One-and-Done Season for Matt Patricia May Be the Best, and Only, Move for LionsNovember 13, 2018
The Lions were seeking direction when they hired Matt Patricia to be their new head coach this past offseason. And, man, they sure did find it.
The Lions went 9-7 last year and 9-7 the year before that, reaching the playoffs twice in the last four seasons. They were never terrible under former coach Jim Caldwell, just forgettable and lacking any sort of identity or forward momentum.
So the Lions fired Caldwell and did what directionless franchises have done too often over the last 15 years: They grabbed the latest Belichick Buddy and turned themselves into Patriots wannabes.
After nine games, Patricia has given the Lions a new direction: straight down to the bottom of the standings, like an old car battery sinking to the bottom of a swamp.
Patricia inherited a wild-card-caliber roster and made things so bad so quickly that veterans in the locker room have already been forced to issue votes of confidence for him.
"These are our coaches," LeGarrette Blount said after Sunday's 34-22 loss to the Bears, via Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. "We support them 100 percent. We have their back, and we're just going to do everything we can to make sure that we get this thing going in the right direction."
Added defensive back Nevin Lawson: "I believe in him. I definitely believe in him and this team and this organization and everybody is in this locker room."
The we believe 100 percent in Patricia, each other and everybody pronouncements should be taken for what they are worth: statements no players would ever be asked to make if their coach wasn't already in serious professional jeopardy.
Sunday's locker room endorsements also stand in contrast to reports in June that Patricia's use of wind sprints as high school-style punishment had the potential lose the locker room and another set of early-season reports that veterans were chafing under too many team rules.
Ah, grueling practices and rules for rules' sake: the twin pillars of the Baby Belichick/Patriots Cosplay philosophy. Patricia also brought along the treat-reporters-like-stink-bugs tactic, which is charming after multiple Super Bowls but makes a coach sound unprepared and defensive after a two-touchdown loss.
So, are players are getting with Patricia's program (as they claim to be when microphones are buzzing around them) or disgruntled (as multiple shoots of the grapevine suggest)?
The team's on-field performance is a reliable and definitive tiebreaker.
The Lions looked comically unprepared to face the Bears on Sunday, and they did little to hide their half-hearted effort. Defenders pointed to one another as receivers streaked past them for touchdowns. Defenders collided and knocked each other over in coverage, springing receivers for big gains.
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw for 209 yards and as many touchdowns as incompletions (two) in the first half alone. Matthew Stafford was sacked six times by the Bears, bringing his two-week sack total to 16.
How did Patricia explain the humiliating loss to a division rival that looks far hungrier and more creative on both sides of the ball?
"They were just more ready to go than we were," he said to reporters after the game.
That's not good. But at least he didn't order the press pool to sit up straight.
It was the third straight week that the Lions fell more than 10 points behind by the second quarter and played the rest of the game like they were content to linger in the rearview mirror.
The Lions started the season letting a Jets team that's now 3-7 and mulling a coaching change steamroll them 48-17. They rebounded with encouraging upsets of the Patriots and Packers, but whatever optimism or momentum that team might have gained from those wins is now buried under piles of sacks and blown coverages.
Little that the Lions do makes any sense these days. Ziggy Ansah, a top pass-rusher coming off an early-season shoulder injury, played just 12 and 15 snaps in the last two games, respectively. Blount still siphons carries away from more effective rookie Kerryon Johnson, but when the Lions needed a critical 3rd-and-1 conversion Sunday, they turned not to Johnson or the burly Blount but 29-year-old linebacker-turned-fullback Nick Bellore, who got stuffed in the first carry of his NFL career.
Part of the Lions collapse falls at the feet of general manager Bob Quinn, another Patriots organizational lifer trying to smuggle magic out of Foxborough. Quinn shipped off wide receiver Golden Tate but added defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison to the defense in a pair of trade deadline deals that indicated that the Lions still aren't sure whether they are contending or rebuilding.
The Lions have no replacement for Tate on the roster; TJ Jones, a five-year vet with 51 career catches, has taken over for a player who averaged over 90 catches per year in his last four seasons. The Lions essentially replaced Tate's receptions with sacks, just as they have replaced Ansah with a lack of pass rush and injured cornerback Darius Slay with empty space in the secondary.
In three offseasons, Quinn has added little of consequence to a Lions roster that wasn't there when he arrived. That hasn't made Patricia's job any easier.
Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter also deserves some blame and is likely to bear the brunt of it when the Patriots expatriates look for another assistant to ritually sacrifice at the altar of their own job security. (Special teams coordinator Joe Marciano was tossed into the volcano last week.)
Cooter isn't a Baby Belichick but a Peyton Pal who rose through the coaching ranks by designing game plans perfect for Peyton Manning and quarterbacks just like Peyton Manning, all five or six of them throughout human history.
Jets players claimed to be able to anticipate Cooter's play calls in Week 1. But whether opponents know the whole Lions playbook or not, the innovations that teams like the Bears are using to set scoring records have passed the Lions by.
There is no synergy right now between Quinn's acquisitions, Patricia's schemes and the expectations placed on Cooter and the offense. That's a major problem, because the Patriots Way is all about synergy: personnel, coaching, offensive and defensive decisions made in lockstep harmony so every seventh-round pick knows his role and is equipped to fill it. Take that top-down philosophy away, and all that's left are grouchiness and gassers.
The Lions thought they were getting a visionary when they hired Patricia. He was marketed as a combination of Belichick Jr. and a defensive Sean McVay, with a splash of Rex Ryan's maverick charm with players and media.
What they got instead was another Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini or Josh McDaniels, a functionary useful to Belichick for his ability to draw plays or slap backs, but someone who mistakes his sliver of the big picture for the whole thing. The only difference between Patricia and past boy wonders and ManGeniuses is that it's hard to pinpoint what Patricia is supposed to really excel at.
Sure, the Lions could give Patricia a second year to build his program. That's what wise, patient organizations do, right? Patricia can replace Cooter, get rid of anyone who grumbled about rules and workouts, work with Quinn to add some former Patriots in an effort to (drumroll, please) change the culture in Detroit.
The Lions didn't have a culture problem under Caldwell, just talent and creativity problems. Any bad feelings in the organization now arrived with Patricia, and getting blown out regularly only makes things worse.
Swapping out assistants and players can be a shell game for an overmatched coach, and it can set an organization back years. Patricia doesn't deserve to be the architect of a roster/staff overhaul unless he can prove that he brings anything to the equation except some Super Bowl rings as a sidekick and a No. 2 pencil.
The Lions have a vicious late-season schedule: visits from the Panthers, Bears and Rams over the next three weeks, the Vikings in December and a trip to Lambeau to end the year. Patricia needs to clean up the defense, find something that works on offense and not just manufacture another stray upset or two but prove that he can instill some week-to-week consistency in a team that is too often unready to go at kickoff.
If not, the Lions should move on, because the organization spent too long going in no direction and can't keep waiting to start heading in the right direction.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeTanier.