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On playing F***’d

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Seven points of ennui about the Lions quarterback dilemma.

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NFL: NOV 10 Lions at Bears Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Just in case you missed the headline, this column deals heavily in a particular curse word and its philosophical nature to the game of American football. If you object to its presence in your reading material, this is your warning to know that it is present throughout the following column, and will repeated, uncensored, without shame.


1. There’s an old anecdote from Ron Jaworski’s “The Games that Changed the Game” about “playing fucked.” Jaworski and Jon Gruden visited an Indianapolis Colts practice and witnessed the following:

As we watched, we were surprised to see [Peyton] Manning taking virtually all the reps in the session. Jon asked Tom [Moore] why he wasn’t giving some snaps to Peyton’s backups. Moore is a man of few words, but when he talks, those words have weight. He looked at us both in the eye, paused for a moment, then said in that gravelly voice of his, “Fellas, if ‘18’ goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.”

2. Understand that the Detroit Lions have operated on the same principle that Moore laid out years ago. The moment Matthew Stafford was ruled out prior to the Chicago Bears game, and again this prior week against the Dallas Cowboys, the Lions were officially fucked. Everything else that happens emanates from trying to accept this.

You can’t prepare for fucked. You can’t practice it. You just have to accept it when it comes. The Lions couldn’t have prepared for Stafford’s injury in any universe. He was critically important, and the longer he sits out the more questions will rise as to what this team should be doing without him.

To their credit, this team has been trying to create a vision where dependence upon the quarterback isn’t so paramount. Each offseason the same line is hammered out: balanced offense, better defense. Adaptability over specialization.

It hasn’t worked so well. No matter how hard they scheme, no matter who takes the ball at tailback or who tries to impose their will on defense on a given Sunday, the Lions cannot escape who they are. They are intrinsically tied to their veteran quarterback.

Which means, quite simply, that without Stafford they are fucked.

Playing fucked is a lifestyle. As November fades away, plenty of teams in the NFL prepare to play fucked. You can’t tank mid-season in this league. Teams with only three wins under their belt on the eve of Thanksgiving can only act tough, promise to play hard and try not to embarrass themselves too much. They do this because they know that the only goal that matters in this season—securing a playoff spot—is well outside of reach, but protocol dictates nobody can speak that truth so openly.

3. The knowledge that you are fucked requires the proper state of mind. Acceptance is critical. Human beings are most of the time not in control, although they are called to act otherwise at all times.

To this end, head coach Matt Patricia’s doomed reign falls into further incoherence as he insists that, no, the Lions are not fucked. By insisting that Stafford remains “week to week” with his injury inspires nobody and convinces even fewer souls than that.

This is insanity. Bringing Stafford back this year could complicate his injury further. It would be ultimate coaching malpractice to actually do this. Patricia has done a lot of things that justify his termination, but this action would trump nigh all of them. It must not be done. It cannot be done. Stafford is done.

If Patricia knows this, then he treats those he speaks to on the subject with disregard for their intellect. He is a rake. If he is honest, then he believes he can bring Stafford back this year. He is a fool.

Who does Patricia seek to convince? What fan, player or owner will be relieved when they hear that Stafford could very well return this season? ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that this is a six-week injury, and while that might not preclude a potential return, it would place his return near the end of the season, well after the Lions are mathematically eliminated. It would be the definition of useless and simply open Stafford up to the possibility of another, perhaps far more serious or longer-lasting injury.

It could be done in the hopes of saving jobs; a few extra wins here and there, a little more show of the team’s potential if you just give the guys on the sidelines more time. Just one more and it’ll all come together. It would be shortsighted, but the logic is there.

But perhaps, the better explanation is that Patricia just doesn’t know what playing fucked looks like.

4. To be perfectly fair, Stafford himself seems to be pushing to be back on the field. Alpha competitor brains balk at the loss of control worse than that of the Napoleonic coach. While it’s all good and fine that Stafford wishes to be out there fighting for his team, it doesn’t change the fact that the best course of action is to rest him for the remainder of the season.

5. So with seven games remaining, how, exactly, do the Lions play fucked? They didn’t practice for it, but they did have a stopgap.

Jeff Driskel, through two games, has proven resilient and backup-level effective. He has changed the narrative of both the Bears and Cowboys games from “Stafford is out, the Lions lose” to “the Deepwater Horizon spill is easier to clean up than the Detroit defense, the Lions lose.”

I don’t believe it will last. Tape catches up to everyone in this league sooner or later. Driskel can certainly practice fucked, and play fucked. That should be enough for the Lions for 2019.

But there’s no need to overthink this. Driskel is a backup quarterback. He has room to develop and grow, but there will not be a starter controversy so long as Stafford returns next year healthy.

6. But that is the question. What does the future hold for Stafford and the Lions? What state will he be in going forward?

It almost seems unfair to worry long-term in the immediate aftermath of such an injury, but the paradigm shift has been coming for a while. Stafford worked hard as hell to become the iron man he is, never missing a game, but to do so he played through repeat injury. It was always a hand, or a hip or a back, something nagging him somewhere.

A good soul can ignore pain only for so long. And when the break comes, it becomes hard to overcome.

What does this look like in two more years? Stafford grows older. Injuries mend, but never fully fade; complications could appear down the road.

For 11 years now, the Detroit Lions have existed in a new era from its past, futile incarnations (so far it’s been one that’s slightly less futile). That existence of Stafford created a universe of possibility, the kind only made possible with a proper franchise quarterback. Fear will linger now that any day, any future injury could derail it all, close the timelines and narrow the universe as the Lions slip back into the primordial soup of questions.

But at what point can this be addressed? Jeff Driskel is not starter material at present or a near future, and with each passing season the butcher’s bill for the Lions grows longer. The pass rush is non-functional at this point; the secondary will grow worse as assets are stripped and driven from town. The offensive line is falling apart and the run game still isn’t there.

And do you trust general manager Bob Quinn to make a proper selection given a darkening track record in the NFL Draft?

This may be why there’s a need to put on appearances, to act as if Stafford will be back this year: if for nothing else but to assure everyone that the order of things is fine. Should Stafford’s future truly be in question, it would require tearing down the whole foundation to set things right. It might be worth doing that anyway.

7. On a final note: In case it wasn’t excessively clear after Saturday’s fiasco, there is a better chance for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than there is that Colin Kaepernick will be signed by a team in the NFL—far less Patricia’s Lions.

Saturday’s workout was an aborted attempt to sell poisoned peace that nobody was buying. The overture was not made in good faith and nobody trusted anybody as it came to fruition.

There was never any sense to begin with for the Lions to be involved. Kaepernick is a quarterback who played primarily out of the pistol (which the Lions don’t play) behind an excellent offensive line (which the Lions don’t have) over five years ago (it’s 2019). He was not going to come in at the end of November and save the Lions from a massive win deficit to overcome the Vikings, Packers or the current NFC wild card holders, nor will he be hold any place on a future roster—after all, you’re planning for Stafford to be back in 2020.

To argue another possibility is to blithely ignore reality and knowingly take a baseball bat to an overgrown hornet’s nest.

Kaepernick is a third rail topic that requires so many layers to peel, but it is possible—I would argue, even morally right—to separate all these layers when speaking about his chances to play football again. You can separate what actions he has taken in the past, what political beliefs he stands for, whether the league has done him dirty and whether he is capable of playing at a 2012 level again. This is not a hard ask, but one answer after Saturday is simple enough. He won’t be joining the Lions.

This does not need more thought than that.

After all, the Lions are fucked.