Justin Rogers ranks the biggest mistakes in Bob Quinn’s Lions tenure

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

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No NFL general manager is perfect. Far from it, actually. There are going to be plenty of hits and misses for each who hold the title, and the key to success is to have the former outweigh the latter. 

During his five years with the Detroit Lions, Bob Quinn had his hits, particularly with his management of the team’s salary cap and in the draft, where he found some quality contributors in the middle and later rounds. That list is headlined by Pro Bowl wide receiver Kenny Golladay in the third round of the 2017 draft. 

But, as it usually does when a tenure doesn’t make it beyond five seasons, the misfires overshadowed the successes. Quinn, fired on Saturday along with coach Matt Patricia, concluded his time in Detroit with a 34-43-1 record. 

Here, in my opinion, are the 10 biggest mistakes during his time with the franchise. 

Honorable mentions

► Stating, “He’ll hold up,” after being questioned about Kerryon Johnson’s heavy workload and injury history coming out of Auburn. The young running back would go on to miss 14 games due to knee injuries his first two seasons. 

► Waiting until the season started poorly to address obvious offseason needs. Quinn made a pair of quality, midseason deals to acquire Damon Harrison and Everson Griffen, but both moves came after the Lions were already slipping out of playoff contention ahead of the trading deadline. 

► Quinn repeatedly swung and missed with his evaluation of veteran running backs, including Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and C.J. Anderson. Each never played another down after leaving Detroit. 

When discussing poor draft decisions, you can’t overlook the high-round misfires at linebacker. Both Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai have failed to live up to their lofty draft status, significantly hampering the effectiveness of Detroit’s defense. 

Subscription: Wojo: After Quinn-Patricia debacle, can Lions ever break the sins of their past?

10. Zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero tolerance

In any field, it’s wise to avoid black-and-white declarations, unless you’re absolutely certain you’re prepared to stand behind those convictions. 

On the day Quinn was introduced, he made one such definitive stance, saying he had a zero-tolerance policy for players with a history of domestic violence or gun crimes. A year later, he signed two backup tight ends who had each been charged with brandishing firearms during separate incidents. 

When asked about it, Quinn changed his tune, saying the team would always research each individual situation when making personnel decisions. That’s a reasonable policy, but a troubling walk-back of the original stance. 

9. Drafting Jimmy Landes

One of the things Quinn emphasized during his introductory press conference was the importance of knowing your own roster, but his decision to take a long snapper in the sixth round of his first draft showed he was out of touch with what he had in Don Muhlbach. 

Whether this was an attempt to showcase the Patriots’ ruthless approach to replacing veterans or simply a move to save an inconsequential amount of cap space, it certainty gave off a real smartest-guy-in-the-room vibe.

In the end, logic prevailed and Muhlbach kept his job after soundly winning the training camp competition. And four years later, the veteran is still snapping, slowly but surely moving up the NFL’s all-time games played list. 

8. Standing by while ownership went after Calvin Johnson’s bonus money

OK, this one isn’t fully on Quinn. He wasn’t the one pushing to reclaim a prorated portion of Johnson’s signing bonus when the star receiver retired in 2016. But the first-year GM also didn’t speak up, standing by and allowing the black eye to be one of the first major news cycles during his tenure with the franchise. 

The Lions always seem to be in this perpetual loop of cultural shortcomings, and while Quinn was trying to do everything he could to reshape that perception, the team decided to be petty with one of the franchise’s all-time greats. In doing so, they showed an inability to learn a lesson after making a similar, alienating misstep with Barry Sanders. 

7. Letting Larry Warford walk

One of Quinn’s primary objectives when he took the job was rebuilding Detroit’s offensive line. Part of that overhaul involved letting Riley Reiff and Larry Warford depart in free agency in favor of signing veterans Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang. 

The Reiff/Wagner swap, even though it didn’t work out in Detroit’s favor, at least made sense. Reiff was looking for left tackle money, and got it from the Vikings, while Wagner, one of the league’s better right tackles, signed here for less. 

But letting Warford, a rock solid guard, go in favor of an older option with an uncomfortably long history of injuries remains confusing. 

Listen, T.J. Lang is an outstanding player and locker room leader. But the injury issues never went away and he was forced to call it a career after playing just 19 games in two seasons with the Lions. Warford, meanwhile, went on to earn three straight Pro Bowl selections playing for the New Orleans Saints. 

There is a caveat to this conversation. It’s possible Quinn was interested in re-signing Warford, but a toxic relationship with position coach Ron Prince made returning to Detroit a non-starter. 

But Quinn’s overall valuation of the guard position reared its head against this past offsesaon when he allowed the talented, durable and versatile Graham Glasgow to similarly walk in free agency. 

6. Poor backup plans

Quinn never properly invested in a backup for quarterback Matthew Stafford. The team went from Dan Orlovsky to Jake Rudock to Matt Cassel to a revolving door of guys last season.

