Disclaimer: I'm going to try hard to stay optimistic despite the urge to cross the picket line. So while you read this, please do so with mindset of disappointment versus pessimism... as that is how I'm feeling as I write.
I'm going to leave the flair for the dramatic in my back pocket this morning. Yesterday's game was simply a ho-hum loss where we got beat by both the Vikings and ourselves. Both teams had opportunities handed to them and the Vikings were able to make more of theirs. I could sit and blame the refs and pine over all the "could haves" and "should haves" and while I may do a little of that, the bottom line is still about lack of talent. And while losses are becoming increasingly tougher to swallow and as casual fans become even more apathetic, I still see more or less what I expected with this team... in context, of course. And that expectation I speak of is progress.
I know it's probably frustrating for some of you to listen to me talk about progress after starting 0-3. And I know it's probably just as difficult to hear me "lecture" about expectations and context all the time as well. I understand that... I really do. I'm sure I'll hear some of that incongruity against the position I'm about to take in the comments section, but I firmly believe that all three of those things are very significant to the relative position of the Lions right now. You can't have a pertinent conversation about the Lions without including those factors. So let's start with a simple, yet loaded question... what team is worse, the 1-2 2009 Lions or the 0-3 2010 Lions? Some of you won't even answer that question, because you feel that both teams are worthless. Some of you will feel that by record alone, the 2009 team was better. I take the position of this year's team being much better than last year's team because of progress in many areas. I say this fully understanding that we won more games to this point last year and with the very likely reality that this time next week, we are 0-4.Believe me, I am neither trying to disparage the angst and frustration we all feel for being winless over three games nor am I trying to make excuses for this team. I'm also not trying to dredge up the ugly infighting that got the best of quite a few of us on this site over the past week. The Lions got beat by a much more talented football team on Sunday and they deserve any valid criticism that comes their way. That said - and I'll tread lightly here to avoid sounding contradictory - there are contextual reasons why this is a better 0-3 team and why there is still hope for this season to end much better than it started. Is there hope for the post-season? Uh, no... I think that diminutive flame of hope is all but extinguished and it's probably a fair question to ask if the flame was ever really there to begin with. That position is debatable and fairly irrelevant now anyway. But let me stir a little discussion and state one big reason for why I think that we have a better football team this year.
Let me start by asking a question. Would the Vikings have been expected to win versus the Lions if the main injuries were flipped... Stafford and Best in, Favre and Peterson out? Again, this hypothetical question is asked not to make excuses for the loss, but to provide context to our disdain over the loss. For me, the answer is no. Was it wrong to think that we could beat the Vikings with Shaun Hill? Not necessarily, but I guess my point is that the significant injuries should shift the perspective of the game somewhat. It goes both ways as well. The Vikings are struggling without Sidney Rice in the passing game, which is why we felt that we had a real chance to win in the first place. Players have to step up because injuries are part of the game - I understand that, but having Hill playing over Stafford puts us at a huge disadvantage and I doubt anyone could successfully argue against that. Had the Vikings been without Favre for the entire game, then Peterson gone down in the first half, would they have won? Again, it's all hypothetical, but it's meant to put the loss into perspective. Despite all the challenges, we have still been competitive. We most definitely have more talent on this team this year, yet we all knew that there were still significant holes in this roster. When we are without key players, that lack of talent and depth really starts to show through.
It would be so easy to sit here and use this column to trash this team. To me, that's a bit of a cop-out. To find and point out all of the negatives on an 0-3 team is very easy to do. Maybe you all feel that I am simply finding ways not to hold this team accountable and using positivity as an excuse to mask the "truth". Hopefully, you understand that's not what I'm trying to accomplish here. From past comments, I think that many of you feel that I don't hold the Lions to the standard of other NFL teams and maybe that's a valid criticism. For good or for ill, the measurement I use is the previous year's version of this team. I just don't feel that as a fan, I can set appropriate expectations for the upcoming year if I'm comparing the Lions - coming off a 2-14 campaign with holes everywhere in the roster - to teams coming off double digit wins. Is it fair to do that? I guess that question lies at the heart of why some fans are ready to throw in the towel and others are still positive about the coming games and years. Before the Millen years, I would have said that it was fair. But now, since we are basically an expansion team, I've had to reinvent the basis for my expectations in this new post-apocalyptic (Millen) landscape.
