DETROIT — The Lions' season began with their long-suffering fans hoping against history that the franchise was about to embark on a satisfying new era as a consistent winner.
It ended Sunday on the same old road to nowhere.
A year after crashing the playoffs for the first time since 1999, Detroit completed its full-circle return to the basement with a 26-24 loss to the Chicago Bears at Ford Field.
It was the Lions’ eighth straight loss — their longest drought since a winless 2008 — and cast the light brighter than ever on the question that will define the course of the organization.
Which season was the aberration? This one or the last one?
"You feel like you were turning the corner as a franchise, and for the people and the city and the fans," Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said in a quiet locker room where the whiteboard reminded players of today’s "postseason checkout." "It's frustrating to let down the guys in the locker room, but to me, it's more frustrating to let down the fans."
Lions coach Jim Schwartz emphatically said the right pieces are in place for a re-revival in 2013, though it is suddenly unclear whether ownership believes he is one of them. ESPN on Sunday reported Schwartz's status is "under review" by the Ford family, which is "unhappy with a tattered team culture."
Asked if he has received assurance from ownership, Schwartz said, "I won't discuss any private conversations."
"The thing I'm most concerned about is getting this team back to where we all want it to be," he said. "When the story of the season is written, it's going to say 4-12. No one is happy about that, players, coaches, front office, ownership, everybody. Everybody is in the same boat."
Schwartz, who is signed through 2015, then deflected consecutive questions on whether he expects to be back next season.
The Lions (4-12) move forward with a strong core, led by receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Johnson caught five passes for 72 yards Sunday to finish 36 shy of the 2,000 mark. And Stafford came within 33 passing yards of a second straight 5,000-yard season, though he remained turnover-prone and finished with a league-record 727 pass attempts — breaking Drew Bledsoe’s high of 691 in 1994.
Still, the speculation on Schwartz's status underscores a sense of uncertainty.
Do the Lions write off the franchise's seventh 12-loss season since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978 to injuries, hard luck, and roster deficiencies that can be fixed through the draft and free agency? Do they decide Schwartz, who is 22-42 in four seasons, and general manager Martin Mayhew have built up the equity to earn a chance at redemption? Or, in light of recent reports, do they surprise and opt for a wholesale cultural change?
On Sunday, the Lions neatly wrapped the good and bad of 2012 into one afternoon.
Facing a team with playoff hopes in the balance, they displayed familiar promise in rallying back from a 20-3 deficit. Detroit made it 20-17 in the third quarter and pulled within two points on a nine-yard pass from Stafford to Brian Robiskie with 6:55 remaining in the fourth quarter, then forced a three-and-out to get the ball back.
Yet ultimately, the Lions were undone by two of their most enduring issues: turnovers and an inability to deliver when it truly matters.
Stafford completed 24 of 42 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns but also threw an interception and lost a fumble — two of Detroit’s four turnovers to the visitors’ zero. A year ago, the Lions had a plus-11 turnover margin that ranked fourth in the NFL. This year, they are minus-16.
A franchise with one playoff win in the last 51 years was off to another unhappy New Year. In retrospect, a shroud of dysfunction hung over all of 2012, with seven offseason player arrests raising character questions that never dissipated. Last week, Sports Illustrated reported tension has developed between Schwartz and Mayhew because of "the Lions' penchant for taking chances on character-issue-type players, and the effect on the locker room.”
Schwartz denied any issues, but speculation on the direction of the Lions has only heightened since.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.