays midway through the first half to seize control.

“Too many mistakes, that’s what’s going to do you in,” said quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose third pick-6 of the season — J.J. Watt snared a screen-pass and rumbled 19 yards for the score — was only the first sign of trouble in this one.

But as bad as that looked, it can always get worse. Lions fans know that. So do the Fords, who’ve seen just one playoff win in 63 years and counting.

And even before Thursday’s nationally televised humiliation, Stafford was reminding everyone of exactly that. He brushed himself off after last week’s shutout loss in Carolina and noted, “Believe me, I got here in 2009, and from where we were then to where we are now, we’re a better organization, a better football team, more talented.”

That should go without saying, though, right? But from where they were three years ago, that’s an impossible argument to make today, though I’m sure it’s one Quinn and Patricia have been making week after week in their discussions with ownership.

Dull December

But all the hard work aside, the hard truth is there won’t be any “meaningful games in December” this season. And what we’ve seen even falls short of Hamp’s early-summer addendum, when she said, “Believe me, major improvement is a goal.” Only a true believer in this regime would argue that goal is still within reach here.

At some point, we’ll find out what the new owner really thinks, and what you should believe about where this organization is really headed.

Maybe the pandemic makes an in-season firing ill-advised, given all the protocols in place and the Lions’ success thus far in following them. But there is some precedent here, for what it’s worth.

It was 15 years ago this week that the Lions lost a Thanksgiving Day game to fall to 4-7, the team’s fourth loss in five games that season — the last three of those by double-digit margins. That led to Steve Mariucci’s dismissal as head coach over the holiday weekend, as then-president Matt Millen pulled the plug on Mariucci’s tenure after 43 games and only 15 victories.

Now the wait is on to see if, or when, Hamp will make a similar move, barely five months after officially taking the reins as the Lions’ principal owner.

Patricia’s record today — 13-29-1 — is worse than Mariucci’s was at this point. In fact, his winning percentage (.314) is worse than all but two other coaches in Lions history — Rod Marinelli (.208) and Darryl Rogers (.310) — with more than two seasons on the job.

Heck, even Jim Schwartz, who took over as head coach following that infamous 0-16 season in 2008, was 15-28 at this point in his tenure, coaching a team that was bound for the playoffs in Year 3 — Stafford’s first injury-free season.

The Lions are headed nowhere, as we’ve been reminded time and again this fall. And entering the final month of Patricia’s third season at the helm in Detroit, that’s the inexcusable and inescapable truth.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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