Easiest way to beat Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions: Let them take the lead

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
 
| Detroit Free Press

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When D’Andre Swift caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford a little over three minutes into Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints, it should have been an omen of success for the Detroit Lions.

After all, NFL teams over the previous five seasons (2014-19) were 1,275-682-7 when leading at any point in a game — a .651 winning percentage. Not infallible, but not far off the Green Bay Packers’ regular-season winning percentage (.644) over the past decade — in short, a win was more likely than not, even that early in the game.

But instead, the Lions (after scoring another TD later in the quarter) allowed 35 consecutive points to the Saints and lost their third game in four tries this season. It was also the third loss this season in which the Lions led at some point during the game — all by double digits, too, but let’s not pile on.

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In short, it was the continuation of a depressing trend for the Lions under head coach Matt Patricia, 2⅓ seasons in: Seemingly, the easiest way to beat the Lions the past few seasons has been simply to let them lead at some point.

Coming from ahead

First, the good news: Dating back to the start of the 2018 season, the Lions have led, at some point, in 31 of 36 regular-season games. That’s good for a tie for sixth in the NFL over that span, behind only the Chiefs (36), Ravens (34), Seahawks (33), Saints (32) and the Rams (32). (The Bears and Colts have also led in 31 of 36 games.) Those five top teams combined to go 133-34 (.796) in games they led in. The Bears and Colts, meanwhile, were a step behind at 43-19, or a .693 winning percentage.

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And now — because we’re writing about the Lions, after all — the bad news: Of those 31 games with a lead, the Lions won just 10. (They also had a tie, in 2019’s opener against the Cardinals, after building a 17-point first-quarter lead and an eight-point fourth-quarter lead.) Their 10-21-1 record with a lead isn’t just bad compared to the top teams, though; that .339 winning percentage is the worst in the NFL since Patricia took over. In fact, only four other teams have losing records in games they’ve led since the start of 2018: The Raiders (13-15), Giants (9-12), Cardinals (10-15-1) and Bengals (9-16-1). Likewise, the Lions have four more losses following a lead than the next closest team.

(Pity the poor Jaguars, by the way, who have led — again, at any time during the game — in just 19 of their past 36 games. Then again, they’ve won 12 of those, so maybe they should pity the Lions.)

Same old Lions?

“Yeah, but that’s just the Lions,” you say, with the tired air of someone who has lost track of all their come-from-ahead losses.

And, to some extent, you’re right. Since the turn of the century — or, if you’re a bit more pessimistic, the beginning of “The Millen Age” — the Lions have led in 223 (72.4%) of 308 games, which puts them in 26th in the league. And in those 223 games with a lead, they are 106-116-1. That .478 winning percentage is 31st out of 32 teams; only the Cleveland Browns, at 99-116 and .460, are worse.

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Notably, every other NFL team has a winning record in games they’ve held the lead, including the expansion Houston Texans at .604. For comparison, the New England Patriots lead the league in games with a lead (277) and winning percentage in those games (.845).

So it’s the Honolulu Blue’s fault, right?

Well….

That .478 winning percentage contains some variance between Lions coaches over 19⅓ seasons. Let’s look at Patricia’s predecessors:

2001-02: Marty Mornhinweg’s Lions led in 20 games, but managed just five wins, for a .250 winning percentage.

2003-05: Steve Mariucci (and, in an 2005 interim stint, Dick Jauron) presided over 30 games in which the Lions led, with 16 wins for a .533 winning percentage.

2006-08: Rod Marinelli, oh he of the 0-16 season, got the Lions to 29 games with a lead, and 10 wins in those, for a .345 winning percentage. (Eight of those games with a lead came in that winless 2008, if you were wondering.)

2009-13: Jim Schwartz got 29 wins in 63 games with a lead over five seasons, for a .460 winning percentage.

2014-17: Jim Caldwell, you will likely not be surprised to hear, is the class of this exercise, with 50 games with a lead over four seasons, and 36 wins — that’s a .720 winning percentage, good for 11th in the NFL over his span.

So yes, the Lions have been bad for 20 years when handed a lead – but not always as bad as they have been under Patricia.

Timing is everything?

“Aha,” you say. “Getting an early lead isn’t the same as grabbing one later.” And in that, you are right. But the Lions have been kinda uniformly lousy, at least compared to the rest of the NFL, no matter when they have the lead.

Scoring first: Get on the board first, and play from ahead, right? That was the script in the Lions’ very first game under Patricia; they picked off Jets quarterback Sam Darnold on the first play from scrimmage and returned it for a touchdown. And indeed, the Lions have scored first in 23 of their 36 games under Patricia; that’s good, and tied (with, who else, the Patriots) for third in the NFL, behind only the Ravens (26) and Raiders (24). But this can go either way; the Ravens are 20-6, the Raiders 10-14. The Lions, who were outscored 48-10 the rest of the way in that Sept. 10, 2018 game on national TV? 7-15-1. Still, it could be worse: That .326 winning percentage is 30th, ahead of the Bengals (5-11, .313) and Cardinals (3-11, .214). Of course, both those teams changed coaches before the start of last season. (Then again, the Lions’ record when scoring first is much better than being scored on first; they’re just 3-10 — a .231 winning percentage, 26th in the league — when giving up the first points.)

Leading after the first quarter: The Lions have made it to the second quarter with a lead 19 times under Patricia, good for a tie for third with, yep, the Patriots (and the Buccaneers), just behind the Ravens (23) and Chiefs (21). Unfortunately, the Lions have just five wins in those games; their .263 winning percentage is last in the league, well behind the Cardinals’ .385. (Every other team is at least .500 when leading after one quarter.)

Leading at the half: Ah, things get a little better for the Lions here — they’ve only led at the half 15 times under Patricia (tied for 20th) … but they’ve got a winning record in those games, at 9-5-1. There’s a logic there: If the Lions withstand the second quarter — not hardly a given, considering they’ve been outscored by a combined 88 points under Patricia — they’ve probably weathered the opponent’s best shot. That .633 winning percentage with a halftime lead, though, is just 29th, ahead of only the Raiders (.600), Giants (.556) and Bengals (.545).

Leading after the third: Somehow, the Lions have a winning record here, too. But only barely. They’ve taken a lead into the fourth quarter 16 times under Patricia (good for a tie for 18th, with the Bills) and gone 8-7-1. That’s a winning percentage of .531, dead last in the NFL, and well behind the next-worst team, the Giants at .636 (7-4). In fact, no team other than the Lions even has SIX losses when leading to open the fourth, much less seven, since the start of 2018. (Three teams, however, are unbeaten in that time: The Vikings, with 18 wins, the Saints with 20 wins and, yes, the Patriots with 23. Maybe the Lions should hire someone from that organization, eh?)

What’s the solution?

The easy answer: Score more points and allow less. (No kidding?) But jokes aside, whatever the Lions are doing in the first quarter isn’t carrying over to the others. They’ve outscored opponents by 77 points in the first quarter during Patricia’s reign. That’s third-most among all teams, while their 205 points scored is fifth and their 128 points allowed is fourth-best. The quarterly scoring margin gets ugly after that, at -88 (28th), -62 (27th) and -73 (29th) in the second, third and fourth quarters, respectively.

How do they do that? Beats us. But hey, if all else fails, watch out for this: The Lions have won the coin toss 17 times under Patricia — and they’re 6-11 when doing so. That’s only a .352 winning percentage … but it’s better than what they’re doing now.

Maybe they could bring in Phil Luckett and Jerome Bettis for some pointers?

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.Oh, and the Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive content.

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