'Part of the business': Lions assistants brace for uncertain future
Few will argue that Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia didn't deserve to lose their jobs over the weekend. There's no reasonable way explaining away the team's record the past three years, culminating with the shortcomings in 2020, when a return to the postseason was the expectation.
That's the practical perspective, but it washes over the human element of the business. Both Quinn and Patricia have families they'll likely need to uproot as they chase their next opportunities and they leave behind front office and coaching staffs in an uncomfortable limbo, tasked with maintaining focus for the final five games of the season.
Quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan has been in Detroit for two seasons and he's among those who have little idea what the future holds. But, as he puts it, that comes with the territory in this profession.
"It's part of the business," Ryan said during a Tuesday video conference. "It's not my favorite part of the business, but I tell most people, 'It's what I signed up for.' When you don't produce, this is what happens. I don't know that I address it all the time, I just say 'this is how it goes sometimes and all you can do is do your best every day when you show up in that building and keep moving forward.' It is what it is."
Ryan has been coaching since 1998 and Detroit is his already his eighth stop. That's what the resume looks like for most coaches, either because they got a better offer while coming up through the ranks, or, at some point, they didn't do a good enough job.
All things considered, Ryan has had it relatively stable in recent years, working for just three franchises since cracking the NFL in 2007. And while two years would be his shortest stint at this level, think about defensive coordinator Cory Undlin and special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs, who arrived in Detroit this year with the hope of being part of a turnaround that never came to fruition.
Those shortcomings leave an especially sour taste in Undlin's mouth because of his longstanding personal relationship with Matt Patricia. The two got their NFL starts together in New England, where they shared a tiny office as low-level assistants with big dreams. It wasn't until now, 16 years later, they finally got a chance to work together again.
"I think you can probably imagine — one of your buddies calls you and asks for you to come over and help, and then you came over and helped, and it didn’t work," Undlin said. "Not a good situation to be in. One of my closest friends on this planet, coaching and personal-wise. So not ideal."
And while there are plenty of examples of new coaches retaining coordinators from a previous regime — including Patricia's decision to initially stick with Jim Bob Cooter in 2018 — Undlin's defense is a big part of the reason the team is where it is right now.
Coming off a game where the Lions gave up 41 points (a pick-six thrown by Matthew Stafford was part of that total), the team is now allowing opponents to score 29.8 points per week. Only the Dallas Cowboys have been worse.
"I've enjoyed every second that I've been here with these guys and I don't see that changing for the next five (games)," Undlin said. "It is what it is. We didn't play good enough and hence one of our co-workers lost his job. We have to play better. My mindset is not changing, gonna come in and keep working and see if we can find a way to play great down the stretch here."
Coombs, on the other hand, has a real opportunity to stick in Detroit. For all of the team's flaws, the special teams have been excellent under the guidance of the 34-year-old up-and-comer.
But that's a discussion for another day. On Tuesday, Coombs wanted to reflect on what Patricia meant has meant to his career.
"I've been in this league long enough to see all sides of it, and a lot of times it just turns into a lot more of a beast, or an assembly line," Coombs said. "...That just seems to be the way that it goes. And in the whirlwind of everything that has happened this week, personally, I just am kind of disappointed and just hurting for Matt. Just to be perfectly honest, to me, he's the first guy to really believe in me to be a coordinator. Gave me my first opportunity. So on a personal level, I am eternally grateful to him and indebted to him for that.
"For whatever reason, there may have been other people I was closer with personally that had the same opportunity and didn't give me that opportunity," Coombs continued. "So just really grateful for Matt, and really painful and frustrating to see him have to go out this way, because whatever public perception has been or whatnot, Matt Patricia is probably one of the most selfless people I've been around. All he cared about from the time I got here was the Detroit Lions, and he did everything he could to bring as much success to this team as he could, and obviously, it didn't work out that way, but I have a lot of respect for the way that he believed in doing things the way that we did and stuck to it to the very end — never flinched, never wavered."