Niyo: Dan Campbell reaches his breaking point as Lions’ anemic effort prompts anger

Detroit News

Detroit — Jim Schwartz made it until December before he finally snapped. Publicly, at least.

Dan Campbell made it to mid-October before doing the same.

And if the scenarios aren’t quite the same, the emotions certainly were. The anger, the frustration, the embarrassment.

Losing is one thing. But losing like this? For a rookie head coach tasked with a massive rebuilding effort in Detroit, where the history of futility hangs in the rafters like championship banners do elsewhere, inevitably it all becomes too much in one moment.

For one game, usually. One afternoon where the big picture takes a backseat and the patience and the plan gets tossed aside in favor of plainspoken truth and exasperated spittle.

More: Wojo: For Lions to finally win a game, Jared Goff must deliver more

That’s what finally happened Sunday for Campbell after he watched his team — the only winless team left in the NFL this season — play like it was resigned to its fate.

“That was brutal,” Campbell said, his voice rising uncontrollably, at times, during an intense postgame press conference after a 34-11 drubbing by the Bengals. “We weren’t even in that fight. We weren’t even in it.”

No, they weren’t. Not at all, really, as another anemic offensive effort out of the gate Sunday gave way to a team-wide collapse against the Bengals. Cincinnati grabbed a 7-0 lead early, never trailed and scored points on every possession in the second half.

Every one, that is, except for the last one, when the Bengals took over near midfield with 2:15 remaining and began kneeling down in the victory formation up by 23 points.

That’s when Campbell felt like he needed to make a point with his players on the field, before they could retreat behind closed doors and hear what he really though. As rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “Yeah, he was mad in that locker room after the game.”

And why wouldn’t he be after this ugly display?

“It’s demoralizing when you’re under two minutes and they’re kneeling the ball and I have three timeouts, you know?” Campbell said later, explaining why he chose to stop the clock once after Brandon Allen took a knee immediately after the two-minute warning.

And why he then called another timeout with 1:53 left after Bengals coach Zac Taylor went ahead and had Allen hand off to Trayveon Williams, Cincinnati’s third-string running back, for a 4-yard gain on third-and-5. Only after Williams picked up another first down with a 2-yard run on fourth-and-1 did Campbell finally concede.

“Yeah, I mean, that was it,” he said. “It wasn’t over.”

But it was, and everyone knew it, including the Lions’ head coach, who’d showed a completely different sort of emotions a week ago when he choked back tears following another record-setting, last-second defeat at Minnesota.

Sunday’s outburst instead was reminiscent of Schwartz’s first season with the Lions, who were coming off that infamous 0-16 debacle in 2008 and starting over in almost every way.

That 2009 team managed to get a win in late September to end a 19-game losing streak, and then another just before Thanksgiving when Matthew Stafford beat the Browns with a separated shoulder. But a few weeks later — a week after Stafford’s season was ended by injury in Cincinnati, no less — Schwartz’s team was getting clowned in his hometown of Baltimore.

And late in the third quarter of that 48-3 loss, with the Ravens running roughshod over his team, Schwartz called a timeout to huddle his defense on the sideline and issue an ultimatum.

“I called the team over to let ’em know how upset I was gonna be if they scored a touchdown there,” he told us that day.

Of course, the Ravens scored easily a couple plays later, and the Fox television cameras panned to a red-faced Schwartz, who looked ready to explode.

“I tried to rally ’em and see if that would make a difference,” he said. “Obviously, it didn’t.”

Now we’ll see if Campbell has any better luck. And he’d better, because unlike that ’09 flashback, there’s still nearly two-thirds of a season left to play here, starting with next weekend’s trip to Los Angeles, where the Lions will face their old friend Stafford in a reunion I think everybody would just as soon skip if they could.

Late Sunday afternoon, Goff certainly wasn’t interested in talking about that return home to face his former team. Not after this dispiriting loss, which included a loud chorus of boos for Goff and the Lions’ offense late in the fourth quarter as another mistake-filled drive appeared to stall in the red zone.

That it didn’t ultimately — D’Andre Swift punched it in from the 1-yard line for Detroit’s lone touchdown with 2:15 left — was of little consolation to Campbell, either.

When the game was still plausibly up for grabs, the Lions’ offense did next to nothing. They’d gained 51 net yards on 29 plays in the first half, and less than 100 yards through three quarters as the Bengals doubled their halftime lead to make it 20-0 heading into the fourth. A pair of 13-play scoring drives in the fourth quarter meant nothing, the way Campbell saw it.

“Everything that we did there, if you look at our stats offensively, that’s because they were just in prevent, Cover-2 (defense),” he said.

And in the wider view, nothing that this team did in the first five games really showed up in Sunday’s effort, aside from some scrappy play from Aaron Glenn’s defense — and notably from some of the younger players on that defense — in the first half.

Aside from that, well, it was a mess. Which was the message Campbell delivered in the postgame locker room, before a delayed arrival to meet with the media and talk about what he bluntly described as a “beatdown.”

He lamented all the missed assignments on offense. The tempo that was never felt, let alone sustained. And a complete inability to play complementary football from the Lions. The defense forced a turnover, the offense gave it right back. The defense got a three-and-out, the kick return team got flagged for an illegal block. Swift was open on fourth down, but Goff didn’t see him and threw incomplete the other way.

And even when Goff did get it right in this one, which wasn’t nearly often enough, his receivers appeared to get it wrong. As Campbell put it, “He can’t even trust where the hell they’re supposed to be at.”

So, yes, this felt like the breaking point most of us figured was coming eventually. We just didn’t know when or where. Sunday, we got our answer.

“The focus wasn’t there,” Campbell said. “And I told the team this: I’m gonna look at everything, that’s my job. But when you get whipped like that, that’s on me. There’s no other way around that. Of course we’ll look at everything. But that’s a reflection on me. That’s a reflection on me. You don’t play like that. We don’t have a team that is … That team is not 30-something points better than us. There’s no way.”

But where there’s a team like the Lions, there’s always a way. And it’s up to the head coach to find a way out of it. If Dan Campbell didn’t truly understand what that meant before, he surely does now.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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