Niyo: Time is running out for Dan Campbell, Lions to avoid winless season

Detroit News

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Detroit — The clock is ticking now. And if the Lions’ dilemma wasn’t obvious before, it certainly should be at this point: They can call as many timeouts as they want, but it seems as if all they’re doing right now is delaying the inevitable.

Maybe they’ll win a game before this season is over. Maybe. But they haven’t yet, and it’ll be a full calendar year since the Lions’ last victory by the time they take the field again to face the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field on Dec. 5.

Yet the way they frittered away another fourth-quarter lead against a bad Chicago Bears team Thursday, spoiling the Ford family’s annual Thanksgiving Day showcase for a fifth consecutive season and falling to 0-10-1 on the season, there’s no telling how many more chances like this they’ll get.

There’s also no way to avoid the role that coaching is playing in all of this, notwithstanding the injury-depleted roster and a rebuilding plan that all but assured the Lions of a losing season before it began.

Because the way this game ended, with confusion on the field at crunch time compounded by the calls coming from the sideline, was another red flag early in Dan Campbell’s tenure.

Flag day

Another yellow one, too, as it turned out. And it was shades of Jim Schwartz’s final season in Detroit back in 2013, when a penalty assessed to the sideline helped seal another Thanksgiving defeat.

This time it came with the Bears trailing 14-13 and facing third-and-9 at Detroit’s 16-yard line. The Lions had called a timeout after the previous run play to stop the clock just after the 2-minute warning. But then as Chicago’s offense lined up for the next snap, Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone frantically checked the defense to a different call, as they’d discussed during the timeout.

“But we had a miscommunication,” Campbell explained later, after he’d sorted through some of his emotions following Thursday’s 16-14 loss. “Half of our secondary had one call, the other half the other. So, yeah, banged the timeout.”

Which is against the rules, of course, though in the moment, Campbell seemed a bit puzzled to see another yellow flag on the turf. Still, when the officials blew the play dead, it was also apparent the Bears were about to complete a pass for a first down, if not a touchdown.

And when asked after the game what his options were in that moment, Campbell shrugged, “Stand there and watch him score, I guess.”

Fact is, that would’ve given his team a better chance to win this one. Because instead, the Bears converted the ensuing third-and-4 play — the Lions nearly were flagged for having 12 men on the field for that one, by the way — and then ran down the remaining clock before kicking a chip-shot field goal as time expired.

At that point, all Campbell could do was jog to midfield, shake hands with Matt Nagy — the embattled Bears coach who had to fend off reports this week he’d be fired if his team lost this game — and head back to the locker room with another L around his neck.

“We’re so close,” Campbell insisted later. “These guys, they’re fightin’ their tails off. But until we get out of our own way, we won’t quite get over the hump.”

Road gets tougher

No, they won’t. And the hard truth is it only gets harder from here, because the injuries keep piling up — the Lions lost running back D’Andre Swift to a shoulder injury Thursday — and only two opponents with losing records remain on the schedule.

Losing Swift could be a death blow for this team’s already anemic offense, too. Detroit hasn’t scored 20 points or more since the season opener, and Thursday, they made things even tougher on themselves with 10 penalties.

Actually, it was 13 in all — there were so many holding calls the Bears had to decline a few — and at times they came in successive plays on offense, forcing the team into white-flag “third-and-a-mile” playcalls by Campbell, who must’ve switched to decaf after pulling out all the stops in that loss in Los Angeles a month ago.

“It’s tough to find calls for third-and-32 or whatever,” he said.

Tough to ignore the loud chorus of boos raining down from the crowd of 56,355 that showed up Thursday, well aware of what they might witness between two teams with a combined record of 3-16-1 — the worst Thanksgiving matchup on paper since 1987.

It didn’t take long to confirm everyone’s suspicions, either.

The Lions won the opening coin toss and opted to defer possession until the second half. Then referee Adrian Hill turned the Bears’ captains at midfield, where ex-Lions linebacker Christian Jones was busy trading words with the Lions’ captains, including ex-teammate Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

“You want the ball?” Hill asked.

“Nah, we’re gonna defer,” replied Jones, who clearly hadn’t been paying attention.

“They deferred,” Hill explained, pointing to the Lions. “You want the ball.”

So that’s how this turkey began. And after a hopeful start for the Lions’ offense — Jared Goff, back from an oblique injury, connected with Josh Reynold on a 39-yarder to give Detroit a 7-0 lead — things eventually headed in the wrong direction.

Then in the fourth quarter, a defense that kept the Lions in it for most of the afternoon simply couldn’t get off the field. The Lions ran a total of 45 plays in this one, and just five in the final 15 minutes.

And after the Lions punted the ball away with 8:30 left — following a 7-yard screen pass on another third-and-32 — they never got it back.

“Was it 8 ½ (minutes)? It felt like a long time,” said Goff, who finished 21 of 25 for 171 yards and two touchdowns, but also coughed up another critical fumble. “Yeah, it’s tough. I think I said this after the game, but I didn’t feel like there was a scenario that when we left the field that last time that we wouldn’t be back out there for a 4-minute drive or to go win the game.”

But there wasn’t. And it does feel like wishful thinking now, when Campbell talks about how well his defense is playing and says, “we need to find a way to win that game.”

Because three months into the season, they’re still not there. And maybe they’re not even as close as it might seem.

“Well, first you’ve gotta learn how not to lose,” Goff noted. “And it’s something that we’ve had a hard time doing, obviously.”

Obviously.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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