"It was real frustrating, especially coming in here feeling that we were the better team. That’s definitely the way we felt"
The headline on Tom Kowalski’s Lions grades is “Continuing discipline problems reflects on coaching staff.” Is it true? Well, the Lions took their more-talented team into Ralph Wilson Stadium, and they got kicked in the nuts. Their offense made the worst defense in the NFL look like the ‘85 Bears, and their defense made Fred Jackson look like Steven Jackson. So what killed the Lions yesterday, so the common wisdom goes, is coaching.
Penalties. Personnel. Alignments. Clock management. Communication breakdowns. Special teams lapses. Coaching.
There’s no question, in terms of talent and production, that the Lions have been much better than the Bills over the course of the season. As I discussed in the Watchtower, the Lions have been one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, while the Bills’ defense has been of a similar caliber to the 2008 Lions—dead last, and completely helpless against the run. So, when one team has more talented players than their opponent, but loses . . . it must be coaching, right?
Right. The Lions didn’t put their best team on the field today. They came out thinking they could put it in the cooler. They started Shaun Hill at quarterback, knowing he could barely play, refusing to let him throw downfield, and assuming Jahvid Best would slice through the Bills like butter. When it didn’t work, they didn’t have a healthy, prepared arm to turn to—and Stefan Logan couldn’t quite bail them out with a return TD, try as he might. The coaching staff elected to coast rather than attack, to not-lose rather than to win, and the result was Bills owning a lead and the momentum. Blame Jim Schwartz for that.
Normally I gainsay this with, “No, the players play the game.” At first blush, that argument can certainly be deployed. The receivers dropped many passes, the tackling was atrocious, and the intensity was completely absent from the opening gun. The players were not up for this game. The players thought they had it in the bag. Incredibly, after last week’s humiliating loss, they were overconfident. They thought they had it. They thought they couldn’t lose. They were wrong.
"I thought we were going to run all over them . . . It's just frustrating. It's frustrating to work on it all week. We think it's there, we see it's there, and it's just unfortunate because we get behind and we have to go to the pass. We can't stick with the run, and that kills us."
Here, then, is confirmation: the players thought they had it in the bag because the coaches told them they had it in the bag. The game plan from the beginning was to play a low-variance game: run, run, run, rely on the disparity in talent, rely on the gap in execution. Don’t start Drew because you don’t want a gambler. Do start Shaun because you know he won’t kill you with the big mistake. Don’t push it downfield in the cold and the rain, don’t try to blow them out. Just grind it out, run it over them, collect the W and move on.
The only problem with this approach is that the Bills “blew their wad” in this game, as someone told me the Lions did last week. They knew this was their chance to make a statement, and they made it—as the Lions very nearly did last week. But the Lions that battered and bloodied one of the toughest teams in the NFL last week didn’t make the trip. The Lions we saw in Buffalo were hung over, lackadasical, incomprehensibly overconfident. It seems as though they were told all they had to do was show up—and that’s all they did.
The execution, then, is on the coaches too. Here’s the kicker though: so what. Jim Schwartz is learning, too. He has a roster full of talent, but most of it is very young, very inexperienced talent. He can’t just tell Gosder Cherilus, “HEY KNOCK IT OFF WITH THE STUPID PENALTIES,” and expect Gosder to reply “Oh okay, thanks Coach,” then stop committing stupid penalties. It’s not like Schwartz can bench him, either—Jason Fox was a healthy scratch—and if he did, the dropoff in play would hurt much more than a dumb hold at a bad time.
Here is the reality of the situation: every coach makes mistakes. Every coach makes good-at-the-time decisions that, in hindsight, backfire. Every coach has wins slip from their grasp. The coach that doesn’t make questionable decisions flatly doesn’t exist—even Bill Belicheck, the reigning Smartest Coach In Football, routinely makes mistakes, and sometimes they even seem to cost his team games. But the Patriots are nothing without Belicheck calling the shots, and I personally don’t believe there are any other coaches who’d have gotten this team as far, as fast, as sustainably, as the man I call The Grandmaster has.
He just hasn't yet gotten them to the point where they can take games off on the road and win.