After three disastrous seasons, Lions fire GM Bob Quinn, coach Matt Patricia
The hiring of Matt Patricia was supposed to get the Lions off the hamster wheel of mediocrity and elevate the team to a perennial contender. Instead, it proved to be a disastrous marriage that has sent the franchise tumbling back to its all-to-familiar residence at the bottom of the NFL standings.
On Saturday, the Lions finally pulled the plug, firing Patricia along with the man who hired him, general manager Bob Quinn.
Any honest reflection will tell you Patricia's tenure couldn’t have gone much worse. From the nationally televised blowout at the hands of the equally woeful New York Jets in his first game at the helm to becoming the first team in league history to blow four consecutive double-digit leads, the Lions are once again a national laughingstock.
Following the changes at the top, the Lions now stand on the brink of true rebuild for the first time since the franchise drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.
Three years ago, Patricia arrived in Detroit to much fanfare. The longtime Patriots assistant, fresh off his sixth Super Bowl appearance, was the hottest coaching candidate on the market. And despite drawing interest from the Giants, he opted to reconnect with Quinn, a longtime colleague in New England, instead of a chance to return home to New York, where he was born and raised.
Quinn, who arrived in Detroit two years earlier, had stuck with Jim Caldwell, the coach he inherited. The GM was rewarded with back-to-back 9-7 seasons. But even though the Lions hadn’t finished above .500 in consecutive seasons since 1995, the general manager had loftier goals and dismissed the coach after the team failed to return to the postseason in 2017.
"That’s ultimately my record, and I take full ownership of that," Quinn said the day he fired Caldwell. "Really, the standards that I have, and the Ford family has for this team are greater than that, and my goal is to go out and find the best head coach to bring us that championship."
The Lions lined up seven interviews and talked to six of those candidates, but Patricia was always the presumed front-runner. The hiring was announced Feb. 5, the day after the Patriots allowed 41 points in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. Little did anyone realize those defensive struggles would be a sign of things to come in Detroit.
The first year of Patricia’s time in Detroit was rough. In May, it was reported by The Detroit News the coach had been indicted, but not tried, for sexual assault in 1996. The team acknowledged missing the information during the interview process, but offered immediate public backing of the coach, while he emphatically declared his innocence.
"As someone who was falsely accused of this very serious charge over 22 years ago, and never given the opportunity to defend myself and clear my name, I find it incredibly unfair, disappointing, and frustrating that this story would resurface now with the only purpose being to damage my character and reputation," Patricia said in a statement. "I firmly maintain my innocence, as I have always done."
On the field, there was veteran resistance to Patricia’s coaching style, which sharply contrasted with Caldwell’s. Patricia’s belittling of players on the field and in the meeting rooms, as well as his persistent issues with time management, permanently fractured relationships with several players, including Pro Bowlers Glover Quin and Darius Slay.
The Lions would go on to finish 6-10 in 2018. The offense especially struggled, leading to the offseason departure of coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who was replaced by former Vikings and Seahawks OC Darrell Bevell. Initially, that hiring proved to be one of Patricia’s best moves as Stafford thrived the following year before a back injury ended his season after eight games.
It was the defense that sharply regressed starting in 2019. After starting the year 2-0-1, the team lost three in a row and 12 of their last 13 (the final eight where Stafford was sidelined by injury). Even after committing significant resources to the unit that had been middle of the pack a year earlier, the Lions finished 31st in total defense and 26th in scoring.
With their job status in question down the stretch, ownership threw the coach and general manager a lifeline before the end of the season, promising them another chance, while demanding improvements to Patricia’s staff as well as playoff contention in 2020.
Once again, a coordinator was the sacrificial lamb. This time it was defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni being pushed out.
With Stafford healthy, the Lions entered the 2020 season with expectations they’d be able to build on their competitive first half from the previous year. Those hopes were quickly dashed when the team coughed up a 17-point, fourth quarter lead to the Chicago Bears in the season opener, before going on the road and being obliterated by the Green Bay Packers, despite jumping out to a 11-point advantage in the opening quarter.
By that point, Patricia’s winning percentage through 34 games had dropped below Rod Marinelli’s during his dismal tenure in Detroit. After showing a pulse in Week 3, beating Arizona on the road, the Lions returned home and were crushed by a short-handed New Orleans squad missing six starters.
Patricia drew national rebuke for his comments following the game when he stated there had been a “lot of work to do” when he arrived in Detroit.
"It’s a bunch of trash because that wasn’t the case in Detroit," former Lions quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. "We were a good football team. Matthew Stafford was playing as good as he has in his career. That was because of Coach Caldwell. And we were an organization that was ascending. He was building. The culture was amazing. The culture was fantastic. So you had a winning record in three out of four years, the culture was great, your quarterback was playing really good football. So for him to come in and say there was a lot of work to be done is a bunch of trash."
Several other former Lions, including Quin, James Ihedigbo, Joique Bell and Stephen Tulloch all echoed Orlovsky’s comments on social media in the days that followed.
Following the team's bye, Patricia staved off calls for his job with back-to-back wins against Jacksonville and Atlanta, but the success was short-lived. The Lions would go on to lose four of the next five, culminating with a Thanksgiving pummeling at the hands of the Texans, sealing the duo's fate.
Now the Lions will be looking for a new coach and general manager to take them to the championship heights the franchise hasn’t seen in more than six decades. And those hirings will shape the early tenure of owner Sheila Ford Hamp, who took control of the team after her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, stepped down in June.