I’m pointing the finger at Detroit Lions players, not coaches, for their struggles

Detroit Free Press

Michael Brockers said it best.

After his team was humiliated, dragged around Ford Field by the hair in Sunday’s 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Detroit Lions defensive lineman spoke these words: “The coaches can’t want it more than the players. We have to want it more than the coaches.”

He’s absolutely right. Anything the Lions want to do must come from the players.

After Brockers said this, I thought back to last week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams and all the promise the Lions showed, even in defeat. Then it dawned on me. Yes, the players executed the plan in L.A., but it was the coaches who made the difference, with their brilliant plan.

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But coaches — and I don’t care if you have Bill Belichick, Don Shula and Vince Lombardi on the same headset — can’t be the saviors for a team. Players have to take ownership of their mistakes and shortcomings. Guidance from coaches is one thing. But leadership and motivation has to come from players themselves.

And let me be clear: I don’t care that the Lions are 0-8. I don’t care about a victory, because winning isn’t what this season is about for the Lions. It’s about improvement. In L.A., the Lions showed a lot. At Ford Field on Sunday, they looked like a team regressing in a game that was over before the fourth quarter.

After every game, reporters speak with coach Dan Campbell. With the frequent emotional outpouring, it sometimes feels like a therapy session. Campbell always says the right things. He always takes the brunt of the blame. When he isn’t squeezing the life out of the lectern, he likes to take one of his fingers and point it at himself.

“Starts with me,” Campbell said. “It really does. You don’t play that bad with a number of guys in areas, and turn the ball over and penalties, and it’s the low energy, and it’s just — you don’t do that unless that comes from the top.

“So that’s on me. I did not set the tone or the tempo properly, obviously, because that was bad. That was bad. We didn’t even give ourselves a chance.”

It’s hard to quantify how much blame Campbell and his staff deserve for inadequately preparing the Lions. Having two penalties called for too many men on the field, and another one for illegal formation, are mental errors that signal a disconnect between coaches and players.

But having been around Campbell, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, running backs coach Duce Staley and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, I’m just going to take a wild guess — I doubt their intensity dropped much from the previous week.

Something always changes week to week, but nothing changes so much that it alone leads to this kind of lopsided loss.

So I’m going to take Campbell’s finger and point it at the players. And that’s where it needs to stay. Campbell was hardly perfect, but he and his coaching staff have done enough to make the Lions competitive despite all the injuries this already-thin roster has suffered.

The good thing is that all the players who spoke after the loss accepted blame and owned the team’s poor performance.

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Quarterback Jared Goff, who struggled to make faster decisions and get rid of the ball while taking five sacks, accepted that much of the blame would fall on him.

“At times,” he said, “I’m going to bear the brunt of a lot of this, and that’s my job.”

Tight end T.J. Hockenson was the only productive player on offense, with 10 catches on 11 targets for 89 yards. But on one play, he also stepped on right tackle Matt Nelson’s foot, which led to a sack, and on another in the second quarter, took a false-start penalty near midfield that helped kill a drive.

“I put a lot of that on me, on myself,” Hockenson said of the offense’s stalled drives, “in just trying to improve and get guys going and keep moving the ball.”

Campbell singled out safety Tracy Walker for his continued effort late into the game, even when it was out of reach. Walker, who wears No. 21, made a sort of vow to himself and his teammates after the defense allowed 236 rushing yards and had no answer for previously struggling Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.

“I personally feel that we are going to do better and we are going to pick this up in the second half,” he said. “That’s my goal. That’s what I am going to demand and, like I said for me and my perspective, you’re going to get a better me. I promise you a better 21 will be out there and, like I said, I will help lead these guys to be better.”

If nothing else, the Lions’ leaders understand their predicament, and they’re saying the right things. The next step is doing the right things, because Sunday’s debacle shouldn’t have happened. The problems were largely of their own doing and led to them taking a step back while — literally — tripping over their own feet.

I can’t tell you when the Lions will win their first game. But I can tell you that if this team wants to progress in the coming weeks, the players must take the initiative. With any luck, they won’t trip over themselves in the process.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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