To further fuel the fire, I added a poll to the end of this column about what we all base our expectations on. The results should be interesting to say the least.
Thoughts on the Game:
- I could probably cut and paste my comments about Shaun Hill from last week's column into this one. Once again, Hill was very inconsistent and prone to forcing passes that shouldn't be thrown. Granted, we lost Best early in the game and that took away an immense part of the defensive focus, but Hill's decision making is still the biggest problem to me. The more he plays, the more I'm convinced he's an average quarterback at best. If we get the same inconsistent outing next week, we are going to get massacred against the Packers. We will likely have to score some serious points, so Hill is going to have to play far above what he has done to this point.
I'm going to do something a little different for the remainder of the "Thoughts". I'm going to point out some specific plays/situations that I thought were pivotal in either our successes or failures in the game.
- Phantom Calls: First, the Raiola hold on what would have been a first and goal run by Felton in the second quarter was atrocious. I mean, I've seen some poor holding calls, but that one was horrible. Raiola just dominated the guy and put him on his back and the ref simply saw the guy on the ground and threw the flag. That play was so huge and may have cost us the game. I say that seriously. We ended up getting nothing because of the missed field goal. Had we gotten a touchdown - which was certainly possible considering how well we were moving the ball on the ground that drive - this game may have ended much differently. Second, the pass interference called against Chris Houston on his nullified interception. That also was a terrible call and I still contend that all that contact was within the first five yards and that Houston actually had great position. He had as much right to the ball as the receiver. Houston correctly read the route and cut the receiver to the inside. "Biceps" Hochuli and his gang of flag-happy cronies definitely made a mess of this game. Again, we end up having to play the "what could have been" because of zebra interference.
- Houston's Gaffe: While Houston arguable made a good play on the interception, he also made one of the single worst cornerback plays I've ever seen. Following the Logan fumble, Houston allowed Percy Harvin to catch one of the most wide open touchdown passes in the history of football. On the commercial, I watched the play again and realized that our secondary is really in trouble (...like we didn't already know that). Houston virtually did nothing on the play. Yeah... his hips simply froze and he allowed Harvin to run right past him, unabated. That play perfectly shows that Houston isn't all that comfortable in the system. Indecision and hesitancy is how players get out of position and that's all it takes. A smart quarterback like Favre will make you pay on those mistakes every time. I think Houston is fairly athletic and still has some promise, but he has to know what his role is on every play and how to recognize run versus pass.
- Just Drop It: Key drops by Brandon Pettigrew and Bryant Johnson killed several drives for us. With all the other deficiencies we have to overcome, dropping easy passes that ends drives are inexcusable. I thought Pettigrew mostly played well again this week, but I fail to see where Johnson is an attribute to this team. Derrick Williams outplayed him and I think that if Burleson comes back next week, Johnson should be demoted to the number four receiver.
- Can You Manage It?: I don't fault Schwartz for his management of the clock at the end of the first half. I know some of you (and even the announcers) felt that Schwartz should have taken a timeout with 0:14 left on the clock. Instead, Schwartz let the clock wind down to 0:03 and took the short field goal. I think Schwartz took the safe route and the guaranteed points versus trusting Hill to not throw a pick in the end zone or moronically checking it down in the middle of the field and letting time expire. With the inconsistency that Hill has shown, why should Schwartz have trusted him to take a shot into the end zone down by only one score? I think it was the right move.
- 3rd and Short... Pass It!: In the 3rd quarter, the Lions were faced with a critical 3rd and 2 and decided to run inside the tackle to the right using Maurice Morris. Do we know nothing of this team's strengths and weaknesses? When was the last time this team was able to grind out more than 1 yard on 3rd down on the ground? What's that? Never, you say? Yeah, that's about it. This is where Linehan really chaps my backside. I thought he called a fairly decent game yesterday, but that one was critical and he completely screwed it up.
