The 2018 season could not have gotten off to a better start for the Detroit Lions.
Quandre Diggs jumped an ill-advised pass from New York Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold on the first play of the season. He darted down the sideline, slaloming between two Jets offensive linemen, and somersaulted into the endzone before running to the backwall and parade in front of fans alongside linebacker Christian Jones.
Ford Field erupted. The broadcast caught Lions players bouncing in euphoria on the sideline. Our own Jeremy Reisman, who was in the press box that day, even let out a yelp in celebration, breaking regular press box decorum.
There was an air of euphoria around Ford Field, but also of relief.
After years of disappointment, back-to-back 9-7 seasons ending without a playoff win and multiple clear shots to win their first ever NFC North title coming up short in the final weeks, things were finally supposed to change in 2018.
The team had let go of head coach Jim Caldwell despite him being one of the most successful coaches in franchise history. It was a risk, but for many the risk felt worth taking. Now Matt Patricia was in town with his Super Bowl pedigree. After years of coming up short, this was supposed to be the year where things would change.
It was only one play, but this play seemed to signal the change Detroit fans had amped themselves up with for months. Patricia’s defense did not need anytime to step up to the plate and make plays. The team’s past struggles with rookie quarterbacks already looked quelled. It felt like real change was on the way in Detroit.
For a brief moment, expectations in the Motor City were as high as ever.
Just over two years later, the hope is all but diminished. Patricia was fired Saturday after the team received a Thanksgiving beat down from the Houston Texans. The game dropped his coaching record to 13-29-1, one loss more than the 28 Caldwell posted in four years as head coach. General manager Bob Quinn is out the door as well, and now the team will enter another rebuild under a new regime.
Despite the high expectations, the Patricia era felt like a disaster from the very start.
The first major move the team made in the Patricia era was the release of tight end Eric Ebron. The outspoken tight end was a former first-round pick whose fifth-year option had been accepted only a year earlier—Bob Quinn was still the general manager.
While it did not seem like much at the time, the move was a signal of things to come. Ebron was coming off of his best NFL season in 2017, where he was one of the league’s better talents at the position late in the year. Ebron, an active social media user with an outspoken personality, is not the type of player that first Patricia’s culture, though.
The tight end was not exactly a star, but the team became much worse after he was released. Detroit had nearly zero production from their Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo led tight end room in 2018, and Ebron was missed all year.
Months later, an off-the-field circus began when The Detroit News found records of the Lions new head coach being indicted for sexual assault in 1996 after Patricia and a friend allegedly broke into a girls hotel room and sexually assaulted her on spring break.
What followed was a contentious press conference from Patricia, and the ordeal seemed to have poisoned the head coach’s relationship with the media. A contention that would come to its apex in October, when he demanded ESPN reporter Mike Rothstein fix his posture in a press conference in an incredibly awkward and unnecessarily demeaning moment.
A rocky offseason led into a preseason where the team looked unprepared and overmatched in every single game. Reading too much into preseason is a fool's errand, but four straight weeks of disappointment did even more to put Lions fans on edge.
Then, on the first play of the first play of the first game, Diggs got expectations right back where they had started.
The rest of the game that happened after the Diggs interception has been burned into Lions fans’ minds ever since. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw four interceptions, and a 31-point Jets third quarter led them to a 48-17 victory. Detroit was embarrassed in front of the nation on “Monday Night Football.”
It seemed that Detroit could never escape the shadow of that game during the Patricia era. The whiplash of expectations becoming sky high only to quickly come crumbling down became a theme for the team. In 2018, they would get to 3-3 and defeat the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, before losing seven of the last 10 and finishing the season 6-10.
In 2019, wins against the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers early in the year—along with a game where they took the Kansas City Chiefs to the brink—raised expectations once again. They would then collapse, winning only one of their last 13 games, finishing the season 3-12-1.
In less than three seasons, Detroit has lost 10 games where they have held a lead at some point in the fourth quarter, and that does not include a 2019 tie against the Arizona Cardinals or a 2020 game against the Washington Football team where they blew a late lead, only to get in range for a game winning field goal to win the game due to an inopportune penalty by Washington’s defense.
Blowing double digit leads at any point in the game have become routine for the team. “Dagger Time”, the offseason slogan the team coined to represent their focus on closing out games where they have a lead, almost feels like a sick joke as they started 2020 by blowing a three possession fourth quarter lead to the Chicago Bears in Week 1.
Throughout his entire tenure, from the very beginning to its whimpering end, Patricia did just enough to raise expectations, only to fail to deliver on them. At the start of his tenure fans expected a Super Bowl. In every individual season, fans expected to compete for the playoffs before tarnishing those expectations in Week 1. Even within individual games, the team often looked destined for victory, only to find miraculous ways to lose.
Patricia’s biggest problem as head coach seemed to be that he bought into his own hype.
He arrived in the Motor City as a messianic figure of some sort. The chosen man from the city of victory out east had arrived in Detroit. He would finally lead the team to the promise land that they had long been searching for.
