If it wasn’t the drops, it was the overthrows. Or underthrows. Or zags by the receiver when the quarterback was looking for a zig.
From the moment the game began Sunday in Cincinnati, the Detroit Lions looked off, as if most of the roster had stayed behind in Detroit. Which makes sense, because even if they’d managed a win against the lowly Bengals this team wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
And that’s inexcusable.
Merry Christmas, everyone, where the most promising season in a decade ended on a sodden, snowy day under an avalanche of mistakes.
That refrain sound familiar? Of course it does. But I’m not gonna say it here. That’d be cruel. Besides, this is the season of giving and, I’m told, empathy.
It’s hard to have much of that for these Lions now. Oh, sure, they try, I suppose. Though even that’s relative in the context of what unfolded Sunday afternoon.
More from Sunday’s game:
Dave Birkett’s Lions grades: Jim Caldwell, special teams fail in disappointing loss
Lions stock watch: Caldwell’s seat on broil after loss to Bengals
At least the Bengals tried.
Maybe they were playing for their lame-duck coach, Marvin Lewis, who — as Lions fans can relate — was never able to win the big one. Or even a playoff game.
Or maybe they’d grown weary with embarrassment after getting pummeled by the Vikings (34-7) and Bears (33-7) the last two weeks. That’s right, the Lions just lost to a team the Bears obliterated.
Whatever the reason, the Bengals played with more juice, despite not having near as much for which to play.
It’s hard to fathom how the Bengals looked more eager Sunday. Hard to fathom in the context of the moment, that is.
For even though the Lions were playing for the playoffs, for a coach many of them profess to admire and respect in Jim Caldwell, something has been missing for a while.
It’s shown up in the slow starts. The uninspired offensive attack. The stubbornness in play-calling.
Running on first-and-15, then again on second-and-18? It’s play-calling malpractice. And it’s been going on for weeks.
Mostly, though, it’s playing with a kind of uncertainty. Clearly, Matthew Stafford is the team’s best player. Yet Caldwell and his brain trust, led by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, insist on calling plays as if they’ve got a line of All-Pros and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield.
It’s true that running is necessary, at least some of the time. But for most of the season, Caldwell has coached as if he’s got different personnel. Though that isn’t the only reason it’s time for this coach and this franchise to part ways.
It’s this: The team got worse all year. Then it played its worst game of the season on the most important Sunday of the year.
Consider how things went down when the Lions got the ball back with just under five minutes left in the game and the Bengals up by two points:
A short pass to Golden Tate on the right flat for a loss of three yards. Holding on offensive lineman Don Barclay. An incomplete pass. Another false start by Barclay. Then a quasi-Hail Mary to midfield that Tate almost grabbed — but didn’t.
In five snaps, the Lions lost 18 yards and followed that with a 33-yard punt. If you’re looking for a sequence to sum up the season, there it is.
“Not our better day,” said Caldwell. “You’ve got to be able to make some plays.”
To Caldwell’s credit, he didn’t make excuses, and never does. He took blame for the poor effort and flat-out called it that. He then said it was his responsibility when the team didn’t play well.
Asked if he’d done enough to warrant another chance next year, he said, “Those things aren’t up to me. You’ve never heard me try to defend myself at any point in time.”
No, he hasn’t, and that can be frustrating for fans, too, because while Caldwell is adept at taking the high road, he’s also skilled at saying — and showing — very little, at least to everyone outside the team headquarters.
His players — and Stafford said as much again Sunday — often talk about all the things he does behind the scenes that help shape the team. There is truth to this. Caldwell is a fine communicator and fine man. He’s also won more than any other coach in the modern Lions’ history.
That means something. That also makes it difficult for team ownership when considering whether to give him another chance next season.
It’s not easy to move on from someone you adore, and admire, and who has brought relative success. These are truths the Ford family has to consider.
But, then, so is this: On the most important Sunday of the season, the Lions were not ready to play. Then played poorly, against a team that had little reason to compete.
Unfortunately, yes, it does, because that’s the way a refrain works: After a half-century or so of hearing the same song, folks begin to remember the lyrics.