Don’t blame Detroit Lions fans for booing — at least when the offense is on the field

Detroit Free Press

The defense played well. No, really, it did — for a half, anyway, though even saying that feels like unfairly dumping on the part of the team that competed Sunday afternoon at Ford Field.

Don’t let the final 34-11 score fool you. The Detroit Lions held the Bengals to 10 points in the first half and if not for a third-down bomb with less than a minute to play they would’ve held them to seven.

So, there is that. There was also the play of a couple rookies — Alim McNeill and Derrick Barnes — who look like keepers at defensive line and linebacker, respectively.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn bless his heart, has spread a little magic dust on his guys. They know the offense won’t score much. They know the team is winless. They know they season, practically speaking, is finished.

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It’s about self-scouting at this point, about compiling tape for a later date. Oh, it’s about pride, too, which is partly where Glenn comes in; he deserves credit for the effort —and performance — we saw in the first half.

They were dug in and focused, relentless even, keeping the Lions in the game for the fourth week in a row. Still, Glenn is no miracleworker. He’s a coordinator. A promising one, yes.

But what is he supposed to do about the other half of the locker room? What is coach Dan Campbell supposed to do?

“When you get whipped like that — that’s on me,” he said.

It’s a nice sentiment. One his players appreciate. Though the Lions’ coach said he took it to his guys in the locker room after the game.

He was bummed, in himself, in his players. He’s right that it’s his job to fix it, to make sure they don’t lose focus again.

And yet that’s the easier part of his job. For how is supposed to help fix Jared Goff?

How is he supposed to help him believe in himself? And see the field? Or hit receivers when he does see them?

Back-to-back plays in the first half — when the Lions were still close —depressingly illustrated the quarterback’s limitations.

First, on third-and-long, Goff failed to connect with T.J. Hockenson running freely up the right sideline. He juiced the throw and lofted it several yards past his hands. On the next play, Dan Campbell went for it — of course he did. Goff dropped back, looked left and missed D’Andre Swift in the right flat, as wide open as I-696 in the middle of the night.

“I have to look in the mirror,” Goff said.

It’s not all him, certainly. His receivers don’t consistently get open, and he is often under pressure. Six games in, though, it’s clear Goff isn’t good enough.

“He has to step up more than he has,” said Campbell, who was angry and disappointed with his team and his own effort Sunday.

This was the first game the Lions didn’t show focus. Human nature after several gut-punch losses?

Maybe. But fans don’t care about human nature on Sundays. And for the ones who

navigated past the closed streets downtown — hi, Detroit Free Press Marathon — to plop into a Ford Field featuing a decent amount of Bengal orange. It wasn’t quite at the level of the Matt Millen era, when Cincinnati fans took advantage of a push to boycott the Lions to take over the stadium.

Still, they booed. Early. Frequently. Relentlessly.

Not that the honeymoon is over for Campbell and the new front office. It is not. This is a savvy football town and folks here know the newest regime is just getting started.

They also know, existentially, it may not matter. Hence: Booing.

That’s how it goes when the quarterback averages less than two yards a pass in the first half. When the offense goes scoreless for a half … for the fourth time this season.

No one expected a playoff team this fall. Or even a .500 team. But with several near-wins already and an emotive Campbell — last week’s loss to the Vikings bought tears to his eyes — there was still an (oddly) hopeful standard of competitiveness  lingering at Ford Field.

The defense met the standard until it collapsed, having spent so much time on the field after so many Lions punts.

The offense?

It seems a long way from anything. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it is.

Take the Bengals, who look promising in Joe Burrow’s second season — he missed the final six games of his rookie year due to a knee injury.

Yes, Burrow was the No. 1 pick. But you can find a quarterback — most years —somewhere in the top 10. And if you hit, the team begins to ascend quickly.

Again, it’s not just Goff. The offensive line is relying on backups and the receivers are, well … plucky? Yeah, plucky, especially Kalif Raymond, whose earnest toughness and spirit are admirable and helpful. If he ever finds himself in an offense where he is the third or fourth option, look out.

So perhaps it’s not ultimately fair to judge Goff without everything else in place. Because the last time he had everything, he was in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Rams, beating the Seattle Seahawks on the road.

Even then, though, he missed too many receivers. Just as he missed seeing them Sunday afternoon, again and again.

It’s not likely to change soon, either, which means the defense will keep keeping the Lions in games early until the time-of-possession chasm keeps wearing them down.

Credit them for trying. Credit the front office for finding a few promising pieces. Credit Campbell for accepting the “Headset of Doom,” and for carrying the burden of this inglorious franchise and trying to will it to the light.

No wonder he paces, back and forth, back and forth, pushing back his sleeves, desperate to find something, anything, to get this team in the win column.

Credit him for that, too.

Just don’t blame anyone for booing, mock-cheering or sarcastically clapping, as they did Sunday when the Lions finally scored on a field goal late in the fourth.

“I feel their frustration,” Goff said. “These fans have deserved a lot better than we’ve been giving them.”

That frustration had been building all game. It’s been building for six decades. No plucky effort is going to change that.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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