ALLEN PARK, Mich. – It’s been three years of failure, of 10-plus-loss seasons, of a lack of continuity and consistency, and once again, the Detroit Lions are back essentially where they started -- trying to find a winner.
Now they seek a head coach and general manager to take this beleaguered franchise and make it something more than mediocre at best. Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn were supposed to be the people to do this. At least so the Lions thought. Instead, the duo set the franchise back.
To understand how the Lions reached this point -- with another regime change and a defense that set franchise records for points allowed (519) and yards allowed (6,716) -- one has to dig back further than Patricia and Quinn, the two architects of Detroit’s current mess of its own making.
It starts in 2014.
Detroit’s dual decisions to not re-sign Ndamukong Suh after the 2014 season or even adequately prepare for his potential departure by drafting Aaron Donald over Eric Ebron in 2014 set everything that happened since in motion.
There’s little chance Detroit would have started 0-5 on its way to 1-7 to begin the 2015 season had Donald been in place to replace Suh. In fact, a rookie Donald alongside Suh and Nick Fairley could have made that defense even better, perhaps good enough for the Lions to win a division title or playoff game.
If even one of those things take place, it’s possible all of former coach Jim Caldwell, general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand still are with the Lions.
Taking away the butterfly effect on those decisions and looking at the three years of Quinn and Patricia, here’s how Detroit is in its current spot -- and some possibilities for how it can get out of it.
There’s nothing wrong with having a very specific vision for your franchise. This is what you’re being hired for as a head coach or general manager. There’s a quote in the book "You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake," centered around the biases surrounding major business decisions, that stood out for the Lions.
“The most serious errors I’ve seen,” a CEO told author Olivier Sibony, “were committed by executives who had a grand design in mind, and who bought and sold whatever they needed at any price so they could have their dream as quickly as possible.”
Sibony wrote, “In other words, these leaders start off by telling their shareholders and their management a compelling story of value creation. They lock themselves into their own storytelling, and it quickly leads them to make bad decisions.”
This feels, in many ways, like what happened to the Lions. Neither their search for a general manager nor for a head coach last time around felt very thorough. Team president Rod Wood even admitted their most recent searches were focused on candidates “because of their accomplishments as opposed to criteria that had been established before we started interviewing with them.”
Patricia and Quinn ended up instilling the only thing they had ever worked under in the NFL -- the Patriot Way -- in Detroit.
To do this, they drafted very scheme-specific players for Patricia’s defense -- notably linebacker Jahlani Tavai -- and focused very heavily on players with ties to New England (Jamie Collins, Trey Flowers, Danny Amendola, LeGarrette Blount, Justin Coleman, Duron Harmon and Danny Shelton, among others) with varying levels of success. These players also understood Patricia and his style of coaching, which in turn caused issues with others in the locker room.
The offensive and defensive schemes were rigid. On defense, the Lions were too married to man-to-man defense, even when Detroit was getting little pressure on quarterbacks and playing young cornerbacks still learning the game. On offense, Patricia was committed to the run and a more conservative style. The Lions put up 24 or more points in every game Darrell Bevell served as interim head coach, and quarterback Matthew Stafford had a passer rating over 100 in all of them after reaching that mark just three times in his first 11 games this season.
“From a freedom standpoint, you just feel like we could just go out there, let loose, play free, don’t worry about making mistakes, don’t worry about anything, just go out there and play,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said after the Lions beat Chicago in Bevell’s debut. “Guys responded, brought that energy and it was good.”
How to fix it: In some ways, it goes back to Caldwell’s philosophy of not getting rid of good players and finding ways to work with divergent personalities. The type of coach -- offensive, defensive, special teams -- shouldn’t matter. How he handles the players he’s tasked with coaching and how he motivates should be paramount along with the willingness to adapt. That’s something that too often seemed to fail under the most recent regime.
This is where Quinn failed the most and potentially put the Lions in a difficult position. While Quinn made some good deals in his time as general manager -- his best was probably his first, signing Marvin Jones to a productive five-year contract -- others were questionable at best.
He signed right tackle Rick Wagner to a five-year, $47.5 million contract, setting the market for the position before 2017. Wagner played three seasons in Detroit before he was released. Right guard T.J. Lang was signed to a three-year, $28.5 million deal, also in 2017. Lang was good while healthy, but played just 19 games over two seasons before being cut.
