Sunday, September 20, 2009
Hope is a Good Thing. It is Also Cruel.
They tried. For a while, they actually seemed like a different football team. They ran the ball pretty well, they were incredibly aggressive on defense and they weren't making mistakes. And it was enough. They were actually going to pull this off, everyone would be excited, change had finally come, and . . . no.
This game began with me feeling improbably optimistic. I had no real reason to. It was simply the irrational exuberance of a fan who clings to hope like a life raft because he has spent so much time drowning in the bitter sea of failure. And then, as the first half wore on, that irrational optimism began to give way to cautious belief. Even though I was hopeful, even though I predicted victory in my last post, a large part of me - the rational and reasonably intelligent side - knew that the odds were long, that there were simply too many factors, too many match ups, working against us. But then Kevin Smith slashed through the Williams Wall, St. Calvin streaked with the ball for a couple of first downs and the defense decided to play like a bunch of vampire apes on PCP.
And it was enough. For a while anyway. It's a gigantic cliche to say that there is a thin line between success and failure. It's the sort of worthless shit sportswriters like to trot out in order to add bullshit drama to a shitty game(Whoa, I just used three different variants of the word shit in one sentence. I am so proud right now.) I hate saying stuff like that, and yet, in this game, it felt true. At least to an extent. The Lions lost, and the final score was sort of sad and sort of ugly, just like it has been for a long, long time. But what was different this time was that the Vikings never really exerted their will on the Lions, never pushed them around, never dominated them like we have seen far too many times. Every time Adrian Peterson tried to run it up the middle, he was stuffed. He is simply so good an athlete, so freakish a player, that sometimes when that happened he would just bounce it outside and break off a run that most players wouldn't have been able to make.
Kevin Smith ran the ball about as well as anyone has in the last couple of years against the Williams Wall. And as a whole, the Lions managed to push the line of scrimmage forward at a fairly consistent pace, using nothing but hard, grinding running and play action rollouts and screens. Both the offense and the defense looked up to the task for large stretches of the game. But then there were the other parts, the little glitches that blew up all that other bullshit, the fuckups and mistakes which made the brief flight of competence seem almost painful. It was there, we could see it, and then it wasn't, that was that, and we were sitting in front of our televisions doing whippets and punching kittens or sitting in the stands and weeping. It was awful, to be given a fleeting sense of hope and then to have to watch it be dashed on the rocks, and then find ourselves drifting off to that bitter and terrible sea once more, surrounded by the wreckage, accompanied by only the tears in our eyes and the anguish in our hearts.
Matthew Stafford wasn't any good. He sucked. It was a maddening thing, awful and frustrating to watch, and while much of the blame goes to him, some of it has to be placed on the coaches as well. A couple of years ago, I watched a true freshman quarterback at Michigan named Ryan Mallett. He was a super prospect, a five star Godzilla recruit, but he was still a freshman, set to back up Chad Henne. But then Henne got hurt and Mallett was forced to start. Lloyd Carr, Michigan's head coach at the time, was not exactly a proponent of the ride or die school of thought when it came to his freshman quarterback, and so Michigan played it conservatively, running Mike Hart out there over and over again. When the defense would stop Hart, then Carr would turn to Mallett, but never before. The problem with that strategy is that you're not exactly putting your quarterback in a position to succeed if you only let him try to make plays when you absolutely need him to and when everyone - including the defense - is expecting it. Predictably, Mallett struggled. It's a terrible mistake to make, and you see it all the time. All it does is actually make things more difficult for your young quarterback, rather than easier. The point to all this gibberish? Well, today I watched the Lions game against the Vikings and I suffered through some terrible flashbacks.
I agreed with the decision to start Matthew Stafford. About a billion words have been thrown around the internet on the subject, and so I won't rehash the argument in its entirety, but I thought - and I still do - that starting Stafford right away would help his development in the long run. And, perhaps more importantly for this season, he is no worse than Daunte Culpepper. It's not like Culpepper has made a career out of avoiding mistakes and winning games. Culpepper has been basically a non-entity for five seasons. That's a looooooooooong time in athlete years. And before that, even when he was at the height of his statistical bonanza, his teams were rarely better than mediocre. So I didn't see a whole lot of point in starting Culpepper over Stafford even if the sole goal was to win this season.
The thing is, though, is that I expected them to allow Stafford to actually, you know, play quarterback. He made a couple of critical mistakes against the Saints. That sucked. I know. But, we have to expect those kinds of things to happen. It's the only way that he'll get better, if he learns what he can and what he can't do during an actual game. I was okay with all of that, because at least they let him go out there and do it. This game, though? Well, I was seeing Ryan Mallett over and over and over again. It looked like they were terrified to actually let Stafford do anything. It was a very conservative game plan, too conservative, and when they finally took the handcuffs off, late in the game, it was too late. There was too much ground to make up, and by then the Vikings were sitting back, ready for it.
If Matthew Stafford is going to be the Lions starting quarterback, he needs to actually be a quarterback. That means letting him make his mistakes. Because in between those crippling mistakes, he will make some big plays for you too, big plays that were sorely needed today. Sure, those mistakes suck, and they are going to cost us some games. But once he makes them, he should be able to learn from them. You could already see it in this game. There was one play where he desperately wanted to make something happen. But it wasn't there and so he threw it away. Earlier in the game, on the same sort of play, he tried to fit the ball in there and was intercepted. That showed growth, and that's the only way he's really going to get better when it comes to those sorts of things.
But that is all one long digression - one in which Lions fans are becoming increasingly wrapped up, as maddening and horrible as it all is - and it takes away from the point of this whole ridiculous post, which is that the Lions were there, they had their chances, and they were either too afraid to take a shot, or they blew them entirely and handed the Vikings their own chances on a cliched silver platter. What's the difference between a cliched silver platter and a regular silver platter? I don't know, but I do know that I am sort of ashamed at having used the phrase "silver platter." I blame the Lions for robbing me of both creativity and spirit.
The Lions lost, again, and this one was kind of heartbreaking. But, we are used to heartbreak and sadness. You could see the cliched light at the end of the cliched tunnel, but then we were run over - not by a train, but by some dipshit on one of those little hand carts. When you are 0-a billion, you need to grab that motherfucker by the throat, toss him onto the tracks and start pumping your dumb ass on out of that tunnel. Instead, our team behaved like a bunch of Lennie Smalls, were run over and now have to live with the shame and indignity of that. The Vikings are a good team. That is true, and I suppose there is some solace to be found there, but it was the little things that killed us this time, the inability to tackle in space, the poor pursuit angles on the bounce outs by Peterson, the fumble by Smith deep in our own territory, the interceptions, and the too conservative game plan that never allowed Stafford a chance to make a big play when the Vikings weren't expecting it. We stuffed Adrian Peterson over and over again, and Brett Favre never made a big play down the field, but when the day was over, Peterson had 92 yards and a touchdown on only 15 carries, and Favre was 23-27 for 2 touchdowns. Incredibly, he only threw for 155 yards, and all of those numbers point to the Lions fucking up the little things, again and again. Oh well, at least Stafford didn't run out the back of his own end zone.
This post has been sponsored by the National Ennui Council. When life's got you down, you've got to stand up, and . . . eh, fuck it.