Detroit Lions’ gross tie proves (again) they should have traded Matthew Stafford to Panthers

Detroit Free Press

Six thoughts on the Detroit Lions’ 16-16 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, one for each possession change in Sunday’s tough-to-watch overtime:

Avoiding infamy?

The Lions will not be the first NFL team to go 0-17. Not this year, at least. But they are not quite out of the woods of infamy yet.

As bad as going 0-16 was in 2008, going 0-16-1 this year would be even more comical, which might make it worse.

Ties are gross. No one likes them. Not for Christmas presents and not in football games. They leave everyone unfulfilled, especially when the game devolves into whatever the hell happened in overtime of Sunday.

JEFF SEIDEL: Lions ultimately can’t be upset with tie with Steelers. At least they didn’t lose

But the Lions (0-8-1) are still winless and that is the scarlet letter in the NFL. If you go 0-for-a-season, you go down as one of the worst teams in NFL history, regardless of whether you tied a game or not.

I’m on record as saying I think the Lions win a game or two down the stretch and I still think that will be the case as long as Jared Goff is healthy. But aside from what they mean for tie-breaking purposes in the standings and the draft order, I align with D’Andre Swift and Penei Sewell in feeling like a tie isn’t a win so might as well be a loss.

‘Draw’ your own conclusions

One more thing on ties: I’ve heard a lot of people calling for the NFL to do away with them in the past 24 hours. Really?

LIONS GRADES: D’Andre Swift, OL get high marks in tie with Steelers

Putting aside the player health aspect of allowing extra overtime periods, Sunday’s game is the perfect example of why ties should remain in the regular season. Neither the Lions nor the Steelers deserved to win that abomination of a game, and if you did anything other snicker at the final few poorly-played minutes, you’re probably a monster.

If you ain’t first, you’re last

Three key dates to keep in mind going forward: Nov. 28, Dec. 19 and Dec. 26.

If you’ve had your fill of Lions football this season, consider these next eight weeks like a Tournament of Suck, with those dates being round-robin games to see who, if anyone, will push the Lions for the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The Houston Texans (1-8) host the New York Jets (2-7) on Nov. 28. The Texans visit the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7) on Dec. 19. And the Jaguars and Jets meet in New York the day after Christmas.

None of that will matter if the Lions don’t win a game; no one can pass them for the No. 1 pick if they lose out. But if the Lions beat the Baker Mayfield-less Cleveland Browns this week or the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving — or God forbid if they tie another game this year — those games will take on important meaning.

STOCK WATCH: Are Anthony Lynn’s days numbered as offensive coordinator?

I’d handicap the race for the No. 1 pick as such: The Lions (51%), the Texans (23%), the Jets (15%), the Jaguars (11%).

The great ‘what if’

This thought has crossed my mind a few times in recent weeks, but it’s hard not to wonder how the NFL landscape would be different right now if the Lions had done what was best for the franchise and traded Matthew Stafford to the Carolina Panthers last spring.

For those who don’t remember, the Panthers offered the Lions their first-round pick in April’s draft, No. 8 overall, plus a fifth-rounder and veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for Stafford. Lions GM Brad Holmes turned down that offer in favor of one from the Los Angeles Rams that included 2022-23 first-round picks, a 2021 third-rounder and Jared Goff.

[ Dan Campbell sticks with Jared Goff: ‘Gives us the best chance’ ]

The deals were comparable, but many around the NFL believe the Lions took the LA offer partly out of deference to Stafford and his family, who preferred badly to go to LA.

I wrote at the time I thought the Lions should have taken Carolina’s deal — it was better to land a top-tier talent at 8, I reasoned, than two lesser players with the Rams’ likely late-first-round picks — and in my mind that remains clearly the better of the two options (albeit with the benefit of hindsight).

Goff has been a disaster in Detroit, while Bridgewater at least has the Broncos 5-5 and in the playoff hunt. The Lions used the third-round pick they acquired from the Rams for cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu, who has barely played this season because of injury. And the Lions are still in need of a franchise quarterback, which they could have acquired with the No. 8 pick.

Ohio State’s Justin Fields went No. 11 in the draft to the Bears and Alabama’s Mac Jones went No. 15 to the New England Patriots. While the jury remains firmly out on Fields, who beat the Lions in his starting debut back in October, Jones looks at worst like the second-best quarterback in the draft behind Trevor Lawrence. On Sunday, he threw three touchdowns passes and led the Patriots to a 45-7 curb-stomping of the Cleveland Browns.

Holmes told me the morning of the draft he believed Jones was the most NFL-ready quarterback behind Lawrence, though that clearly wasn’t enough to make him the Lions’ pick. The drawback with Jones seemed to be some combination of upside and mobility, the latter of which Campbell has said he values in his signal caller.

CARLOS MONARREZ: Lions look and sound like winners after tie with Steelers

Maybe Jones would be a bust in Detroit. This franchise tends to do that to players. But how different would you feel about the Lions’ future right now with Jones (or Fields) under center, and No. 7 pick Penei Sewell blocking for one of them at tackle? Shoot, how would you feel about the team’s present right now with Bridgewater playing quarterback instead of Goff?

The Lions do have two first-round picks this year and next, so the full story on the Stafford deal won’t be written for some time. But 10 months after the trade was consummated, it looks like the Lions erred in their choice.

Making a run for it

Swift had a nice game Sunday, running for a career-high 130 yards on a career-high 33 attempts. He showed power and vision and patience, and the Lions offensive line steamrolled the Steelers for the better part of three quarters.

But watching Najee Harris run for the Steelers, I came away thinking that is the type of back Campbell ultimately wants in his offense.

Harris had 105 yards rushing on 26 carries. He lacks Swift’s suddenness, but he is a powerful man with good feet who breaks tackles.

Looking ahead to next spring’s draft, or perhaps the 2023 draft as Jamaal Williams is under contract for one more season, I suspect the Lions will look to add a mauler to their running back room, someone who can wear defenses down.

One other position that seems underrated but important for the Lions to address next spring: No. 2 tight end. The Lions used six offensive linemen on 28 of 71 offensive snaps and had tremendous production out of that group most of the day.

If that lineman was an exceptional blocking tight end and even adequate pass catcher, their offense would be so much more dangerous.

Time(out) after time

I got a couple texts, tweets and emails saying I went too easy on Dan Campbell and his coaching staff in my postgame grades Sunday. Maybe I did. The offense still failed to crack 20 points for the eighth straight game and the defense had issues that Mason Rudolph was ill-equipped to capitalize on.

[ Campbell takes over offensive play calling: ‘I don’t think it’s a big deal’ ]

But I give Campbell major credit for playing to win, even when the odds seemed stacked against the Lions late in overtime. Campbell used two timeouts when the Steelers had the ball in the final 90 seconds. He risked aiding the Steelers on what could have been (and probably would have been, if not for Pat Freiermuth fumble) a game-winning drive, stopping the clock once after Pittsburgh got a first down at its own 21-yard line and again two plays later after a 6-yard pass on second-and-10.

Campbell’s timeout usage was unconventional, and I had the same initial what-is-he-doing? reaction that I’m sure a lot of you had as well.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was trying to give his team a chance to do the only thing that matters to it now — to win a game.

There is no material difference between being 0-8-1 and 0-9, but a weight would have been lifted off everyone in the organization with a win. Extending the game was the only chance the Lions had to do that, and calling timeouts told players Campbell believed enough in them to get it done.

The Lions tied, ultimately, but Campbell’s unconventional approach was proved right when Will Harris forced a fumble that Trey Flowers recovered, making the defensive play the Lions needed, albeit with too little time on the clock.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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