By: Will Burchfield
Sitting atop a towel bin and chatting with the media in his team’s locker room, as he always does on Wednesday afternoons, Golden Tate ran through a laundry list of factors working in the Lions’ favor.
The ownership group is “fantastic,” he said. The general manager “came from a championship organization.” The quarterback is “one of the best in the league.” The roster “has a bunch of playmakers.”
Tate has seen the Lions change the way they operate since he signed here in 2014, and he’s genuinely pleased with where they’re headed.
“You don’t have people up top pulling one way and people down low pulling another way. I think we’re all in sync a little bit more than we were when I first got here. … The way I see it we just have to keep grinding, keep having great offseasons and we’re getting closer to owning our division year in and year out,” Tate said.
And yet, the Lions are 6-6 through 12 games and have let a very winnable NFC North slip away. If they’re so close, as Tate suggests, can he pinpoint what they’re missing?
“I have it in my head,” said Tate, “but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, so I’ll just keep it to myself.”
It’s an answer that begets a question: Who, or what, is Tate frustrated with?
The natural reaction is to point to Jim Caldwell, and support for the head coach is indeed running thin. The Lions have lost two critical games in a row, with Caldwell committing the same head-scratching error in each one. But the players in Detroit’s locker room routinely stand behind their coach, and Tate is no exception.
He’s played under Caldwell each of his four seasons with the Lions and has nothing but good things to say. He appreciates Caldwell’s even-keel nature. He respects his Super Bowl resume. (Caldwell has won two championships as an assistant.) He trusts the way the 62-year-old coach handles his players over the course of a season.
It’s possible that’s a bunch of lip service, and perhaps Tate’s feelings have changed of late, but his misgiving doesn’t seem to concern the Lions’ head coach. Not directly, at least.
But how about the Lions’ rushing attack? It’s something Caldwell has long struggled with as both a head coach and an offensive coordinator, and his time in Detroit has been no exception. The Lions have ranked among the bottom five teams in the league in rushing every since 2014. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in a game since 2013.
The best teams, as offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said last week, can both run the ball and pass the ball. The Lions have merely been good since Tate’s arrival — and sometimes worse — because they can only do the latter. When the passing attack stalls, so does the offense.
Tate was introduced to a winning standard when he broke into the league with Seattle. He made the playoffs in two of his first three seasons and won the Super Bowl in his fourth. Those Seahawks squads were founded on defense, to be sure, but they also ranked among the top four teams in the league in rushing in their two most successful seasons.
It’s not hard to imagine Tate looking around now and thinking, man, if only we could run it.
If not the Lions’ rushing attack, it’s possible Tate is frustrated with the offensive line. (The two go hand in hand, of course.) As good as the Lions’ passing game has been over the past four years, there’s a feeling Matthew Stafford’s been held back by a lack of protection. He’s been sacked 165 times since 2014, more than any of his NFL counterparts.
Inconsistent pass-blocking affects more than the quarterback. Receivers have to adjust their routes to compensate. Earlier this season, when the offensive line was still riddled with injuries and Stafford was constantly under siege, Tate admitted to some aggravation with the Lions’ inability to keep their quarterback on his feet.
“It can be frustrating at times when you run a good route and you’re wide open and you see your quarterback back there scrambling for his life. … It’s kind of hard not to start cutting routes off early,” said Tate.
“Just speaking on myself, mentally it does something to you. Sometimes it makes me rush and I don’t get the correct release because I’m trying to get open so quickly to be available. It does mess with your head a little bit,” he added.
Stafford has been sacked 39 times this season, the second most in the league. (Say all you want about the guy being “immobile,” but only one quarterback was sacked more times last season than Russell Wilson. It was Tyrod Taylor.) Even still, Stafford has thrown for the third most yards per game (275.2) and has the eighth best passer rating (98.2) in the league.
It’s not hard to imagine Tate looking around and thinking, man, if only we could protect him.
There’s no excuse for the offensive line to perform as poorly as it has, even with the injuries it endured early in the season. Between T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, the right side alone is making $18 million per year. If it’s not a personnel issue, perhaps it’s a systemic one. And perhaps that reflects on Caldwell, too.
There are other culprits to consider in regard to Tate’s comment, such as a defense that’s been mediocre each of the past three years. But the Lions had one of the best defenses in the league in 2014 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. And that’s not really a “pinpoint” issue, anyway.
Fact is, the Lions have plenty of issues, more than Tate would like to admit. A team he describes as being one piece away is 6-6 and in real danger of missing the playoffs. Those are incompatible statements.
“Atlanta is a game we should’ve definitely won, Carolina is another game we should’ve, could’ve won. Right there that puts us at 8-4. Just a few plays here and there is kind of the difference in where we are now and where we could be, which is something that has to make you feel a bit okay,” said Tate.
That’s veering dangerously toward false hope, which isn’t something that exists in championship organizations. Tate left one in Seattle to help raise another in Detroit. He believes the Lions are getting close, particularly in regard to in-house expectations, but they also might be hitting a wall.
How do they break through it?
If only Tate had plowed a few more words ahead.