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Eric Ebron and the Detroit Lions were doomed from the start

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There could have been something special in store, but fans and franchise just couldn’t buy it.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason hasn’t been going great for the Lions but the Eric Ebron news finds its way to jam more pain into the matter. Ebron signed on Monday with the Indianapolis Colts, setting up for an incentive-laden contract that nevertheless pays about as well as what he was getting in Detroit and potentially opens up more chances to play for his future. Through it all I just can’t help but feel there was some lost opportunity here for the Lions, be it for trading Ebron as they had hoped or, perhaps more preferably, developing him into a star tight end in the first place.

To be honest, I don’t know how it could have worked out between the Lions and Ebron, because the whole thing felt like a shotgun marriage. Ebron came to the team with another first-round tight end already on the roster, a coaching staff that didn’t think much about how to utilize him and a fanbase that couldn’t seem to forgive him that he wasn’t some other player they wanted.

It’s wrong to put too much of this on the fans (largely because I think the influence of such is often overstated) but stepping into Ebron’s Twitter mentions on any given day could bring about a litany of profanity and not-quite death threats. At least one particular Twitter user said he hoped Ebron would drop his newborn child like he did passes thrown his way. Yes, I get it, that’s Twitter for you, but you can’t tell me that wasn’t an overarching feeling from a good number of fans towards Ebron. There was a sinking feeling that some fans just believed that he could do no right.

The truth of it is fans weren’t interested in making Detroit a home for Ebron, and they were far more stingy with his praise than they would for most other players. The fact that Ebron was drafted over Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham Jr. was held up as some sort of sin Ebron himself had committed and not, say, the front office of Martin Mayhew.

Of course, the Jim Caldwell coaching staff didn’t seem to know what to do with Ebron half the time either. His rookie year couldn’t have left a great taste when they didn’t seem to know when to throw the ball towards him, or how to utilize him alongside Brandon Pettigrew. The fact that Ebron never saw anything close to 100 targets in a season couldn’t have helped matters.

So here we go with the narrative shifting from Ebron needing time, like any young player, to adjust to the NFL and find his place in at least two different offensive schemes to one where Ebron was some sort of disappointment that needed to be offloaded. But the Lions don’t really have a plan to replace Ebron’s production (and certainly not at the price he was coming by originally).

But the real fly came as these two jilted lovers began to break up and they couldn’t really figure out how to say anything about it all.

I happen to think Ebron is being as diplomatic as possible in this situation, but there’s obviously hints where things aren’t being said.

I’ve heard more than a few people characterize this, along with rumors that he wanted to test the waters of free agency, as signs that Ebron is immature. I don’t know what to say about this other than calling Ebron immature in this situation would probably have to call all mid-20-something experiences immature, because this is a pretty logical reaction to career dealings going south for a person of this age, no matter the generational label.

But if that’s the case, the Lions press release about Eric Ebron’s departure was just as loud.

While I’ve been in Los Angeles I happened to speak to a former Lion who was in town. We talked a bit about the different places he played in his career, and I ended up asking him about Detroit. His charitable response was to start to talk about winning cultures in football, particularly in regards to how the franchise has treated its players over the course of its recent history, complete with overtures to how the team has had conflicts with Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson around the circumstances of their early retirements. And I’ll be charitable if there wasn’t something else that he wanted to say in those words about something that happened to his own career in Detroit.

But while I believe a “winning culture” is something that we retroactively assign to any team who bumbles into winning games long enough to deem it such a culture, there were echoes of a deeper problem that I see shimmering through Ebron’s departure. It’s why I can’t buy this notion that Ebron was completely to blame for his sacking. It’s why I can’t help but look at this previous calendar year of activity with the Lions—who began by picking up his option, only to later start hemming and hawing loudly about trading him and then just barely into the free agency period deciding to cut him altogether—and wonder if this dance required a partner.

“Change of scenery” is a phrase I’ve seen bandied about by more than a few Detroit Lions fans and a few commentators on what could potentially benefit Ebron, but it does beg the question as to what was wrong with the scenery in the first place in Detroit. Why did it become bad scenery? Why couldn’t Ebron thrive with the Lions? Why does he need to go somewhere else to be good?

And that’s the big quibble I’ve been having with the Lions over all of this, because I do think Ebron had the chance to be great in Detroit. I’m weary of hearing about players who need to go to other teams to thrive. I’m tired of seeing guys leave Detroit and manage to carve out roles for themselves that they couldn’t make with this team. It’s rotten and it’s a waste of talent and (urgh) draft capital. And more than anything, it pushes home the notion that there’s something just wrong with playing in Detroit.

I don’t know if Ebron will do well in Indianapolis, because to do well there comes with a number of qualifiers—like if the offensive line will stabilize and gel, or if the Scotch tape holding Andrew Luck together will last more than six games. But I do know that those rooting for his success elsewhere will only be matched by the number of fans who will openly gripe that he’s balling out in a place not in Detroit if he’s doing just that come November.

And Ebron was fun. When he was putting the game together he had some electric moves, and he was a force of personality off the field, which was a damn refreshing taste. He appeared as a Lion in advertisements and modeled for the Color Rush uniforms. Even through the abuse, he had a fun social media presence. And if 2017 proved nothing else, it looked like he was on track to be a legitimate receiving threat.

If you want to make me believe in the Matt Patricia coaching staff, or the brilliant nature of Bob Quinn’s front office, then the best way to do it is to make sure this stops happening. I’m tired of having to feel excited about a guy like Ebron only to hear that he’s just not a fit.