Detroit Lions can’t let heartbreak cost them more games. It’s time to start winning

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions‘ locker room was a somber place Sunday, with players sitting quietly in front of their lockers long after the cooling off period expired and reporters were let in.

The Lions let a winnable game slip out of their grasp against the Minnesota Vikings, and chances are they’ll come to regret it later in the season too. They had one of their division rivals down double digits, in the fourth quarter, on the road, and let them off the hook with questionable coaching decisions and poor special teams play.

Dan Campbell copped to his role in the loss immediately after the game, telling players and reporters − and, in turn, fans − his decision to attempt a 54-yard field goal with 1:14 to play was the wrong move. There were other odd coaching decisions, like the third-and-1 deep ball the Lions threw early in the fourth quarter when they were running on the Vikings at will, and as bad as the coaching was, that does not absolve kicker Austin Seibert and others of blame.

Seibert missed two field goals Sunday, long ones, certainly, but makeable by NFL standards. The Lions could not muster a pass rush all day. And Amani Oruwariye drew a season’s worth of penalty flags − six! − in one game.

The challenge now for the Lions is to make sure one loss does not turn into two, or three, as has too often been the case in this franchise’s forlorn history.

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Last year, the Lions suffered a series of tough losses in the first half of the season and each led to more pain.

The Baltimore Ravens beat them on a record-setting last-second kick, and the Lions fell down 21-0 the next week to a bad Chicago Bears team with a rookie quarterback making his first career start.

The Lions lost on another field goal as time expired to the Vikings last October, then got curb-stomped when they returned home the next week to play the Cincinnati Bengals.

They rebounded with a gutty late-October performance in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams, then suffered their most lopsided defeat of the season the next week to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Lions let heartbreak linger last year to the point it impacted them for days. That’s human nature in some ways, but also something good teams in the NFL tend to avoid.

Lions left tackle Taylor Decker said he talked to players Sunday about not letting one loss bleed into another, and quarterback Jared Goff said the makeup of this team gives him confidence that “I don’t think it will.”

“We keep saying, like today, ‘We’re close, we’re close,'” Goff said. “No, I think we’re there. Like, it’s – like, we’re there. We just have to get a first down here, execute on one more play here. Me, throw one more better ball and it’s over. That game should have been over long before they were able to get back in it and I’m sure they know that. But we let them back in it, and that’s our fault.”

It’s always the loser’s fault in the NFL, or so they will tell anyone who’ll listen.

Twenty games into Campbell’s tenure as head coach, it’s time the Lions stop letting teams back in games and start doing what they need to win.

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Goff played his best football of the season Sunday, but was critical of his own passiveness on the sideline when Campbell sent the field goal unit on for that ill-fated kick. Goff could have pulled a Jimmy Chitwood and demanded he stay on the field, and Campbell would have listened.

“I wish I would have,” he said. “I wish I would have said something to Dan, I didn’t. I’m sure he would have let us have it if I had done that.”

Consider that a learning experience for Goff, one countless other quarterbacks have gone through in the past or, perhaps by their nature, did not need to learn at all.

Ditto for Campbell and his decision to kick the field goal on fourth-and-4, though after 32 games as a head coach (including his time as an interim with the Miami Dolphins) the learning-on-the-job excuse is no longer valid. Still, to so thoroughly trust his players in fourth down situations − the Lions eschewed long field goal tries six times in the first three quarters Sunday − and then go conservative with the game on the line reeks of fear and doubt.

That’s not who Campbell is as coach, and that’s not the culture he’s trying to foster in this organization.

“We are so close to being a really, really good team, but we just got to get over that hump,” Decker said. “There’s just details that we have to eliminate and we have to go out there and, I believe we do, we have to go out there and we have to believe that. We have to believe that we are those guys that people don’t want to play, that, man, we do not want to play against the Lions.”

Maybe eventually the Lions will be that team. There are elements in place now − they way they can run the ball; their personnel on offense − to suggest that will be the case.

But until they start eliminating the mistakes that cost them Sunday and winning games like this week against the Seattle Seahawks, every team they play will bank on their coach and players giving them a chance.

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

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