ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Matt Patricia stood at the makeshift podium in what was also labeled as an X-Ray room just off the tunnel inside New Era Stadium late Sunday afternoon and didn’t want to diagnose all the issues his team has been through in 2018.
Instead, he wanted to make something else clear: Even with the playoffs no longer a possibility and a winning season out of the picture, not much would change over the final two games of the year.
“Same for all of us,” the first-year Lions coach said. “We’re just going to go out and compete, try to win, try to do as much as we can to get better. It doesn’t change.”
Some things should, though. The Lions have multiple players injured that it would not be wise to bring back for two weeks left in the year, including star running back Kerryon Johnson, defensive end Da'Shawn Hand and possibly right tackle Rick Wagner. Those decisions, though, and whether they happen, remain to be seen.
And the Lions should give even more of a look to younger players whose futures are clearly within the organization, from Wagner’s potential replacement, Tyrell Crosby, to safety Tracy Walker and running back Zach Zenner over LeGarrette Blount. A hard look at Matthew Stafford’s health should also be examined because a long-term injury to the quarterback whose back is clearly an issue would be a big setback to what the Lions are trying to build.
Whatever players Detroit decides to roll with the home finale against Minnesota and the season-ender at Green Bay are going to try to win. That won’t change because, as safety Glover Quin said last week, tanking doesn’t really exist in football because of the physical nature of the game and risk for injury if you don’t try and play your best.
“I only look at the teams we got to play left,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “I ain’t going to look at it negative like we ain’t in the playoffs and all that other stuff. Yeah, that comes to it, I’ll worry about it when it comes around. Right now, we got [two] more games, let’s just finish. Let’s just finish the games off. Let’s just finish all [two] of them.
“Let’s us all have nothing that’s lingering. Let’s have nothing where we should have did this, we should have did that. Let’s just finish off [two] games. That’s it. Let’s go after it.”
That will likely be the thought process of the players over the last two weeks for various reasons. For some, it’s a way to boost themselves for next season in Detroit. For others, it’s the start of an audition process for their next team – whether they are pending free agents or potentially in a situation where they’ll be released by the club in the offseason. And for some others, who might not play again after this season, it is potentially ending their careers on a more positive note than loss after loss after loss.
The front office might think of it differently, as 5-11 nets you a much better draft pick – perhaps 8-10 slots better – than a 7-9 record does. So some decisions as to who plays and who doesn’t could be partially with that in mind, no matter what coaches and players might say.
With the last two games of the season and nothing tangible in 2018 to play for, all the motivations change.
“Yeah, it feels different, but at the end of the day, you’re still going out to try and win a football game,” Quin said. “Definitely feels different.”
It will be different. This is a situation – at least with two games remaining – the Lions haven’t been in very often for this group of players. The 2013 and 2016 seasons effectively ended in Week 16. The 2015 year was the closest comparison, but the players were fighting for then-head coach Jim Caldwell’s job (a job that eventually was saved).
So the Lions will spend the last two weeks of their season starting to build for next year with at least keeping some eye on the present – mostly because that’s the only thing they can do.
“It sucks that we don’t get a chance to go into the postseason but we still have a chance to go play football and it’s still another game, two more games, that we have to play,” cornerback DeShawn Shead said. “We still have to prepare at the highest level and prepare to dominate and execute the game plan for those games. It’s the same mentality.
“We just don’t have the opportunity to go into the postseason now. That’s the only hard part about it.”