GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was 12 years ago this week that the Detroit Lions came to their senses and fired Matt Millen as general manager and president, ending one of the most disastrous reigns an NFL team has ever known.
For the first time since, the Lions are at a true organizational crossroads, where the coming weeks will reveal not just the fate of Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, but likely Matthew Stafford and just about everyone else involved in the football side of things, too.
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The Lions are 0-2 for the second time in three seasons under Patricia, and while the season is far from over with 14 games to play, it feels that way coming off another disastrous loss, 42-21, to the Green Bay Packers.
The Lions have lost their last 11 games and eight straight in the NFC North. They’ve blown double-digit leads in four consecutive defeats. And in what’s become a recurring theme, not just this year but since Patricia took over as head coach, they melted down in a series of mistakes Sunday and lack the mental fortitude to be playoff contenders.
Patricia and Quinn are not in any danger of losing their jobs. Not yet, at least.
Making wholesale changes an eighth of the way through a season is never a good look for a professional sports franchise.
But Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp put both men on notice last December, and things have only gotten worse in the nine months since.
NFL general managers typically get two coaching hires, and since Quinn inherited two years of Jim Caldwell, his seat should be slightly less warm than Patricia’s.
But 34 games into the Quinn-Tricia era, it’s hard to distinguish the two.
Yes, Quinn has acquired the talent, some of it — Kenny Golladay, Frank Ragnow — blue chip. But he’s built this team in Patricia’s image, for a logic-defying scheme the head coach is too stubborn to change, and with too many high-mileage ex-Patriots they both gleefully employ.
Patricia has run off most of the best players he inherited, and even if that’s resulted in a more harmonious locker room now, he’s done little to develop the holdovers into the difference makers that dot the NFL’s best teams.
Certainly, the Lions will have a decision to make on Patricia and Quinn by season’s end, and at 9-24-1, everyone knows what direction this is trending.
If the Lions salvage their season and end up vying for a playoff spot, Patricia and Quinn likely will return for another year.
If they don’t, Hamp will be looking for a new general manager, who’ll pick a new coach, and who might want a new quarterback, too.
That’s what makes 2020 so different from the past dozen years of mediocrity, and that’s why these next few games — at the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4 and against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts after the bye — absolutely critical to the future of the franchise.
When Millen was fired, and the Lions went on to have the first 0-16 season in NFL history, it was clear the Lions were overhauling the three positions cornerstone positions of every team: General manager, coach and quarterback.
In the years since, one of those pillars always has remained in place.
When Martin Mayhew fired Jim Schwartz after the 2013 season, the organization went searching for a more experienced leader it hoped would put the team over the top.
Two years later, when Mayhew was fired as GM, Caldwell was on tenuous ground as head coach, but Stafford’s place as quarterback never was in question.
And when Quinn eventually fired Caldwell after the 2017 season and replaced him with his old friend Patricia, there was no real thought of a rebuild. It was football buddies trying to win now, with Stafford still firmly entrenched under center.
Stafford played excellent football last year, before a back injury ended his season after eight games, and he’s without question the best quarterback this franchise has seen in generations. But he’s also 32 and in Year 12 of his NFL career, and his play the last two weeks has been a big part of the Lions’ struggles.
Stafford still has plenty of good football in him, but if Quinn and Patricia get bounced this winter, there’s a decent chance their replacements will send Stafford with them.
I firmly believe Stafford can have success in this league, but the reality of any rebuild is that the Lions will have a high pick in a draft that, seven or so months out, appears to have solid options at quarterback. And when you take into account the amount of overhaul needed at other positions — the aging defense has modest carryover to more successful schemes — a new coach and GM will be inheriting a team that’s a year or two away from contention.
That means another year or two of hits on Stafford’s fragile back, plus another fat contract to sign, which explains why Stafford’s time in Detroit beyond this year is no guarantee.
Stafford was asked Sunday about his level frustration after all he’s been through in Detroit, a 74-106-1 record, with nary a playoff win and too many games like Sunday to count.
He sounded exhausted.
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“Um, obviously, I’ve been playing here for a long time and I want to win,” Stafford said. “I think everybody in our locker room wants to win, I know they do. Our whole organization does, so I’m just going to continue to try to put as much work as I possibly can into it, be as prepared as I can going into the games to try and play at a high level. It’s frustrating anytime you don’t win. Nobody’s more upset than I am about that, so I’m just going to try to do everything I know how to do to play better and score a bunch of points to win games.”
If the Lions do enough of that the next three months, Stafford should have plenty more opportunities in Detroit. If not, it may be time for him, Patricia and Quinn to make bedfellows somewhere else next year.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content.