Everyday / Something hits me all so cold
Find me sittin' by myself / No excuses that I know
- Alice in Chains, "No Excuses"
The loss yesterday was familiar, but we also have to admit it was a lot more painful than the losing we've become accustomed to so far. This year, with all the new faces and changes, our (low) expectations got raised to the bare bones level of competence and seeing progress. The game against the Ravens took that sense of progress and flushed it right down the toilet.
Some of the big questions after yesterday's debacle:
Why were the starters in the game to the very end?
This has been a huge question - with the game out of hand, why were key players kept on the field and put at a risk of injury? This is all the more acute given what happened to Kevin Smith, the player that provided one of the bright spots of the day.
I think the answer to this is two-fold.
One of the things that's become clear to me watching the Lions this season is that Schwartz and the coaches send a message with every choice they make. They're aware they're communicating with their decisions, and aren't afraid to take actions that bring a point home with deeds and not words. I believe Schwartz was showing his team, "we do not quit." Pulling the starters is an admission that the game is over, the effort level comes down, the expectations collapse. The state the Lions are in with the fragile morale that comes from a 2-11 record... the players cannot quit. There is no progress without effort, nothing to build on if the energy isn't spent learning, growing stronger, gaining experience today.
Secondly, I think the coaches were taking a hard look at the starters and deciding who could respond like a professional in adverse situations. The road ahead for the Lions, next season and beyond, is a tough one - who will be able to rise to the challenge, and who will be defeated by it? With this game tape, every starter has their play documented and on their resume through to the end of game. The tale of the tape and the lessons of who folded and who remained steadfast will prove critical in the days ahead (see last question below), and may have been viewed as more important than garbage time experience for the backups.
Why didn't we see Drew Stanton at QB?
Three parts of the explanation for this: the message being sent by starting Culpepper, the message being sent by leaving Culpepper in, and the staff's belief of when it's right to give Stanton his shot.
Remember, as has been reported, many players on the team and members of the fanbase (well represented on this site) believed Culpepper gave the team the best chance to win over Stafford. Starting Culpepper acknowledged this sentiment; this game should finally be enough evidence to demolish this belief for good. This time with Calvin playing, Culpepper still made the same mistakes Stafford has done with accuracy and decision-making, but neither with the excuse of being a 21-year old rookie nor with any emotional spark or flashes of playmaking. Personally, I feel sorry for Daunte, who has been a good soldier other than for a few minutes before the Thanksgiving Day game. I feel sorry for him because the excuse to start him is now gone, and I don't know if he can land on his feet after this season. Another Lions chew-em-up, spit-em-out casualty.
The message sent by leaving Culpepper in was the same for all the starters of the game, evaluation and accountability as mentioned above. Pulling Culpepper for Stanton would have been signaling quitting, and this coaching staff did not countenance that at any point during the game.
But now, with Culpepper's performance documented, the focus turns to Stanton's readiness. Taking only second and third team practice snaps, does Stanton need a full offseason learning Linehan's system before he's ready to be thrown in the fire? Do the coaches feel Stanton's progress in practice to date gives the Lions the best chance to win given Culpepper's latest performance? How soon will Stafford be ready to play? We'll learn the answers to these questions soon.
Where do the Lions go from here?
I mentioned accountability above. This is the key to whether this game represents the "touching the bottom" moment of the Schwartz era or whether this game is the beginning of an unraveling. There can be no "we'll coach 'em up" type responses like we've seen in past years. A message was sent by the way this game was played and who played in it to the end; a message now needs to be sent about whether players will be held accountable for how they played. I fully expect Schwartz to come out of today and Tuesday's review of game film and shuffle players, including starters. At 2-11 cutting players in-season will have little impact on the trajectory to the end of the year, but if there was an obvious drop in effort we might still see that. We need players starting that can make the effort, bring the talent, and build what foundation needs to be laid to take the next step. In positions where we don't have those players, they shouldn't feel secure - the Lions will be scouring waivers, looking at free agents, and readying for the draft.
In any endeavor in life, you should never be comfortable when not succeeding. In business, you may lose sales, customers, or even your job. You may not always be able to come out on top, but you must at least be able to achieve to your talent level. The Lions, devoid of personnel and wracked by injuries, are still not a team that should lose by 45 points to the Ravens. (If you don't take my word for it, at least believe Las Vegas.) If Schwartz and the staff can bring home the feeling of unease of not playing to potential, instill that, and make it something every Lions player strives mightily to avoid... that will be the lone positive from this game.