On Tuesday, the Detroit Lions announced that head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn would retain their jobs into 2020, despite the 9-20-1 record the two have accumulated since the beginning of the 2018 season.
It’s obviously an unpopular decision, and ownership knew it when they talked to the media this week.
“(Changing coaches) would have been the popular choice, the popular decision, and we knew that,” Sheila Ford Hamp, daughter of owner Martha Ford, said. ”But as I say, we’re doing what is right for the organization.”
I’ve sat on the fence about this one for a while. As the losses mounted up, and the discontent in Detroit grew louder, I found it hard to pick a side. The Lions’ performance over the past two seasons has been unacceptable, no one will debate that. The rumors and tell-tale stories of locker room frustrations from 2018 are disturbing. And the unpopular moves like trading Golden Tate and Quandre Diggs look horrible from a PR, locker room and football perspective right now.
But, ultimately, I do think the Lions are making the right move by giving this duo one more year.
This was a rebuild
I’m just going to start with my most controversial opinion on this topic. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this team was rebuilding the minute head coach Matt Patricia stepped into the building. And I’m not just talking about a “cultural rebuild” that results in more intense practices, tough love and the removal of ping pong tables in the locker room.
This was a complete defensive personnel rebuild. Look at the Lions’ 2017 roster. No, seriously, look at it.
Of that roster, only four regular contributors remain: A’Shawn Robinson, Jarrad Davis, Darius Slay and Tavon Wilson. It’s possible three of those players are gone in 2020.
This coaching staff wanted a completely different set of players, both in terms of their personality and in terms of their on-field talent. And, as we’re starting to see from other “quick rebuilds” around the NFL, that actually takes a considerable amount of time.
Quick rebuilds aren’t that common
Last year, we all marveled at the Chicago Bears for how quickly Matt Nagy turned a 5-11 team into a 12-4 division winner. Of course, what we all overlooked was simply how it was the defense that carried that team—a defense that not only retained its coordinator, but almost all of its players and got one big addition in Khalil Mack. Nagy was brought in to fix the offense, and—news flash—it hasn’t happened yet. The Bears’ offense currently hold the 29th-best rushing attack by DVOA and one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Their 18.3 points per game currently rank 26th.
The year before that, we all got caught up in Sean McVay fever. Now the Rams’ offense ranks 18th in DVOA—just above the Detroit Lions, who have spent the last six weeks trotting out inexperienced and downright bad quarterbacks. Sure, they have a Super Bowl appearance, and at least their touting a winning record right now, but this was far from the magical fix every perceived it as a couple years ago.
Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press talked to former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil last week, who is staunchly against the Lions moving on Patricia after Year 2. Vermeil himself won just nine games in his first two years (1997-8) with the Rams. In his third year, he went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl.
“The deeper the philosophy, the better the coach, the more difficult the first year can be,” Vermeil said. “Because you change everything. You change organization, you change schemes, you change how people play their individual positions, and many times your first year you make them worse before you make them better. In fact, I think sometimes if you’re really coaching, you make them worse before you make them better that first year.”
Vermeil’s case is obviously more the exception than the rule, but his quotes speak to some truth. A full overhaul is not going to happen in one or two offseasons. If this team was serious about moving from mediocrity to solid franchise, it wasn’t going to happen overnight, even the Bob Quinn failed to mention that little tidbit the day he fired Jim Caldwell.
It’s risky, but there is no good option here
As I alluded to, keeping a coach for a third year after two failing seasons is not exactly playing the odds. Sure, you have your Kyle Shanahans and your Dick Vermeils, but the list of failed third years is far, far longer.
But the alternative is just as bad. Hitting the reset button is hitting it hard. With Patricia goes Quinn, and with Quinn goes the past two years of roster building. The very specific set of players this team is just now starting to build a franchise around—Devon Kennard, Trey Flowers, Jahlani Tavai, Tracy Walker, Da’Shawn Hand—will all be tough fits under the next regime. Quinn is just now finally moving on from the last pieces of Martin Mayhew’s reign—four years in. And half of his drafts have been for a completely different coaching staff.
Moving on from Quinn and Patricia means another four-year window of slowly chipping away at one regime’s personnel and building another. Meanwhile, your 31-year-old quarterback is aging and nearing an eventual retirement. Who wants to go through another decades-long search for a franchise quarterback in the middle of yet another roster rebuild? Anyone?
But where’s the progress?
Don’t worry. This isn’t the part where I try to polish a turd that was the 2019 season. If you’re looking for signs of progress on the defensive side of the ball, I’ve got nothing for you. Injuries played a part, but they absolutely don’t excuse what happened this year. It was an absolute failure on defense, and there’s nothing I can say that should sway you of that opinion.
But I have seen some progress in Patricia himself. Many of the things former players accused of him from 2018—his lack of punctuality, his abrasive demeanor towards players—have been noticeably absent in 2019 (with the one very big exception of the Quandre Diggs saga). Ultimately, it obviously hasn’t resulted in more wins, but it’s a sign that Patricia is changing, evolving as a head coach and a leader.
When I sit back and look at the two options—stick it out one more year or blow everything up—neither look particularly appealing to me. However, I’d much rather hold my breath that a healthier crew in 2020 plus another year of experience turns things around. Because as we’ve seen for the past 50 years of regime changes, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Of course, if I’m wrong, and the Lions are wrong, we can all join together in blowing it all up in 2021 anyways. Hell, most of us have waited our entire lifetimes to see a winner. What’s one more year?
And the Fords made it pretty clear what the goal is next year.
“We expect to be a playoff contender (next year),” owner Martha Firestone Ford said per MLive. “Those are our expectations, which we’ve expressed to both Bob and to Matt.”
That may not be an ultimatum, but it’s pretty damn close. By putting those words out there to the media, the pressure is on for an immediate turnaround, and there will be no excuses.
Right now, it feels like Lions ownership is in a lose-lose situation. There’s no obvious door that has a Lombardi Trophy waiting behind it. But I’m willing to stick with the choice they made two years ago for one more season. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be first in line to find out what’s behind Door No. 3 next year.