Not much has gone well for the Detroit Lions this season, but one area where the team has consistently excelled is on special teams.
That wasn’t enough to save first-year coordinator Brayden Coombs, who was fired Monday after calling an unauthorized fake punt during the team’s 46-25 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Interim head coach Darrell Bevell said the move to relieve Coombs, 34, of his duties was “an organizational decision.” Bevell noted he has been given authority to manage the coaching staff and the decision started with him, but it wasn’t a call he made on his own.
Bevell said he spoke with team president Rod Wood about parting ways with Coombs before waiting to hear back from Wood and the team’s leadership group.
“As I started this job here three weeks ago, I talked in terms of, for me, it was a five-game audition. For each and every one of us, it was an opportunity to show our best selves, show who we are, play together as a team,” Bevell said Monday. “Everybody had an opportunity to be evaluated. Whether you’re being evaluated here, whether you’re being evaluated for somewhere else. It was part of the evaluation.
“The (fake punt) decision yesterday that was made in the game was not a correct decision. I thought long and hard about it last night, and I ended up talking to Rod and told Rod what my thoughts were. Then Rod and the rest of the leadership group made a decision and then helped me in that decision.”
According to a team source, organizational frustration had been brewing with Coombs for some time, with a belief the coordinator was overly focused on self-promotion. But it was the rogue, in-game decision against the Titans that was allegedly the final straw.
The source explained that Coombs called a fourth-quarter fake punt without consulting other members of the coaching staff, and not even all 11 players on the field were aware of the play call.
With the Lions trailing 32-18 and facing a fourth-and-4 at their own 31-yard line with 12:09 remaining, safety C.J. Moore received a direct snap and failed to secure a first down. The Titans took over at the Lions’ 34, scored a touchdown six plays later and the rout was on.
When asked about the fake punt after the game, Bevell didn’t indicate it was dialed up without his approval.
“As far as the decision, the punt, we like some of the fakes that we have,” Bevell said. “We feel like (Moore) is a guy that’s got some good speed, have an opportunity to get the edge blocked and get him on the edge, so we ended up going with that. We could have definitely left the offense out there as well, but with the clock and where the time was, it seemed like a good opportunity for that.”
However, when asked Monday if it was accurate that Coombs called the fake on his own, Bevell replied: “Yes.”
Bevell said given the situation and variables in play — timeouts, time of game, score and quarterback Matthew Stafford taking a couple shots on the drive — he communicated to Coombs that he wanted to punt the ball away.
“We’re down two scores. Matthew had just been hit on second down on the little fumbled snap. He had just been hit on third down,” Bevell explained. “Just assessing the whole situation, the communication that we have, it can change each and every drive. We’re communicating, whether we’re in minus territory, we’re in positive territory and always trying to stay on top of situational ball. Yes, there’s a decision to be made there. The decision, for me, was I have to assess everything. I’m assessing that the quarterback is not in a good way, and so also with the score and where we were — we had three timeouts left, plus the two-minute warning and Jack (Fox) is punting really well.
“I thought it would be best to flip the field and keep us in the game there, down two scores. We get the ball back, you saw how the offense was going there, with a really good chance. If I’m going to go for it there, I’m going to leave the offense out. I’m going to trust Matthew with the ball. That didn’t happen in the situation, and there’s some things that could be different, like I would be standing in a different spot, could’ve made really good decisions in that. Not knowing what was going on led to bad things happening.”
Coombs didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Detroit News. He’s the first coaching staff member to be fired since the Lions parted ways with head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn last month.
According to Bevell, the players were off on Monday and he spoke to some of them about Coombs’ firing. Several Lions, though, took to Twitter to support Coombs.
“Thankful for the opportunities Brayden Coombs gave me this season,” fullback Jason Cabinda tweeted, “guy won’t be on the market for long whoever gets him will be getting one hell of a coach.”
Defensive back Tony McRae called Coombs one of the best coaches he’s played for in the NFL.
“Great energy and a man who will challenge you week in and out,” McRae tweeted, “I’m at a lost for words. I’ll play for Brayden anyday!”
Amidst the cultural concerns, it’s difficult to question the production Coombs got out of his players after joining the Lions this offseason. The biggest success has been Detroit’s punting and coverage units.
Jack Fox, in his first season as the team’s punter, is averaging 45.3 yards net on his 49 boots. If he can keep that up, he’ll set the franchise mark, while barely being off pace for the league record. Return man Jamal Agnew ranks in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt return averages. The Lions have also blocked four kicks this season, three punts and an extra point.
Despite that success, Bevell said he feels it’s important to instill his philosophy in the team and added he could have lost credibility if he failed to act. He also declined to say whether there were other incidents in previous weeks that led to Monday’s dismissal, a move he reiterated was in the best interest of the team moving forward.
“To be honest with you, it was an agonizing decision,” Bevell said. “It’s something that was really hard for me. I thought it’d be really important to think on it a lot. I really thought about it, basically all night long. I ended up getting a hold of Rod and talking it through with Rod. There are some things that you can do, and I feel like you can come back from, and then I think there’s some decisions that — you don’t make those decisions.
“There has to be repercussions because there’s a lot of people that are making similar decisions or in different ways. Again, I’m just trying to do what’s best for this team and put this team in the best situation to be able to win.”