The Detroit Lions’ marriage with Matt Patricia ended the way most team/coach unions do in the NFL — in divorce. But unlike most long-term relationships, there are no good times worth remembering. The pairing was toxic almost from the start through its bitter finish, which probably came a year later than it should have.
There’s a football game to be played Sunday, between the Lions and New England Patriots. And the Lions have more to worry about with their present than their past, given the team’s disappointing 1-3 start to the season. Still, it will be impossible to ignore the elephant in the room in the days leading up to kickoff, given this is the first time Patricia and the Lions will have crossed paths since parting ways.
Scars remain in Detroit. While a marriage might end with lingering debt, the Lions have been left with enormous dead-money cap hits, including more than $18 million they’re still holding for a couple of ex-Patriots Patricia brought in to rebuild a defense that never got off the ground, in the form of Trey Flowers and Jamie Collins.
And that treadmill your ex-spouse bought as a Christmas gift no one asked for and now collects cobwebs in the corner of the basement? Yeah, that’s the training hill at the team’s practice facility, a lasting monument to Patricia’s failures here, which extend from his 13-29-1 record to his inability to ever get the buy-in any coach needs to get his program off the ground.
Buy-in requires respect, yet no matter how many former players were brought in to help Patricia establish his envisioned culture — a knockoff “Patriots’ Way” — it never took hold. The coach demanded respect without earning it, while being slow to give it to his players. Anyone who wasn’t happy with his dictatorship was shown the door, no matter how talented or productive. It’s why Darius Slay is in Philadelphia, Quandre Diggs was shipped to Seattle and Glover Quin opted for retirement a year after his request to be released was denied.
The Lions had admittedly hit a wall under former coach Jim Caldwell, but after being brought in to get the franchise over that hump, Patricia did something far worse than failing to win a playoff game — he managed to break the team’s spirit.
Post-Patricia, the Lions have focused on rediscovering that spirit. As is often the case when a replacement is hired, the franchise opted for the opposite, not so much schematically, but culturally. Beyond their shared passion for the game, Dan Campbell couldn’t be any more different than his predecessor.
Culturally, the oppressive air has lifted. Eggshells have been replaced with solid ground. Players and staffers no longer have to look down at their feet when walking the building’s hallways, worried a passing, cross-departmental pleasantry might draw the irrational ire of the head coach. Music, games and laughter have returned to the locker room, and players and coaches aren’t afraid to showcase their personalities for fear of being condemned behind closed doors.
Instead of being mocked nationally, there’s a groundswell of support for this current regime. People outside Detroit genuinely want to see these Lions succeed. Of course, the on-field results have been the same, even a little worse than what they were under Patricia. Until that changes, none of the aforementioned stuff matters. Campbell understands that.
“I understand what this is — and look, (if) you don’t win, you’ll get run out of town and that’s the way life is,” Campbell said after Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks. “I mean, I’m here to win games, and (if) you get in close games like this, you’ve got to win them.”
After the divorce from the Lions, Patricia moved back in with his parents, so to speak. Papa Bill Belichick welcomed his son back with open arms, first giving Patricia a versatile role, including various front-office responsibilities, while initially detoxing from his time in Detroit. More recently, he’s been unofficially handed the keys to the Patriots’ offense.
And while that transition has been anything but smooth, Patricia is having more success in his role than the Lions are in fixing the worst defense in franchise history he left behind. Detroit is currently on the ground, looking for a knee cap to bite, but they are in prime position for their former coach to deliver a final stiff kick to the ribs. Worse yet, he might deliver that blow while starting a third-string rookie quarterback on Sunday.
It’s an indignity the Lions shouldn’t have to bear, but football leaves little room for your feelings. It’s said the best revenge is living well, but that’s not enough this week. The Lions might be in a far better place, culturally, but if ever they needed a win, it’s now.