So when Stafford’s iron-man streak came to a crashing halt in the middle of last season, the Lions first turned to Jeff Driskel, then undrafted rookie David Blough, neither who were with the team until after the preseason. 

Not surprisingly, the Lions went 0-8 with Stafford shelved. And with any of those aforementioned backups, it’s difficult to imagine them winning more than two of those games. 

Leading to that moment, Quinn never opted to use an early- or mid-round draft pick on a player worthy of developing, while simultaneously going cheap on veteran options, instead of paying a little more for a guy like Teddy Bridgewater or Case Keenum, who were able to carry teams when their respective starters went down. 

You get what you pay for. 

Subscription: From the obvious to the long shots, 25 candidates to replace fired Lions coach Matt Patricia

5. Signing Jesse James

A year after cutting Eric Ebron, and missing out on a viable replacement in free agency, Quinn aggressively pursued James in 2019, signing the Steelers tight end to a four-year, $22.6 million contract that included $10.5 million guaranteed. 

On the surface, it seemed like a solid addition. James had averaged 37 catches for 378 yards and three touchdown his final three years in Pittsburgh. But it also proved short-sighted, since Quinn would draft T.J. Hockenson with the No. 8 pick a little more than a month later, instantly devaluing what James would bring to the table. 

The result has been an embarrassing 27 catches in 27 games. Maybe if the blocking was elite, you could stomach the limited pass-game production, but James’ blocking is average at best. 

It’s a near certainty James will be gone after this season and the Lions will be left with $4.3 million in dead money in 2021, a last memory of this train wreck of a deal. 

4. Sticking with Jim Caldwell

There’s some revisionist history going on about Quinn’s decision to fire Caldwell after back-to-back 9-7 seasons, but let me remind you that it was the right decision. The Lions were stuck in a rut, going nowhere fast, and even though Caldwell posted the best winning-percentage by a coach in team history, you have to judge him against league standards, not franchise standards.

Four years, no division titles, no playoff wins and a 4-25 record against teams that finished with a winning record. It wasn’t good enough.

In hindsight, you can make a strong case Quinn should have made a change at coach immediately after being hired. That’s not because Caldwell was a bad coach or the locker room didn’t adore him, but because he was never really Quinn’s guy. They co-existed, but never had the symbiotic relationship you need to take an organization to the next level. 

Would that have meant bringing in Patricia earlier? Maybe. But even if things played out exactly the same way they did during his actual tenure, Quinn probably gets another swing at hiring a replacement, learning from his mistakes in the process. 

By delaying that decision two years, Quinn found himself tied to the hip with his only coaching choice. 

3. Setting expectations too high

While he never actually said “9-7 isn’t good enough,” it is a fairly paraphrased representation of Quinn’s comments after firing 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,” Quinn said. 

Unintentionally, the general manager put an immense amount of pressure on Patricia to produce immediately, providing no grace period to rework the personnel to fit either the scheme or envisioned culture. 

From the moment the Lions were blown out by the lowly Jets in Patricia’s first game, talk radio and social media commentary was abuzz with predictably contemptuous commentary about 9-7 not being good enough. 

It also lowered the bar for those fans who now pine for a return to that mediocrity. 

2. Drafting Teez Tabor

It almost didn’t matter what Tabor did at the University of Florida. All anyone was talking about heading into the 2017 draft was his speed. After running the 40 in 4.62 seconds at the combine, he somehow posted a worse result at his pro day, clocking in at 4.72 seconds.

The list of successful NFL corners with poor straight-line speed is short and you never want to be hunting for exceptions to a rule when using an early-round pick. But that’s exactly what Quinn did, taking Tabor in the second round, No. 53 overall. 

After making the selection, Quinn definitively owned it, saying he spent more time watching Tabor’s tape than any other prospect in his scouting career. That turned out to be an embarrassing endorsement. 

Tabor lasted two seasons with the Lions, allowing a perfect passer rating when targeted in 2018 before the team gave up on him. After Detroit, he spent some time on San Francisco’s practice squad, but has never seen another regular-season snap. He’s currently a free agent. 

1. Hiring Matt Patricia

After firing Caldwell, the Lions lined up seven interviews, but the entire process felt like it was for show from the start. There was never a doubt Patricia was the target and Quinn officially got his man after the Patriots’ season concluded with a loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl. 

It proved to be the most disastrous of marriages, starting with the Lions’ failure to discover the coach’s indictment for a sexual assault charge in 1996. From there, Patricia’s drill-sergeant approach proved an unwelcome contrast to what the team’s veterans had grown accustomed to under Caldwell, badly hindering buy-in. 

Creating conformity over the next two years cost the Lions some of their best players, culminating with the trades of safety Quandre Diggs and cornerback Darius Slay. 

And to think, Quinn had a shot at Mike Vrabel, who ended up taking the Tennessee job and being the inspirational force that has elevated that organization to the heights the Lions hoped to achieve under Patricia. 

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