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Detroit Lions coaching controversies overblown: On tipping plays and losing players

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Lions coaches are already under fire, and some of it is a little too reactionary.

New York Jets v Detroit Lions Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions were not a well-coached team on Monday. Let’s get that out of the way right up top. I gave the coaching an F in my weekly report card, because of curious personnel decisions, and just straight up incompetence that showed itself not just on Monday night, but throughout the entire preseason, too.

But this week has already produced a couple of coaching controversies in the media, and most of it is hot air. They are specific narratives that Lions fans can cling to and blame for everything that happened on Monday night vs. the New York Jets, when the real problems are much more nuanced and multifaceted. Let’s break it down.

Jim Bob Cooter’s offense is too predictable and Matthew Stafford is tipping plays

We can thank Jets linebacker Darron Lee, who picked off Stafford twice in this game, for this storyline. Here’s what Lee said after the game (courtesy of the Detroit Free Press):

“We were calling out their plays as he was getting up to the line,” Lee told reporters after the game. “We knew his signals. We knew everything. That’s just preparation as a defense. … It just seemed like we were in his head as a defense.”

That admittedly sounds damning. Coming out in the first game of the season with the same signals that you’ve had on tape for years would, indeed, be a sign of an uninventive coordinator.

But knowing what an opposing offense is trying to do is not at all uncommon in the NFL. For the most part, offenses don’t drastically change schemes week-to-week, as that would be too overwhelming of a playbook for any NFL quarterback. As a result, opposing defenses desperately search for tendencies out of familiar formations. Sometimes they guess right—as Lee did several times on Monday—but sometimes they guess wrong.

Matthew Stafford’s former teammate, Dan Orlovsky, talked to Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar this week and provided a lot of clarity on this issue (I highly recommend reading the entire thing):

“Also, you can’t always trust what you see on tape,” Orlovsky told Farrar. “Most offensive coordinators have multiple signals for a single play. If we’re going to run a slant/flat combination, there are probably two or three different signals for that. And all you need to do is put a signal that a team thinks is one thing one time and do something else, and then, all the other signals are unreliable. If you think my signal means we’re running a go route, and we run a stop route and you’re 15 yards off… I don’t buy into it that much. Maybe a play here or there, where a [defender] goes, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that, and I’ll take a guess.’ But defensively? I don’t buy into the fact that it’s knowing signals as much as it is knowing tendencies and formations.”

Now I’m not letting Cooter off the hook here. In fact, he should absolutely be on the hot seat right now. This offense has underperformed for far too long considering the talent he has at his disposal. He’s also responsible for some curious play-calling choices (the pass on third-and-1 that resulted in a pick six, the goal-line run with Theo Riddick, etc.), and the Lions offense hasn’t gotten off to a hot start in years, it seems, due to a stubbornness to commit to the run game early.

But the predictability and hand signal controversies are overblown. He got beat in a couple of games of rock-paper-scissors on Monday, but that’s only the second time Stafford has been picked off three times since Cooter took over as offensive coordinator.

Matt Patricia is losing the team

We can thank good old Carlos for this one. The narrative started early in training camp thanks to a baseless claim from Mr. Morrarez that Matt Patricia was in danger of losing his team for overrunning his players during training camp.

While the notion seemed ridiculous at the time (and still does, honestly), NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo gave the theory more legs late last week, prior to Monday’s disaster.

“Up there in Detroit, Matt Patricia went really hard on these guys in camp,” Garafolo told ‘Good Morning Football’. “There was a lot of contact there, there was a lot of harsh criticism from what I am told. There’s not a lot of, ‘Hey, good job.’ There’s a lot of, ‘Hey, bad job, bleepity-bleepity-bleep.’”

And according to Garafolo, some veteran players are not happy about this and other strict rules such as, according to Garafolo, no pictures inside the locker room are allowed to be posted on social media.

“Matt Patricia is trying to establish some kind of a culture there and veterans are not very happy,” Garafolo said.

Now I don’t doubt that what Garafolo says is true. Any time a team makes such a drastic management change from a guy like Jim Caldwell to a hard-nosed Matt Patricia, there is going to be some unhappy folks. There is undoubtedly a culture change underway in Detroit, and not everyone is going to be prepared to immediately buy-in.

Hell, we’ve seen some players come out of New England and complain about the culture there. Just this offseason,Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson hammered the team for being arrogant and a “fear-based organization.” Former Patriots defensive end Cassius Marsh said he considered retirement because he hated the Patriots’ culture so much.

New England’s methods aren’t for everyone, and because Matt Patricia doesn’t have the results yet, it’s going to be hard to convince some of his players right away.

I don’t deny any of that, but any management change in any business is going to rub some leftover employees the wrong way. At this point, there is no indication that Patricia has lost the entire team. In fact, there is no indication he has lost anybody. There are just a few players frustrated by his methods, but there’s no indication they’ve given up. At this point, we only have a single source in Garafolo indicating any sort of resent, and it’s hard to tell from his reporting just how many players are taking the transition slowly.

Garafolo took things one step further after the Lions’ loss to the Jets, suggesting that an agent of a Lions player felt a blowout was coming, because he believes they were overworked in camp:

Maybe it’s true that the Lions player felt this way, but what I don’t buy is that the Lions’ poor performance was because they were overworked. That’s an overly simplistic excuse, and it’s honestly just lazy thinking.

That being said, if players are thinking that way, it’s bad news whether it’s true or not. And Patricia certainly is doing himself no favors by sporting a team that got blown out in a home opener. This absolutely could blow up into something bigger if the ship doesn’t right itself.

But it’s just Week 1. Winning cures all, and there are 15 games left on the schedule. If there are any Lions players truly jumping ship on Patricia after one (admittedly horrible) loss, then I’m not sure they belong in the NFL to begin with. Adversity happens everywhere in the league, and if you jump at the first sign of it, you’re not going to make it anywhere.

If the wins don’t eventually come, this story may eventually have legs, but this early in the season, this is just connecting dots that aren’t necessarily related. Management overhauls always have bumps in the road, and that doesn’t mean the team has already given up on Patricia because they had one bad game. It means Patricia needs to justify his methods, and he still has plenty of time to convince his players and fans of that.