Wojo: Matt Patricia latest to test Lions’ den of darkness

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Matt Patricia knows a lot about a lot, from football to aeronautical engineering. He’s seen a lot and won a lot, coached the best and learned from the best. He’s officially on his way to take over the Lions, a solid hire with an impressive background.

The question isn’t about Patricia’s credentials. The question is the one that has vexed every Lions coach for the past several decades: Does he realize what he’s stepping into?

The reality is, good candidates never have translated into championship coaches here, at least not since 1957. So Patricia’s first task is a vague conceptual one — he can’t ignore the Lions’ ignominious past, but can’t be intimidated by it. He can’t be someone he’s not, spinning happy tales of high hope, but can’t act like this is some five-year rebuild, either.

In fact, there’s rising hope for the NFL’s historically downtrodden. The Eagles just won their first Super Bowl, and there’s a chance the Patriots have finally begun their long-awaited decline. Tom Brady is 40 and reportedly has had differences with Bill Belichick. Both coordinators — Patricia and Josh McDaniels — are departing, and tight end Rob Gronkowski might be contemplating retirement.

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Working with the Patriots for 14 years (the past six as defensive coordinator), Patricia was shielded from how the lower half lives, and how desperately it wants to climb. The Lions have shown flickering signs of revival, with a winning record three of four seasons under the deposed Jim Caldwell. And they do have a franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford, in his prime, even if he’s never won a playoff game.

By keeping offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and maintaining continuity with Stafford, Patricia can focus on defense, obviously his strength. There’s also important familiarity with GM Bob Quinn, who worked with Patricia in New England and is entering his third season here.

Patricia has something to work with, and the playoffs will be an immediate expectation. But the Lions remain a stubbornly barren outpost, one of four franchises — along with the Browns, Jaguars and Texans — never to find its way to the Super Bowl. For years, the Ford ownership chose management and coaches poorly, and there’s no guarantee Patricia can succeed where others haven’t, even though he comes from a highly successful place. In fact, most Belichick assistants have failed as first-time head coaches, suggesting the Belichick aura might enhance reputations more than it prepares leaders.

I’ve always believed it would take a unique, genuine leader with high intellect to cut through the long-defeatist culture here. From a distance, Patricia might have those qualities. Then again, from a distance, past Lions coaches seemed to have those qualities, and not a single one during the Super Bowl era (discounting interim Dick Jauron) ever got another head-coaching job after leaving here.

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That streak apparently will continue a while longer, as Caldwell hasn’t gotten a sniff for another top job yet. Former Lions coach Jim Schwartz probably will get another shot, having just won the Super Bowl as Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator. In a juicy chunk of irony, the two defensive coordinators in the least-defensive game in Super Bowl history were a former Lions coach (Schwartz) and a new one (Patricia).

These are the quirky fates that dog the franchise and periodically spur debates about curses and karma. This is the environment Patricia will enter, and I say this not as a warning, but as an educational tool.

If Patricia is looking for advice, well, he’s not seeking it from me. But I’m here to offer this: Substance over style, Matt.

Twenty years ago, Bobby Ross came here with Super Bowl credentials — having lost as Chargers coach — and played the crotchety disciplinarian game to a fault. He replaced the easy-going Wayne Fontes and couldn’t budge the culture. Players resisted, Barry Sanders bolted and Ross quit in midseason.

Next came Marty Mornhinweg, a first-time head coach hired by first-time GM Matt Millen, the vision-less leading the vision-less. Mornhinweg was a respected offensive tactician but not a strong leader, and sounded like a carnival barker when he talked about expectations and “the bar is high.” Steve Mariucci stepped in with decent credentials, too, but was more style than substance. It’s fitting, I suppose, he transitioned smoothly to a TV career and never coached again.

Then came Rod Marinelli, another tough guy lacking a broader grasp, and he authored the 0-16 masterpiece. Next up was Schwartz, a bright guy who didn’t mind everyone knowing it, and was undone by abrasiveness and temperament. Caldwell was the opposite, calm and gentlemanly, well-liked by players but ultimately too passive to inspire confidence in a long-term plan. Caldwell also got caught up in media sparring and defensiveness, to no good end.

Don’t play meaningless games, Matt. Don’t feel you have to put on a show, in a press conference or on the field. Also, don’t be alarmed if you start the season 2-0 and Lions fans are shrieking about the playoffs, or you start 0-2 and fans are calling you a bust.

Coaches come here thinking they’ll change the franchise, and they end up changing themselves. We have a phrase for it, Matt – getting Lionized, marked by snippy retorts and a gradual inability to explain oneself clearly. It can manifest itself in an angry Ross yelling, “I don’t coach that stuff!” or an exasperated Caldwell pleading for decorum as he evades questions. Ultimately, it erodes the ability to lead.

My guess, Matt, is you will be the smartest one in the room, but you don’t need to prove it. That’s why I think it’s a positive to keep Cooter, at least as an initial nod to Stafford’s wishes, rather than flexing power before it’s necessary. That’s also why the unkempt beard can stay, as far as I’m concerned, because it fits your persona — smart mind with a grunt’s work ethic.

We’ve seen every show imaginable here, except for a consistently winning show. From a historical standpoint, it’s one of the toughest jobs in the NFL. From the current vantage point, it should be attractive, with an owner, Martha Ford, unafraid to make moves, a famished fan base and a decent talent level.

When the announcement became official Monday, Patricia said he was going straight to work, starting with a Wednesday press conference.

“Now I turn all of my attention to the Lions,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to the next chapter of my career in Detroit.”

We’ve heard it before, Matt, and we’re still waiting for a chapter that ends happily, with reputations intact. Based on background and backing, you have a better shot than most. Just understand you’re about to encounter forces and fates you’ve never seen before, and there’s no proven way to prepare for it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski