2011 was the year that the Detroit Lions supposedly “restored the roar.”
They finished 10-6, their first season with double-digit wins since 1995, and qualified for their first postseason berth of the new millennium.
Their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, selected first overall in 2009, had a majestic season, throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns.
Their head coach, Jim Schwartz, hired after the disastrous 0-16 campaign in 2008, had built a team capable of contending in an excellent NFC North, a squad with an identity on both sides of the ball.
What a difference a year can make.
With Sunday’s absolutely hideous blowout loss at hapless Arizona, the wheels have officially come off on the 2012 Detroit Lions, who now sit at an unfathomable 4-10.
When that happens, 2012 will go down as one of the Lions' most disappointing seasons since their last NFL championship in 1957, and that’s saying something.
How could a team that looked so promising in 2011 be such an utter bust in 2012?
I believe the blame lies with the two men who were most responsible for turning the team around in 2011: Stafford and Schwartz.
Let’s start with Stafford.
I’m not going to dispute his natural ability. He was born with a cannon attached to his right shoulder. He has proven that he’s capable of winning games in the NFL, and has shown a propensity to come back in the second half of games, a must-have trait for any great NFL quarterback.
But this year has been a mixed bag for Stafford.
Former NFL MVP Rich Gannon, who co-hosts SiriusXM Blitz, often talks about the “fifth quarter” for quarterbacks, meaning the time assigned to handle the media, and what an important responsibility this is.
Stafford joined the Blitz last week after yet another divisional loss, this time to the Green Bay Packers, who the Lions haven’t defeated at Lambeau Field since George H.W. Bush was in office.
In the interview, Stafford was unimpressive. When asked about the failures of the run game, he said that the Lions were running the ball better in 2012 than they did in 2011.
He also said that he doesn’t believe that player discipline has been an issue. In a related story, George Lucas also thought Jar-Jar Binks would be a fan favorite.
Missing was the piss and vinegar you’d like to hear from a quarterback whose team is struggling mightily, the hell-fire and brimstone from a signal-caller dying to right the ship for his football team.
Then, there’s his on-field performance. His all-around numbers have dropped. He’s on pace for fewer yards and touchdowns and a lower completion percentage. The only number trending upward is the one you want to see moving in the opposite direction: interceptions.
I think it’s fair to put some of the blame for Stafford’s lack of success on the injuries to the Lions' wide receivers. Calvin Johnson is a stud, but he can’t do it by himself. That certainly hasn’t helped Stafford’s cause.
But, even with the injuries, you’d hope for Stafford to play better. You’d like for him to show more leadership qualities. You’d like for him to stop throwing off his back foot, as if he were trying to reach a contract incentive for interceptions tossed in that manner.
I still think Stafford has what it takes to be an elite NFL quarterback. But there’s no question that this season has been an abject disappointment for him and the Lions.
But, even though Stafford hasn’t performed up to his standard, I believe Schwartz is the man most to blame for the Lions' poor season.
Any conversation about Schwartz’s failings must start with player discipline.
Simply put, the Lions don’t have any.
This past offseason, Lions players accounted for seven arrests. Obviously, this doesn’t all fall on Schwartz, who isn’t drafting and signing players.
But, until the team cut troubled cornerback Aaron Berry after his second arrest of the offseason, it seemed like the Lions were turning a blind eye to what was obviously a significant issue.
The team’s off-field discipline has carried over onto the field, as the Lions average nearly seven penalties a game. That isn’t good enough, not when the other three teams in your division are penalized less.
Then, there’s the performance of the defense, which is supposed to be Schwartz’s specialty. The Lions are giving up more than 27 points a game, tied for 28th in the NFL.
Schwartz might have single-handedly lost the team’s Thanksgiving encounter with the Texans when he threw a challenge flag on an automatically reviewable touchdown, causing Justin Forsett’s non-TD to stand. The Texans went on to win the game in overtime.
But, more than anything else, Schwartz’s failure to capture the momentum from 2011’s joyous ride to the postseason is his most stunning indictment. The Lions aren’t just dropping games. It seems like they’re inventing new ways to lose.
Sunday’s loss in the desert was an absolute disgrace. The Arizona Cardinals were one week removed from a 58-0 defeat in Seattle and have the worst quarterback situation in the history of organized football.
None of that mattered, as the Cardinals dominated the Lions, en route to a 38-10 victory.
How is it possible that a team with so much talent, with so much promise, could lose in such grotesque fashion to such a horrendous team and now sit at 4-10?
Schwartz is squarely on the hot seat. As noted earlier, season-ending games against the Falcons and Bears could turn up the temperature.
It was once crazy to think that Schwartz could be fired, only one year removed from the most successful season the club had in nearly 20 years. But that’s what a potential 4-12 season will do.
Personally, I believe he’ll be back in 2013, and, once again, it’ll be up to Stafford and Schwartz to restore the roar in Motown. For Schwartz, it’ll be his last chance.
Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz," hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.
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