- Who's On Favre's Payroll?: I'll make this short and sweet... for the first time in a long time, I thought the calls were one-sided yesterday. Not that I think that they emphatically would have changed the outcome, but they certainly did us no favors today. Not sure I can say that about the Vikings. The Lions made enough stupid mistakes to offset the calls, which is why I'm not fuming. But still... it seems far too many games against Favre end with this being a discussion point.
Offensive Game Ball:
Dominic Raiola - Center
This pick might surprise some people, but I thought Raiola played a hell of a game. The offensive line collectively was not all that good, but Raiola had to take on the Williams Wall all game and I thought he was mean and nasty and held his own. The pressure that got to Hill mostly came from the outside. Actually, my opinion of Dominic overall is really starting to change. I might get flamed for this, but I really feel he is becoming one of the better centers in the league. It's tough sometimes to gauge an offensive linesman's play because you don't always know what the scheme is dictating from a blocking standpoint. I won't be watching this game again, so I'm going from my gut and from the times yesterday that I keyed on the line play. And from what I saw, Dom held his own most of the game against a pair of the best defensive tackles in the league. Flame on!
Defensive Game Ball:
Corey Williams - Defensive Tackle
Rumblin', Bumblin', Stumblin'... I had visions of that Shaun Rogers touchdown against Denver a few years back when Williams had the interception return that resulted in the Lions taking an early 7-0 lead. For the first game this year, I think we saw the dominating Corey Williams that starred in Green Bay for the first few years of his career. He was a factor all game yesterday. In the first two games, he just disappeared far too often - despite Suh getting the constant double-team. Suh still saw most of the doubles (and played very well once again), but this time, Williams was able to capitalize on the single blocking. That defensive line is a lot of fun to watch and Williams was the only one I've been mildly disappointed in. Not any more...
Goat(s) of the Game:
Chris Houston / Jonathan Wade - Cornerbacks
I couldn't decide which of these two was more deserving, because they both made several bonehead plays and were weak in coverage all day long, so I'm tearing the award in half and giving each a half-rack of goat. Going against a weakened receiving corps, these two should have had good games. Instead, we saw more penalties, more missed tackles, more terrible reads... basically, more of the same. I was holding out hope that these two would exceed my low expectations for them, but alas... they have not. I think it's only a matter of time before Alphonso Smith is starting for one of them.
Hopefully, you guys don't misinterpret my hopefulness and focus on the things being done well with me being listless about the Lions losing. I'm frustrated and mad as hell with having to endure another prospective losing season. I was hoping that this team would have exceeded my expectations to this point, but they have not. As much as I am disappointed by that fact, it wasn't completely unanticipated. I think that can be frustrating for some people to hear and difficult to understand for others. I want a win badly, but the one thing I'm not going to do is come on here and trash this team and center solely on the negative. There was plenty to be disgusted with yesterday, but dwelling on that is not my style... right, wrong or indifferent. The bottom line for me is that we are still missing a lot of talent as well as the most important player for our franchise. Again, call it an excuse if you want, but I continue to emphatically make this point to add perspective to the losses and nothing more.
It makes my argument a little less compelling to see teams like St. Louis get wins this week. I think it's only fitting that they got their win against Washington at home. Good for them... I like to root for the underdog and teams like Kansas City that have been down for a long time. Detroit will be there soon. That's another reason that I don't panic as the losses mount this year. I know that we now have a core of young players that will take us into the next decade of great Lions football. It's a grand investment that will take some time to pay big dividends. If I couldn't see that silver lining, this storm would be very hard to weather. This team is getting built to be competitive today and champions tomorrow. I know... tomorrow can't come fast enough.
One last thought...
As this is likely Brett Favre's last season (or maybe not... or maybe... or maybe not... or maybe...), the Lions may have missed their last chance to get a road win against him. He is now a perfect 18-0 against the Lions on the road and will likely leave this game undefeated in that respect. How humiliating.