Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert have begun lighting up the NFL in recent weeks, bringing into focus their bright futures as well as pro football’s most astounding “accomplishment” (and how it is achieved, season after damn season).
Since 1957, the Detroit Lions have won just a single playoff game. They’ve won none since 1992. In a league built for parity, such futility would seem impossible, except, based on the current 3-5 record, it’s likely to be extended.
Even other woeful franchises — Jacksonville, Cleveland, Arizona, the New York Jets, the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers and so on — have all been to Super Bowls and/or multiple conference championship games.
The Lions don’t even get much hype for their incompetence because by toggling between blah and bad they don’t have any famous defeats, near misses or bad beats. A reversed pass interference call in a wild-card loss to Dallas after the 2014 season is bemoaned locally, but that happened with over 8:18 left in the game. It wouldn’t rank anywhere else.
How Detroit maintains such a state of irrelevance is a fascinating study of ownership malfeasance. And it is once again playing out in real time.
A year ago, the Lions’ path to competitiveness was obvious to nearly everyone. Two seasons prior, general manager Bob Quinn had fired coach Jim Caldwell after consecutive 9-7 seasons.
The move spoke to a new attitude in Detroit, where being just pretty good wasn’t enough. Quinn spoke about the need to bring the team to the “next level” including “winning the Super Bowl.”
OK, fine. At least it was ambitious. He then hired first-time head coach Matt Patricia from New England.
Two years later, the Lions finished 3-12-1. The “next level” was a trip back to the basement. Patricia had proved, and continues to prove, to be overmatched in almost all ways. In consecutive losses this season, for example, his defense was caught on critical plays with just 10 players on the field.
The descent to a three-win season in 2019 should have caused Sheila Ford Hamp, who inherited the title of principal owner from her parents, to fire both Quinn and Patricia. Instead, she gave them another chance.
Yet now a desperate, failing braintrust had control of the coveted third pick in the 2020 draft. The short term was now more important than the long, which is not how good franchises are run. When picking that high, a team needs to have a heck of a reason not to select a quarterback, the most important position in the game.
In this case, the right call was to take either Tagovailoa or Herbert (Cincinnati, with the top pick, was going to take Joe Burrow of LSU).
An even smarter move would have been to trade Matthew Stafford, a good QB and a good soldier for the franchise. Stafford would have fetched a bounty for a QB-desperate contender — maybe two first-round picks or a first and two seconds. New leadership could have used those picks to quickly overhaul the roster.
Of course, such a move was impossible because Quinn had recently restructured Stafford’s contract. If they traded him, he would count for $32 million against the 2020 salary cap. That’s a debilitating number if the 2020 season was a must-win campaign, which for Quinn and Patricia’s job security it was. So Stafford was never shopped.
Even if Stafford was going to remain a Lion, Tagovailoa and Herbert were still sitting there. You get a young talent, let him learn and then deal Stafford after the 2020 season. Tua, in particular, was still healing from a hip injury, so it made sense.
But Quinn and Patricia needed immediate help to remain employed, which is why it was near criminal to let them make a third pick overall in the first place.
Predictably, Quinn took what he thought was the best impact player available — Jeff Okudah, a cornerback out of Ohio State.
A cornerback. Yes, a cornerback?
Even if Okudah became a great player, the move was strange. Cornerbacks don’t get picked that high. Okudah was the first to go in the top three since 1997, when Seattle took Shawn Springs.
Of course, as it tends to happen with Detroit, Okudah hasn’t been great. Or even good. Maybe he develops, but so far he has a disappointing 41.6 grade by Pro Football Focus and has spent parts of the season ranked 103rd out of 103 cornerbacks in the league.
And, it’s worth noting, the reason Detroit needed a lockdown corner in the first place is because Patricia had feuded with Darius Slay, who reached three consecutive Pro Bowls. Slay was dealt in the offseason, creating a need where there wasn’t one.
Meanwhile … Stafford has struggled by his standards this year. His completion percentage (62.6) and touchdown to interception ratio (14:7) has hit lows not seen since early in his career. He continues to take a hellacious beating as the weapons around him are uninspiring — 35-year-old Adrian Peterson is the leading rusher.
Whatever Stafford, who turns 33 in February, might command this offseason is likely to be less than Detroit could have gotten last offseason. Its chief asset is devaluing. Not that the Lions can trade him now with no QB of the future in place.
Frustratingly, while Detroit is bad, it’s not bad enough. It should still win five or six games, which would take the Lions out of the top of the draft where great quarterbacks or franchise-changing talents are generally found.
Meanwhile, Herbert looks like a long-term star with the Los Angeles Chargers. Tagovailoa took over Miami’s starting spot two weeks ago and after outdueling Arizona on Sunday, has the Dolphins staring at the playoffs. While you can’t project too much about him, he certainly could be a sensation.
Detroit, on the other hand, is headed for another rebuild. Fans can only hope Ford finally brings in a new regime to do it.
It would be a year too late, with an advantageous situation wasted, but that’s how 63 years of football futility happens.
Sixty-three and counting, of course.
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