| Detroit Free Press
Breaking down where Detroit Lions go after deflating loss to Colts
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett, Shawn Windsor assess the damage after the Detroit Lions’ loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Filmed Nov. 2, 2020.
The same questions the Lions faced entering the season are present now as they head toward the halfway point and Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings: Will Matt Patricia return for a fourth season as head coach? Will Bob Quinn be back for a sixth season as general manager? What does the future hold for Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay? And can the Lions sneak into the playoffs?
Crystal balls are in short supply these days thanks to the pandemic, and since Sheila Ford Hamp has shown no inclination to publicly address her team’s future in-season, we’re left to look for clues in words and deeds from the past to plot where the Lions are headed.
Some paint a pretty clear picture of what should or will come next, others leave much more to the imagination.
Clue No. 1: “This is a building process. It’s definitely something that takes a course of a length of a period of time to do. But the bottom line is it’s about winning, it’s about trying to compete at a high level and that’s certainly what I try to do every single day and what we’re going to try to do here as an organization.” – Matt Patricia, Feb. 7, 2018
What it means: Patricia was smart not to put a timetable on turning the Lions into Super Bowl contenders at his introductory news conference almost three years ago, but after the furor by former players over his “a lot of work to do” comments, it’s only fair to point out that Patricia did not see this as a turnkey job from the start.
Now, that does not mean that 12-26-1 is in any way acceptable, especially not when you have a veteran quarterback like Stafford at the helm for most of those games.
But as Patricia said, this is a bottom line business, and it seems pretty clear that a third straight losing season would not be good for that bottom line.
Patricia’s future pretty clearly hinges on what the Lions do in their final nine games, so the real question is, what constitutes having “an improved team” like Hamp mandated when she took control of the franchise in June?
Clue No. 2: “I just think when you look at our record over the last couple years since I’ve been here, we didn’t beat the really good teams. Our record was above average, 9-7 the last two years, but our record against the better teams in the league has not been that good.” – Bob Quinn, Jan. 1, 2018
What it means: Quinn made that comment the day he fired Jim Caldwell as head coach in response to a question about what held the Lions back under their former coach.
Caldwell went 36-28 with the Lions, made the playoffs twice in four seasons and was well-liked in the locker room. But revisionist history be damned, the Lions were not a very good team under Caldwell — save for the 2014 season — and struggled to beat good teams throughout his tenure.
That’s one of the major reasons why Quinn decided to make a change after the 2017 season, and there’s no reason to think those standards do not apply now.
The Lions went 4-23 against teams that finished the season with a winning record under Caldwell. Currently, they’re 3-16 against above-.500 teams under Patricia. In Quinn’s own words, their record in measuring stick games “has not been that good.”
Now, Quinn shares in the blame for the Lions’ inability to beat good teams. He procures the talent after all, and to his credit, he has never hid from his responsibility.
But general managers typically get two cracks at picking a head coach, so some around the NFL believe he’s on slightly more stable ground than Patricia.
Clue No. 3: “Obviously, they’re together and they’re both going to be responsible for our success. But I’m pretty confident we’ve got the right partnership, so if they’re tied to the hip, I’m OK with that.” – Lions president Rod Wood, Feb. 7, 2018
What it means: Again, I feel obligated to point out that general managers typically have more leeway than coaches. It’s a coach’s job to win now, and a GM’s job to allow that to happen while seeing through a sustainable plan for the future.
Wood, in his comments three years ago, seemed to recognize that distinction, while also affirming the reality of the Quinntricia regime: Quinn and Patricia have known each other for nearly two decades and worked together with the New England Patriots before joining forces in Detroit. Quinn always hoped to hire his buddy as head coach, and the two have implemented a shared philosophy with the Lions.
There are other factors that could impact Quinn’s future in Detroit. We don’t know how much internal pressure Quinn faced to keep Caldwell his first two years as GM, and thus when the clock truly started ticking on his tenure. And the perception that the Lions are slightly more talented than their record could shift the preponderance of the blame for a disappointing finish this season elsewhere.
Taking Wood at his word, Quinn and Patricia do seem to be “tied to the hip.” But perhaps we’ll learn more in the coming days, after seeing how the Lions approach the NFL’s trade deadline.
Clue No. 4: The Lions traded wide receiver Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles for a third-round pick at the 2018 trade deadline.
What it means: If everyone is being honest with themselves, the Lions are in about the same situation now that they were when that trade happened two years ago, which would make them sellers at this week’s deadline.
In 2018, the Lions were 3-4 when they dealt Tate, who was in the final season of his contract and did not fit into the team’s long-term plans. Now, they’re 3-4, no threat to win the Super Bowl, and have a couple worthy trade chips to dangle if they want to make a Tate-like play for the future.
Stafford is not going anywhere, and I don’t see Golladay leaving, either, especially after he hurt his hip in Sunday’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts. But Golladay will be a free agent in March and there does seem to be some growing frustration with his lack of a contract.
CBS Sports reported Sunday that Golladay “was not at the facility when he should have been” Saturday. That’s vague and nonspecific, and I’ve been told similar vague and nonspecific things: Golladay did take part in the morning walk-through, but the Lions did not know where he was for a period later in the day and had to track him down to return.
Golladay’s situation aside, the Lions do have another tradable commodity at receiver in Marvin Jones, whose situation parallels that of Tate’s: Jones is on an expiring contract and at 30 years old likely will be playing elsewhere in 2021, but would have plenty of value to a playoff contender.
Jones said Sunday that he expects to finish the season in Detroit, but reading the road map Quinn and Patricia laid out a couple years ago, there could be a detour ahead.
Clue No. 5: The 2019 Minnesota Vikings are the only NFL team to make the playoffs with a losing division record in the last six years.
What it means: The most important part of this whole equation is whether the Lions can string together enough wins over the final nine games to make the playoffs, and Sunday’s game against the Vikings looms large in that regard.
The Lions are 0-2 in the NFC North right now, with losses to the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, and have one December game remaining against each of those playoff-caliber teams.
To finish .500 or better in the division, the Lions will need to upset either the Packers (at home) or Bears (on the road) and sweep the Vikings. Minnesota (2-5) has looked downright awful at times this season, but beat the Packers on Sunday with a healthy Dalvin Cook in the lineup.
Cook has given the Lions fits in the past, and if they can’t stop him Sunday, history tells us there’s a good chance they miss the playoffs with many more changes ahead.