Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez break down the Detroit Lions after the loss to the Vikings on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
When an NFL player tries to quote Mahatma Gandhi, you know things are getting deep.
You know things are about to get real. You know the frustration has boiled over. Mostly, you know you’re in the Detroit Lions locker room.
Ricky Jean Francois, the veteran defensive tackle and the oracle of Allen Park, had clearly had enough Sunday after the Lions’ latest disappointing loss, a 27-9 defeat that dropped the team to 5-10.
“I think I heard Gandhi say this in a book I read: ‘The only way you can change a culture is you’ve got to change the people within in.’
“You want to change the culture, change the people. I’m not finger-pointing on who needs to change or who needs to go somewhere. But if you want a different regime, you want a different buy-in or something like that, the only way you get a different culture is you change the people that sit in it.”
It’s understandable. The Lions had just lost their second straight game and their fourth in five games. It was their sixth double-digit loss this season.
A vet like Jean Francois doesn’t survive in the NFL by being OK with losing. He has to hate it. And he does. But he’s not sure how many of his teammates hate it as much as he does.
“Excuse my French,” he said, “but I’ll just be damned if I go to work every week, prepare myself, look at film, live inside of a training facility, do everything that this coach asks me to to come out here and keep explaining this. It bothers me. If it don’t bother you, you don’t love football. It bothers me.
“It just bothers me to know that you’ve got to go to practice with the game plan that’s in and just execute it. Be the bigger man. Know that the dude across from you knows what you’re going to do and just beat him.”
There was a somber feeling throughout Ford Field on Sunday. There were plenty of empty seats. The crowd was quiet and probably at its loudest when it cheered the announcement that Mass Cassel had taken over for Matthew Stafford late in the fourth quarter.
Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia speaks to the media after the 27-9 loss tot he Vikings on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, at Ford Field.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
The locker room was equally as somber. No one had answers. Darius Slay’s voice was barely audible. Glover Quin’s locker sat empty for the first time I can remember. And Jean Francois was one of the few players who could muster enough energy to vent his frustration with a disappointing season.
Even after 15 games, Jean Francois struggled to say with certainty that enough players had bought in this season. There were glimpses of potential with quality wins against teams like the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers. But there was little consistency and when November came — “when football season really starts,” Jean Francois said — the Lions went 1-3.
“I don’t know,” Jean Francois said. “We must (have) didn’t buy in this year.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the motivations of 53 individual players. Maybe enough players don’t believe in Patricia and his way of doing things? Maybe they don’t believe in the scheme or how they’re being used? Maybe it’s something else?
But I can say this with absolute certainty: It has been a very difficult season for the Lions with no clear fix in sight.
The defense showed improvement this year, and might get better next year with the addition of more pieces that fit Patricia’s scheme. But now one of the defense’s leaders is questioning where the whole team is headed.
Jean Francois is right. But he’s also just right for right now. The season will be over next week and a new season will bring lots of new faces with it. For the good and the bad, there’s little carryover from one NFL season to the next. Maybe Jean Francois’ words will resonate with enough players and coaches who return next season. But maybe they won’t.
It’s impossible to know. After all, even Gandhi wasn’t wise enough to explain one of life’s biggest mysteries: the Lions.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.