Patricia failed to realize the mistakes his team was actively making, and that his system of team building was not working—even at one point deflecting blame by referencing a Super Bowl he won with New England. He put together a specific defense that only certain players fit into. The player he brought in to fit the defense were not very good, though.
Take his first offseason as head coach. The biggest free agent signing the team made were that of edge defender Devon Kennard and linebacker Christian Jones. They also signed Sylvester Williams and traded from edge defender Eli Harold in preseason. All of these players fit Patricia’s style of defense—a value of power over athleticism, and stopping the run over pass rushing. None of their tenures could be considered a success in Detroit.
Kennard failed to make much of an impact week to week, and while he was a great figure in the locker room, he would disappear on the field. Jones is one of the worst starting defenders in the NFL. Harold played 13 games for the team in 2018, but saw his snap count shrink as the season went on, and he has not played in the NFL since. Williams was unplayable, and was cut after just six games with the team.
Years later, Patricia would say that he “had a lot of work to do” when arriving as head coach in Detroit, but that is provably false in more ways than one.
First, the team was 9-7 in the previous year, and as ESPN analyst and former Detroit Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky pointed out, the team was regularly in the playoff hunt with Caldwell at the helm.
Beyond that, the moves the team made in 2018 are not that of a team hoping to rebuild. Their free agent signings were low-tier options at low-impact positions. Their first two picks in the draft that year were guard Frank Ragnow and running back Kerryon Johnson—another two selections at low impact positions. These are not moves made by a team setting the foundation for a rebuild, but instead for a team that feels that it needs to shore up a few gaps to compete.
Still, though, the coach failed to ever realize his team building process was inherently flawed. Stopping the run is nice, but being able to rush the passer and stop opposing offenses from throwing the ball over you is crucial in today’s NFL.
Patricia also valued his system, and his control of the locker room, over all else. Reports that players were disillusioned with Patricia’s coaching style emerged immediately after the Jets game. Bleacher Report’s Kalyn Kahler’s reporting earlier this month shows a locker room disinterested with Patricia and his brutal, authoritarian, style of coaching, that even celebrated with mimosas once the season ended. When news of Patricia’s firing broke, former players rushed to social media to dance on his grave, and there was a notable absence of current players wishing their now-former coach well in the future.
Poor locker room can hurt the team on the field. Players begin to check out if they fail to buy into the team, and errors like the defense failing to put enough men on the field—which happened three times in recent weeks—begin to happen.
His coaching style also pushed out whatever talent he inherited once he took over. Ebron went quickly. The team traded away wide receiver Golden Tate—Stafford’s favorite target for the better part of five years—in 2018. Glover Quin, a defensive leader and former pro-bowler, left the team on bad terms as well. Diggs would eventually be dealt to the Seattle Seahawks in 2019. In the ensuing offseason, star cornerback Darius Slay got sent to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the team showed no interest in re-signing stand out guard Graham Glasgow. Now wide receiver Kenny Golladay—who has taken to Instagram to allude to potential disenchantment he feels with his current contract situation—is set to hit free agency as well as the team failed to give him a long-term extension last offseason.
The head coach’s ability to jettison talent out of the door combined with his inability to properly bring in talent creates even more problems on the roster. Replacing Slay with veteran corner Desmond Trufant and rookie corner Jeff Okudah has been a disaster thus far, with neither looking like they belong on an NFL field at the moment. Replacing Diggs with two young safeties in Tracy Walker in Will Harris has proven to be a poor decision in hindsight as well. Wilson, Toilolo, top-10 overall draft pick T.J. Hockenson, and big money free agent Jesse James have all failed to match Ebron’s production (though Hockenson has shown some signs in 2020). While the team is fine at receiver post-Tate, they may run into a crisis this offseason if Golladay signs elsewhere, as fifth-round pick Quintez Cephus would be the only returning receiver in 2021.
Patricia’s two crown jewel signings of his tenure are that of edge defender Trey Flowers and nickel cornerback Justin Coleman. Flowers was inked to a huge, $90-million deal in 2019. While he has been a fine player, he has not quite made the impact you would expect of someone with that price tag. Coleman looks like a shell of his former self and is yet another free agent bust.
While Quinn is the general manager, these are decisions made to fit Patricia’s very specific, archaic defense. While many fans still today wish the team had drafted Carolina Panthers pass rusher Brian Burns over Hockenson in 2019, there is no place for a quick, athletic edge rusher like Burns in a Patricia style defense.
All of these moves have combined to leave Detroit as a team that does absolutely nothing well, and does not have an identity. They cannot stop the run or the pass on defense. Their offense is inept whenever Golladay is not in the game. Adrian Peterson, an aging running back snagged off of the scrap heap, somehow earns more usage in the offense than Kerryon Johnson.
Despite failure after failure, the team never adapted during the Patricia era. Every week felt like Groundhog Day, with the same mistakes and the same problems reoccurring like clockwork.
Who the next head coach and GM will be, and whether they will succeed in their roles, is still a mystery. One thing that is not a mystery, though, is that whoever it is will come in having “a lot of work to do”.