The Lions’ season started with an embarrassing rout. It ended with one, too.
And though Matt Patricia’s team was on the happier end of things Sunday at Lambeau Field — “We finished … in a good way,” was owner Martha Firestone Ford’s rare postgame summation — the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
So now comes the hard part for Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn, as they sit here at the end of a disappointing 6-10 season, sifting through the results and deciding what to save and what to pitch.
What’s real progress and what’s not? That’s the first question that has to be answered beginning today, as the players clean out their lockers and Patricia addresses the media one final time before beginning his first full offseason as Detroit’s head coach.
“We’ll take a good hard look at every aspect of the organization that we can,” Patricia told reporters at his postgame press conference Sunday. “It’s nothing that you’re going to nail down and say right now, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’ Because, look, emotions of a season are really hard, they run really high. And you always want to make the best decisions when you have a chance to analyze everything, no matter what it is.”
'A lot of work to do'
Some decisions figure to come rather quickly, however. Namely, the fate of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who is both the most notable holdover from the coaching staff that preceded Patricia last winter and the easiest scapegoat at the end of 2018.
It might not be an exaggeration to suggest Patricia’s decision on that front will be the most important one he makes as the Lions’ head coach.
But it’s far from the only tough call that lies ahead for Patricia, who finds himself without a football game to prepare for in January for only the second time in his 15-year NFL coaching career. (The last came at the end of the 2008 season, when the Lions were busy digging out from an 0-16 debacle.)
“I think everybody understands we’ve got a lot of work to do in front of us and we’ve got a lot of improving to do,” Patricia acknowledged Sunday.
That said, for the players — and probably a sizable portion of the Lions’ fan base — Sunday’s 31-0 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers certainly beat the alternative, even if it cost Detroit a few spots in next April’s draft. (The Lions will pick eighth instead of in the top five.)
And for Patricia, it’s likely a small validation of sorts, that his team played hard — and remained focused — to win a road game on a cold, dreary late-December day, knowing it wouldn’t change their last-place finish in the NFC North. Mock the Lions for torpedoing their draft position if you want, but this mattered to them.
“They play for each other, they play for the dedication and the commitment that they all make,’ Patricia said. “And it was great to see that here in the end, those guys sticking with it and really grinding it out for another 60-minute game.”
No doubt, that’s a big part of the analysis that’ll take place now, as Quinn and Patricia assess the roster and decide who stays and who goes. The grind certainly grated on some in the locker room, and Patricia didn’t seem all that inclined to smooth over the rough patches — at least publicly — as he tried to make good on one of Quinn’s overarching promises last winter to build a tougher team.
Who bought in and who didn’t? Safe to say most of those questions already have been answered in the head coach’s mind. And it’ll be up to Quinn now to replace those that didn’t fit, schematically or otherwise, with ones that do, either in free agency — where the Lions might have as much as $50 million to spend — or in the draft.
There are decisions to make on some veteran players like Glover Quin, T.J. Lang and Theo Riddick, among others. And there are glaring needs at several positions, starting with defensive end, cornerback, tight end and receiver. But as Patricia seemed to make clear last week, there isn’t one at quarterback. The Lions aren’t trading Matthew Stafford and taking the $30 million cap hit that’d come with the move, nor should they.
Still, there needs to be some real conversation after the season to figure out exactly what went wrong, or where the disconnect was, because Stafford didn’t seem like the same player in 2018 that we saw in ’16 or ’17.
Some of that has to do with the personnel surrounding him the second half of the season. But that can’t explain away all of what we saw on the field.
Stafford finished the season with a 66.1-percent completion rate, yet he threw for just 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. And though he fought through injuries to play all 16 games for the eighth consecutive season, Stafford ended with just 3,777 passing yards, or 6.8 yards per attempt — matching his career low for a full season. (That came in the miserable 4-12 finish in 2012.)
Is that Cooter’s fault? Is it on Stafford? And what role did Patricia play in it? Those are honest questions that need to be addressed, even before Quinn goes about hedging the franchise's big bet by searching for Stafford's possible successor.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Stafford said Sunday, when asked about the Lions’ season falling well short of expectations. “Every year you want to be better, there’s no question about that. And every year is totally different.”
That's true, and maybe it's worth noting that two teams went from worst to first in their divisions again this season, including the Bears in the NFC North.
But for the 2019 to be different in a better way — for this season to be a step back that's different than all the ones we've seen before in Detroit — the work starts now. And much like the season that just ended, it won't be easy.