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Football Outsiders Q&A: Matt Patricia’s rigidity is holding the Detroit Lions back

The analytics site explains why Patricia’s stubbornness has cost the Lions football games.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

This week, we are running our annual Q&A series with football analytics site Football Outsiders. Every year, Football Outsiders publishes their Almanac, which recaps the previous season and uses their analytical model to make predictions and projections for the upcoming season. If you’d like to purchase this year’s Football Outsiders 2020 Almanac, click here.

Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia is undoubtedly entering this season on the hot seat. Having taken a 9-7 team over in 2018 and turned in records of 6-10 and 3-12-1 the following two seasons is more than a setback, it’s a failure. Of course, it’s always tough to measure the impact of head coach alone. It’s not Patricia’s fault that Matthew Stafford got injured, but is it his fault the rest of the team failed to contend without their quarterback?

There was one portion of Football Outsiders’ 2020 Almanac that really stood out to me, and it was this statement.

“The Lions will contend, if Matt Patricia can get out of their way.”

So in Part 4 of our interview series with Football Outsiders’ Bryan Knowles, I asked him to clarify. What exactly was Matt Patricia doing—or not doing—that is holding the Lions back?


Question: You say in your almanac that “The Lions will contend, if Matt Patricia can get out of their way.” In what way do you think Patricia has gotten in the way the most thus far?

Knowles: “Patricia’s biggest problems are his lack of flexibility and his personnel management. He has a system, it won him Super Bowls, and it’s what he wants to run defensively. When it doesn’t work, it’s “not a scheme thing”; it’s the fault of the players—a “lack of fundamentals,” as he put it last October.

“He will not deviate from his plan to give struggling players help, or adjust his decision-making to maximize the strengths of his roster. For example, the Lions ran more man-to-man coverage than any team in the league last year—and yet had a better DVOA when playing in zone. The Lions ranked 27th in pressure rate, but Patricia rarely gave his oft-overmatched defensive line extra help getting to the quarterback.

“Patricia runs a complex defensive system, and he didn’t inherit a roster fantastically suited for it—see why he’s brought in so many ex-Pats to fill the depth chart in the last two offseasons. But rather than acknowledge that and make temporary adjustments to get the most out of the players on the roster, he insists on staying the course, squeezing round pegs into square holes. And when players get upset, or frustrated, or cross him, they’re sent packing—see the trades of Quandre Diggs and Darius Slay.

“When talent has clashed with culture, culture has won, even when it comes as a detriment to the team as a whole. It comes across almost as a parody of the public image of Belichick’s no-nonsense, team-first attitude. But Belichick has a) shown a willingness to let characters like Rob Gronkowski and Cam Newton be themselves, b) reworked his defensive scheme multiple times to account for talent deficiencies and surpluses, and c) has a pocket full of Super Bowl rings which helps players buy-in. Patricia has yet to show significant aptitude in these areas—it’s not that he can’t improve, just that the signs so far have been troubling.”

Tomorrow: How is this year’s Lions projection different than last year’s—which also predicted Detroit to go worst-to-first?