Of the deals still on the roster, tight end Jesse James, a potential cap casualty this offseason, was signed to a four-year, $22.6 million deal before the 2019 season -- the same year the team drafted T.J. Hockenson. James had 30 catches for 271 yards and nine touchdowns over two years, averaging less than a catch and under 10 yards a game. There’s still time for right tackle/right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai after an injury-plagued season, but Quinn signed him to a five-year, $45 million deal (with $20 million guaranteed) despite little full-time starting experience. Quinn and Patricia bet on Nick Williams at defensive tackle after a six-sack season in 2019 -- instead of looking at Williams’ prior history, with no career sacks. He had one sack in 2020.
Detroit signed Desmond Trufant to a two-year, $20 million deal to be its No. 1 corner. Trufant suffered three hamstring injuries limiting him to six games, leaving his future in doubt. The Lions don’t have much wiggle room, either, as the team currently has approximately $8.6 million in cap space for 2021, according to Roster Management System data.
How to fix it: There are contracts the Lions can potentially escape -- Williams, James, Christian Jones, Chase Daniel, Coleman and Shelton. They could try trading other players to free up cap space and, perhaps, receive draft capital in return to facilitate rebuilding.
Restructuring some deals could help, but this will likely take more than one season to straighten out, particularly if the Lions give big money or a franchise tag to wide receiver Kenny Golladay.
By 2022, the Lions are projected to have more than $82 million in cap room. While that number will surely go down as contracts are added, there is eventual breathing room. It just might take a year to get there.
Talent misjudgment/roster construction
Quinn did a good job in the first round of the draft. Left tackle Taylor Decker is a cornerstone to build on. So is center Frank Ragnow, potentially due a large contract extension early in the next general manager’s tenure. Hockenson looks like a keeper and perennial Pro Bowler at tight end. Running back D’Andre Swift had a strong rookie year. Whether the new regime looks at Stafford as a trade asset or a building block, the Lions have options at quarterback.
But the depth of the offense -- other than the line -- is poor. Detroit has questions behind Swift as Kerryon Johnson enters the last year of his contract. The entire receiver room other than Quintez Cephus and opt-out-returnee Geronimo Allison are free agents. Tight end is a question other than Hockenson.
On defense, it’s worse. Massive turnover likely awaits. Flowers is a player to build around on the defensive line. The Lions can hope for improvement and health from Julian Okwara and should consider re-signing his older brother, Romeo, who posted a 10-sack season. Tackle John Penisini had a good rookie season, but his skills might not translate to another scheme.
The Lions have three linebackers under contract for 2021. Only one -- Collins -- is a roster lock, and part of that is because of the almost $12 million in dead money the team would eat to release him.
Cornerback has a promising third-year player in Oruwariye, and Detroit has to hope Jeff Okudah’s struggles were mainly attributable to being a rookie in an adverse situation combined with a groin injury. Trufant and Coleman are hardly roster guarantees.
At safety, was Tracy Walker’s poor 2020 an aberration? Will Harris, the team’s third-round pick in 2019 and part of why the team traded the 2020 Pro Bowler Diggs, did not play well, and his future is unknown.
Even special teams has questions. Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox will be back as an exclusive-rights free agent. Long-snapper Don Muhlbach and kicker Matt Prater are free agents, as are most of Detroit’s top core special-teams players -- Miles Killebrew, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tony McRae and Mike Ford.
How to fix it: This won’t be answered until the new staff is in place, but like the cap situation it’s likely more than a one-year answer. Detroit needs an infusion of talent at multiple positions due to a lack of numbers or expected turnover, particularly at defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and receiver.
Wood said he believes the Lions are “not as far away as it might appear,” but even he admitted Detroit is going to have to rebuild the defense. He said he believes the Lions can “continue to be competitive” while retooling, but he also was quick to say he knows his opinion here matters little.
Having a better plan
In listening to Wood speak during his past few news conferences, the Lions seem to have admitted that they didn’t quite grasp the full scope of the general manager position and all it entails when they hired Quinn.
They have expanded their net -- the Lions interviewed more general manager and head-coaching candidates than they did in their Quinn/Patricia searches -- and have brought in more help, notably Chris Spielman as a special assistant to Wood and owner Sheila Ford Hamp and Mike Disner, the team’s cap specialist who has contacts around the league. Hamp also is involved, which didn’t happen during the Patricia search. They have a vetting advisory committee of Rod Graves, Barry Sanders and Mark Hollis to assist.
The Lions also have a better feel for what they want in their football leaders -- again, focusing more on leadership and intangibles than necessarily the glitz of Super Bowl titles or big-name hires. They’ve been transparent, too. While Wood hasn’t given away everything, he’s been candid about what they are looking for.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Wood said. “And I think having gone through this now twice, there’s things I’ve learned and things hopefully that we’ll do better.”