Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers take a look at Matt Patricia, the leading candidate for the Lions' coaching job, and they preview this weekend's conference finals. Detroit News
The Lions haven’t won anything of note, not yet, not for a long time. They’re watching again as the championship games approach, so any perceived progress must be viewed cautiously. That’s why one victory isn’t being wildly celebrated, even though, as offseason “victories” go, it would be a significant one.
The Lions have gotten their guy, according to multiple reports, although it can’t be official yet. Matt Patricia is busy trying to win another Super Bowl as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, so Lions GM Bob Quinn can’t talk about it. Is Patricia the coach to finally knock the Lions off the treadmill of mediocrity? No guarantee there.
But I do know the Lions are on the verge of pulling off an important rarity for them. They identified their man and apparently outmaneuvered the New York Giants for him, and executed their plan.
Patricia, despite his lack of head-coaching experience, always made more sense than Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who failed miserably in two seasons as head coach in Denver. The only consistent NFL template for success is a staunch defense, and Patricia brings all the appropriate credentials. The four teams playing this weekend — Minnesota, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, New England — rank first, second, fourth and fifth, respectively, in scoring defense.
Outside of Tom Brady, the quarterbacks are there by accident — Case Keenum, Nick Foles, Blake Bortles. The Lions have tried to pin everything on Matthew Stafford, but it was more short-term necessity than logical strategy, and balance is paramount.
Patricia, 43, was the Lions’ presumed top choice as soon as Jim Caldwell was let go. The twist is, he also reportedly was the top choice of the Giants, a storied franchise that has won four Super Bowls but plummeted to 3-13 this season. With Patricia a native of upstate New York, this looked like a difficult tussle for the Lions, a tussle they’re now poised to win.
The sequence began two years ago, when Martha Ford, team president Rod Wood and advisers tabbed Quinn, one of the Patriots’ bright young front-office minds. We always suspected Quinn, 41, would tab another bright Patriots mind as coach, but he wasn’t impetuous about it. He gave Caldwell two years, and an 18-15 record wasn’t good enough.
The NFL coaching carousel hasn’t exactly spun with can’t-miss candidates, unless you count the Raiders’ $100-million gambit on Jon Gruden. But Patricia was perhaps the hottest inexperienced prospect, so much so that media outlets in New York were championing his path to the Giants.
Less than a week ago, New York Daily News NFL columnist Gary Myers wrote: “Here’s why I think Patricia will be announced as the Giants coach: His defensive schemes are game plan-centric as he adapts the personnel week-to-week. He is excellent at mid-game adjustments. … (Bill) Belichick has given him the autonomy to run that side of the ball.”
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King posed a similar theory, saying he heard the Lions would end up with Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel because Patricia favored the Giants. Listen, this is not a shot at respected media. Of course it would make sense a coach would choose the Giants over the Lions, who tote one lonely playoff victory since 1957. It also was in Patricia’s best interests for it to be known (perhaps by his representatives) there were other suitors.
The Giants and new GM Dave Gettleman openly talked about returning to their nasty-defense roots, after years of offense-minded head coaches, and it stirred angst and consternation in New York after reports Patricia had chosen the Lions. That forced the Giants to grab Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, a fine candidate too.
Beef up required
For legal purposes, I’m again required to point out Patricia won’t automatically succeed unless the Lions upgrade their roster. I’m also required to note Patriots assistants have mostly failed as head coaches, removed from the Belichick-Brady cocoon.
But there are sound reasons the Lions are eager to bust that trend. No. 1 was the Quinn influence, as he worked 12 seasons in New England alongside Patricia. You can argue Quinn simply is following a familiar path, although I’d suggest the argument loses bite when a team like the Giants spied the same path, and many in the NFL tout Patricia’s intelligence, work ethic and communication skills.
Then there’s the Stafford factor, and maybe the Jim Bob Cooter factor, which theoretically frees up Patricia to focus on defense. He’s long been considered a pencil-eared whiz, and if you’re hiring a rocket scientist — literally, with his background in aeronautical engineering — you want the full benefit of that expertise.
The Giants are in the process of shoving out 37-year-old Eli Manning and perhaps drafting a quarterback with the No. 2 pick, while the Lions are coming off back-to-back 9-7 seasons. Stafford hasn’t been the winner his talent suggests he should be, but he’s not yet 30 and has improved under Cooter.
The Lions also surrounded him with a below-average defense (21st in scoring, 27th in total yards) and one of the worst running games ever to stumble across an NFL field.
Patricia’s hiring isn’t official so we don’t know if Cooter’s return is official. But it seems headed that way, and as long as Patricia wants to retain him — not forced to retain him — I’m not opposed to it. In 41 games with Cooter as coordinator, Stafford raised his completion percentage from 60.1 to 66.3 and his passer rating from 83.9 to 98.2. And there’s a decent chance the Lions’ abysmal running game wasn’t all on Cooter, but also a function of Caldwell’s stubbornness and offensive line coach Ron Prince, who was fired.
If a superior, experienced coach was available to install his own system, fine. But judging by who’s reportedly being hired — Patricia, Shurmur, McDaniels to the Colts, Matt Nagy to the Bears — this offseason wasn’t packed with certainty.
It generally takes a little time and a little luck before a team knows if it landed the right coach. But it’s encouraging the Lions apparently got the guy they wanted, a respected guy from a respected organization, a guy others wanted too.