The evidence was on the scoreboard at the end of Sunday's season-ending game at Ford Field: Bears 26, Lions 24.
It showed up in the key stats that most often determine the outcome of games: 4 turnovers lost by the Lions, 0 by the Bears.
It was glaringly apparent – again – on a game-sealing play, when the Lions' defense had a last-gasp chance to get the ball back for its offense. On second down at the Lions' 34, Matt Forte sliced 13 yards through the Lions' defense for a first down. That let the Bears bleed the last two minutes off the clock, drip by game-clinching drip, on three straight kneel-downs by Jay Cutler.
And finally, the won-lost record said it all – eight straight losses to end the season, and a 4-12 record that put the Lions in last place in the NFC North.
What happened to a Lions team that was 10-6 and made the playoffs in 2011? And what must happen in the offseason to make the 2013 team a playoff contender again?
The Final Countdown for the 2012 regular season focuses on what went wrong (a lot) and right (not much) for the Lions in 2012, what has to be done to correct it for next season and changes that could be in order. There is no season-after pill in sports. All 32 teams are looking to get better, and most are starting in a better position than the Lions, based on the 2012 records.
There is also a best and worst of the Lions season – and a look back at two of my preseason predictions.
We start with what the Lions must face immediately:
1. Own it: The 4-12 record is on everyone's resume – front office, coaches, players, support staff. It wasn't voted to them. They didn't get to 4-12 by losing a game of chance. Football isn't blackjack or roulette.
"You learn from everything, the good and bad,"
They won three close games – beating the Rams and Seahawks in the last minute and the Eagles in overtime. And they lost even more close games – to the Titans and Texans in overtime, and to the Colts and Packers in the final minute.
"I don't know how many we lost by seven or whatever it was," Stafford said. "But that's the difference between a successful season and one that's unsuccessful is winning those close games.
"That takes everybody, and we understand that."
Stafford didn't make excuses for the turnovers, and he had more than his share in the final weeks. He owned his part of it.
"It's definitely on us," he said. "There's no excuse made. We either threw it to the other team or fumbled it and let them get it."
2. The ugly reality: It is human nature to rationalize and look for bright spots, but there really aren't any when a team loses its last eight games.
The high point of the season was when the Lions won road games against the Eagles and Jaguars back-to-back to get their record to 4-4. With five of the last eight games at home, they were set up to make a playoff run.
In truth, beating Jacksonville was fools gold. The Eagles went 1-11 in their last 12 games to finish 4-12 – same as the Lions – and are about to fire head coach Andy Reid.
The Jaguars are even worse. They were 2-14.
Loss No. 6 in the Lions' eight-game streak was 38-10 to a Cardinals team that was on a nine-game losing streak.
That's the reality of the Lions' season – getting to .500 by beating two of the worst teams in the league, and a blow-out loss to the Cardinals who have suffered through historically inept quarterback play.
None of that – the losing streak, the record, the turnovers – point to a team that's a few turnovers and a couple of breaks away from contending.
3. Big 3 leadership:
None of the three would be considered to have an especially explosive personality, but in their own way they command respect. It comes naturally to a quarterback with talent, and Stafford has that.
By nature, Suh and Johnson lead by example. They work hard and compete hard.
All three should expand their personality box and become more demanding of their teammates. There are numerous examples of great players at their respective positions who became great leaders – such as Reggie White, Dan Marino and Jerry Rice.
Players can exert influence on teammates in a way coaches can't. They can't dictate playing time. That's the domain of the coaching staff. But peer pressure can be an awesome motivating force.
I don't see that coming from Jim Schwartz. There are a lot of ways to run a team successfully, and his style seems to be more intellectual than a fire and brimstone motivator.
Players, even young ones, should realize that they have a stake in how a team performs. They can sit back and watch, and next thing they know they're nearing the end and watching their peers go to playoffs and win Super Bowls.
You can't be something you aren't, but there isn't a player on the Lions' roster who shouldn't follow the example of how Johnson, Suh and Stafford prepare to play and compete.
4. Don't hope for the best: Running back and safety are two positions the Lions failed to cover sufficiently, and it cost them.
Both are impact players, but they can't make even a dent if they aren't on the field.
In Best's case in particular, the Lions have to prepare as if he won't be available and consider it a bonus if he returns. He provides a dimension of speed and explosiveness that is hard to replace.
Delmas becomes a free agent in March, and the Lions have a decision to make, based on his health. The players who replaced him were far too pedestrian for the Lions to compete at an acceptable level. That position most be strengthened, regardless if Delmas returns.
5. React faster: Be clear about one thing:
In Game 13 at Green Bay, he had a lane to run through on a kickoff return but slipped and fell without contact. As Schwartz said the next day, he would have had only the kicker to beat.
There was no reason a change in a return man had to wait until a meaningless Game 16.
6. Coaching changes: It is almost certain that Schwartz and his three coordinators – Scott Linehan (offense), Gunther Cunningham (defense) and Danny Crossman (special teams) - will return. Some changes in position coaches are likely, however. How that shakes out, and how soon, remains to be seen.
With the Senior Bowl coming up at the end of January, the Lions should want to have their staff in place, or use the Senior Bowl forum to interview prospective replacements.
My best guess is that the defense will be most of the attention because of the consistent inability to protect leads late in games.
One man’s opinion: In training camp I’d bring Charlie Sanders, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Lions, down from the personnel dept. in training camp to assist with the tight ends. And maybe for an occasional refresher course during the season.
Tell me how it could hurt.
7. Player changes: With 25 players eligible for unrestricted free agency, change is coming to the Lions.
Secondary, defensive line and offensive line are likely to be the most attention.
One position that’s a no-brainer is kicker.
8. Draft profile: I’d be more certain than ever to draft defensive backs with size and a lack of injury history and stay away from players who had problems in college.
If Young is on the roster in 2013, it should only be long enough to be used involving the draft – either adding a pick or player, or moving up on a round.
Any person should get second chances.
There also should be last chances.
9. The challenge flag: Schwartz should give it to an assistant for safe keeping, and to give him time to think before throwing it. That way, it will never get him in trouble again, like on Thanksgiving Day when throwing the flag violated a rule that gave the Texans a touchdown when the runner clearly was down.
I’m sort of kidding on this one.
I’m also sort of not kidding.
10. Look North: The Lions’ 0-6 record against division teams this season was not an anomaly. In Schwartz’s four seasons as head coach, the Lions are 5-19 against North teams.
You cannot win the North if you can’t beat teams in the North. Simple as that.
11. My best prediction for 2012: In my preview column in September, I predicted that Calvin Johnson would break Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 receiving yards in a season. He wound up with 1,964.
12. My worst prediction for 2012: In the same column, I said the Lions would go 11-5 and make the NFC playoffs as a wild card.
After a quarter of the season, I downgraded my Lions pick to 10-6.
With enough time, I’d have gotten to 4-12.
13. My guarantee for 2013: The Lions will take a defensive player on the first round.