Detroit — This is how it happens. This is how the impossible becomes possible, or even plausible.
It starts with a stumble, and then a fumble. A tough loss followed by a humbling embarrassment. One week you’re treading water, and the next you find yourself “in that sea of trash that we were in,” as Dan Campbell so eloquently put it Sunday, after he’d watched his Lions drowned like kittens in a 44-6 loss to the Eagles at Ford Field.
Now comes the real challenge, though. Because as bad as this was — and Sunday it “was like ‘Bad News Bears’ on some stuff,” Campbell said, as exasperated as ever — it can get much, much worse.
We know that here, don’t we? Campbell surely does, too, though admittedly he was spared much of the misery that accompanied the Lions’ infamous march to 0-16 back in 2008. The former Lions’ tight end was a part of that team, yes, but he went on injured reserve after the opening loss in Atlanta that September and spent the rest of the season rehabbing back home in Texas.
This time, there’ll be no avoiding it, though. And if Campbell didn’t fully understand the challenge he was facing when he took on this rebuilding job in Detroit, he has no choice but to tackle it now after eight straight losses to start his head coaching career.
And especially after the second humiliation in three weeks for his team, as the Lions forced just one punt Sunday — it came on the Eagles’ first possession — and didn’t score a point until the middle of the fourth quarter, when the score was 41-0 and the Eagles’ starters were relaxing on the sidelines.
“I felt like we got outcoached today and we got outplayed, across the board,” Campbell said. “And it starts with me, it really does. You don’t play that bad unless it comes from the top.”
That this game was played before the smallest crowd at Ford Field for a Lions game in more than a decade — 11 years to the Halloween day, in fact — seemed fitting. But it also should be a bit unsettling, because the apathy that is settling in with the fans is exactly what Campbell and his players have to avoid themselves from here on out.
And the longer this goes, the harder it gets, because the injuries are piling up — the Lions already have 14 players on injured reserve, including a half-dozen starters — and the answers seem to be dwindling.
“But we can’t sit here and allow those to be excuses,” safety Tracy Walker said after Sunday’s loss. “We have to fix it right now. Because, obviously, it ain’t gonna fix itself. Or we’re gonna be 0-17.”
There’s another threshold they’ve crossed, too. As they hit the midpoint of their season as the NFL’s only winless team — a scarlet “L” they’ve worn for a couple of weeks now — the specter of 0-17 isn’t just visible in the standings. It’s audible, too. The players can hear it in the persistent boos from the restless crowds, and we can hear it in their responses to the questions they know will chase them the rest of the way.
Jared Goff, the Lions’ beleaguered quarterback, didn’t want to entertain the thought Sunday. (“No, no, no,” was his response when asked if 0-17 was on his mind.) But Walker brought it up unsolicited, and the fourth-year pro didn’t flinch when asked a follow-up about whether it was a genuine fear at this point.
“That’s not a possibility in my mind,” he said. “But, I mean, I’m just saying, if we don’t fix it — if we continue with the same problems — obviously we ain’t gonna win a game. So we gotta fix it.”
But how? Campbell said he’ll spend the bye week taking stock of everything, though he’ll start with the offense, which ranks as one of the five worst in the league statistically and certainly looked like it Sunday against Philadelphia.
“Offensively, we’re very anemic,” Campbell said. “And so if you’re gonna ask me, ‘Where are you gonna look this week?’ That’s the first place I’m looking. I’m gonna look at it three times before I look anywhere else.”
Where he’ll find answers, though, is another matter altogether. The two best offensive linemen (Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker) aren’t coming back. The presumptive No. 1 receiver (Tyrell Williams) remains in concussion protocol. And with defenses focusing all their attention on D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson, Goff’s options are limited, especially when the Lions fall behind early as they did again Sunday, trailing 17-0 at halftime. (That, by the way, was the fifth scoreless half of football for Detroit in eight games.)
Still, they’ll have to find something, and soon. Because this is when human nature starts to kick in, and a losing streak begins to take on a life of its own.
In case you’d lost track, this was the Lions’ 12th consecutive defeat dating to early last December. And while that’s still a long way off from an NFL record (Tampa Bay lost its first 26 games as an expansion team in 1975-76) or even a franchise mark (the Lions lost 19 in a row from late in 2007 to the start of the ’09 season), it’s enough to make you wonder, isn’t it?
Prior to Sunday’s loss, Las Vegas bookmakers listed the odds of the Lions going winless at 7-1, and that’s only going to drop from here unless Campbell and his team find a way to take it off the board completely.
But if not now, when? That’s a question Lions fans will start asking, because this was a game many of them — and most of us in the media — had circled as a date to forget that skid once and for all.
The next two games after the Lions’ bye are both on the road — at Cleveland and at Pittsburgh — and then comes arguably the best bet for a breakthrough, as the Lions host the Bears on Thanksgiving. Other than that, you’re probably banking on a road win at Denver or Atlanta or Seattle — the other three teams on the remaining schedule currently sporting losing records.
It’s up to everyone
Problem is, the law of diminishing returns definitely applies here. We saw that with the 2008 Lions, who got to a point late in that season where teams were openly laughing at their ineptitude on the field and veteran players weren’t the only ones making business decisions on a weekly basis.
This isn’t that yet, obviously. And given the circumstances — with a new front-office regime in place and anew coaching staff calling the shots — it’s unlikely to ever get that bad. But while Campbell pins the blame on his chest and insists it’s up to the coaches to find a way out of this deep eddy they’re in now, Walker’s right, too.
“Let me just say it like this,” he said Sunday, “The coaches, they can make the gameplan and they can sit here and draw up as many plays as they want. But they can’t throw that playbook out there to go make those plays.”
No, the players will have to do that. And with the Lions halfway to a place in history where no one in this town wants to go again, the clock is officially ticking.