The Detroit Lions walked out of Soldier Field on Sunday as losers. After dominating their division rival Chicago Bears for much of the decade, they dropped their third straight to their Great Lakes cousins to the South.
While leaving the Windy City with a win would have been quite the accomplishment—it was the first time someone other than Matthew Stafford started at quarterback since the 2010 season—the loss to a team they have dominated in recent history signifies something bigger. Something for this team broke in 2018. After two playoff appearances and three winning seasons in the span of four years, the Lions have fallen from grace and into the depths of despair the team found themselves in for much of the aughts.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the old saying goes. After arguably one of the greatest periods the team has had in the Super Bowl era, Detroit chose to move on from former head coach Jim Caldwell. Just finishing with nine wins and a fourth round exit every year was not good enough. The city of Detroit craved success and it did not seem like Caldwell was going to be the guy to bring it to them.
Firing one of your most successful coaches ever is a daring move, though, and when you make that move you have to make sure you find someone better than the guy you got rid of. If it pays off, your team can take the next step and find themselves in the Super Bowl hunt. If it doesn’t, you may have condemned your team to failure for the foreseeable future.
A season and a half later, it seems like the Lions have condemned themselves to failure.
I am not one who thinks NFL teams should play things safe, and back in the 2017 season, I agreed that the removal of Caldwell was probably for the better. I’m happy the franchise made a leap and tried to go all in as Stafford entered his prime. It is clear that this risk has not paid off, though, and now the team is all but lost.
When the team hired Matt Patricia in February 2018 they made it clear that general manager Bob Quinn had finally got “his guy.” A new coach to lead the pride, hand selected by Quinn himself. Someone he had worked with previously as a member of the staff in New England. Their contracts are due to end in the same year, meaning if they get extensions—or get let go—it will also likely happen in the same season.
Patricia and Quinn would work hand-in-hand to build the team they wanted to build. A team that had an identity they wanted for their football team. GM and Head Coach working hand-in-hand as they made every individual decision.
Now, two years into that era, it is clear something is not working. Detroit has a record of 9-15-1 and are set to once again miss the playoffs. They are one of the worst teams in the NFC and will most likely be picking in the top 10 of the draft once again.
As we begin to look towards next offseason in November for the second straight year, it is hard to really gauge what the best path for Detroit is going forward.
On one side, they could always cut their losses and move on. If the Patricia experiment is deemed a total failure then the team could move on and look towards the future. The removal of Patricia would mean that Quinn goes as well, and we would see a new regime take over in Detroit.
Darius Slay, the star corner who held out last offseason and has indicated that he is open to a trade away from the Motor City, could be dealt for a few valuable draft picks. They could even potentially move on from the likes of Graham Glasgow, A’Shawn Robinson, Rashaan Melvin and Tavon Wilson for free as they all will be free agents next offseason. Even the veterans Marvin Jones Jr. and Rick Wagner can be either dealt or cut to save money and acquire assets for the future. If the Lions want to start over this offseason, the option is there.
But starting over means the Lions will be doing so for the fourth time in eleven years, and the second time in three years. It would mean delaying potential victory by even longer, and Stafford is not going to get any younger or any healthier over that time.
They also have money tied up in the future. They signed defensive end Trey Flowers and cornerback Justin Coleman to huge deals last offseason that they can not get out of for a while. Even the deal given to tight end Jesse James can have some long term consequences. You can not blow things up so quickly after going all-in during free agency.
On the other hand, Detroit could always just double down. Hold on to Patricia and Quinn and keep letting them build the roster they want to create, hoping that giving them another year to put it all together will finally work. They will have around $51 million in cap space next season, and while some of that would go to extending players like Glasgow and Robinson, they still have enough money to potentially add a second-tier edge rusher or cornerback in free agency.
A top-ten draft pick also gives them another chance to add either a corner or edge rusher and they could realistically fill their two biggest needs on the defensive side of the ball. Slay still has another year on his deal. Flowers has only been getting better in Detroit. Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand give the team potential to have an elite young defensive tackle duo going forward.
But do you trust this regime enough to double down? In two years, they turned a fringe playoff team into a bottom feeder. While the cap space and draft picks give them a chance to do something, do you trust this regime to do the right thing? Quinn is responsible for the horrendous 2017 draft that included Jarrad Davis and Teez Tabor. Quinn chose Frank Ragnow over the likes of Harold Landry and traded up for a running back in 2018. Made the galaxy brained decision to add Jahlani Tavai in the second round of the 2019 draft. Gave Christian Jones, definitely the worst player on the team that gets playing time and arguably the worst player in the NFL getting regular playing time, an extension. The majority of these moves made to accommodate Matt Patricia’s system, but the system has produced a defense that can not pass rush, defend the run or cover well.
Letting them go all-in this offseason could potentially work, but it is more likely to end up with the team digging themselves into a bigger hole, essentially handicapping themselves for longer when they eventually need to rebuild in the near future.
They could try to play the middle. Have a quiet free agency where they add a few role players, add a few more Patricia-esque players in the draft and hope Stafford can do enough to drag the team into the playoffs.
But again, would that even be possible? Detroit will need to make a decision on Davis’ fifth year option this offseason. A decision will need to made for Robinson, Glasgow and the others no matter what. Slay will want an extension, and it will have to be a big one if they want to keep him around. Not extending him risks losing an elite corner right as the team thinks they can start competing. Taylor Decker will be looking for a deal as well as he enters a contract year in 2020.
Just to even be competitive next season, the team will need to dole out money long term. Playing the middle means not being good enough to win right now, tying up money long term that makes it hard to rebuild and also potentially losing key players that you will need to replace. Kicking the can down the road does not do anything for this team either.
Detroit is at a crossroads with seven games left this season. They have three options to consider going forward, but none of them seem like the right option.
Whichever path the team takes, Lions fans should be prepared for a few rough years ahead.