DETROIT — At the end of his first game as the Detroit Lions head coach in 2018, Matt Patricia and his team could hear chants of “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets” in a mostly-empty Ford Field as his team was embarrassed on Monday Night Football.
At the end of his final game, on national television on Thanksgiving two-plus years later, there was total silence because no fans were allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If fans had been allowed in the building, there wouldn’t be much for them to do but boo.
Between the first game and the last, not much went well for Patricia as a head coach. And it led to his firing and that of his boss, general manager Bob Quinn, on Saturday afternoon — signaling a complete regime change and an all-out failure of the New England Patriots Midwest experiment.
Quinn’s biggest failing was entrusting the franchise to take the Lions from the middle of the NFL pack to a contender as a replacement for Jim Caldwell, who had three winning seasons in four years. At the time, Quinn said he wanted a coach who could beat the better teams on Detroit’s schedule, which Caldwell did not do. Instead, Patricia turned the team closer to what they were a decade ago, looking at a rebuild in the cellar.
Ownership gave Patricia a mandate of “major improvement” and playing meaningful games in December prior to this season. Patricia’s Lions never met those standards. In his two-plus seasons, Patricia finished 13-29-1, ahead of just Marty Mornhinweg and Rod Marinelli in winning percentage among modern era coaches for Detroit.
Nothing worked for Detroit. Patricia was hired for his defensive prowess and the Lions saw their defense regress each year of his tenure, never fixing their problems. Detroit couldn’t stop the run his last two years as head coach. Patricia’s insistence on playing a man-heavy scheme with little ability to create consistent defensive pressure left cornerbacks and safeties in poor positioning for success.
Offensively he preached he wanted a team that could run the ball. The Lions ranked No. 20 or worse in rushing each season. He went from 6-10 to 3-12-1 and then 4-7.
Quinn’s draft picks did not work out, particularly ones he took when Caldwell was still head coach — linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerback Teez Tabor. Not all of Quinn’s picks were bad ones — Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker and Kenny Golladay — but they didn’t take enough stars or bring in enough impact free agents.
Then Quinn hired Patricia, and while Patricia’s first year on the field was his best one, everywhere else it was a disaster.
Before his first season started, a sexual assault indictment from a quarter-century ago resurfaced — allegations Patricia said were false and proclaiming his innocence in the dismissed case — but it forced him to address them. Lions ownership backed him, but Patricia said it also did not come up in his interview.
In the locker room, Patricia alienated some of his best players when he arrived, including star cornerback Darius Slay, and traded away key players and popular locker room figures in Slay, Quandre Diggs and receiver Golden Tate.
He was often gruff with the media and continuously showed up late for press conferences. He handled criticism poorly — including a four-minute, 900-word defense for practicing in the snow in November 2018.
In his off-the-field dealings, Patricia made marked improvements there in his second and third years as head coach. That was helped by bringing in players such as Trey Flowers, Danny Amendola, Duron Harmon and Jamie Collins, who knew him well and understood his style of coaching. He also improved his relationships with players who had been there in his first season. Patricia also became more accessible to the media and took far fewer shots to reporters, working to mend those relationships.
In December 2019, ownership decided to retain Patricia and Quinn, for 2020 with those expectations of improvement. Yes, Detroit had been 3-12-1, but the Lions were also without quarterback Matthew Stafford for the last half of the season.
At the time, then-vice chairperson and now-owner Sheila Ford Hamp said she knew it wasn’t the popular decision. She believed, at the time, that it was the right one. Improvement would come.
Turned out that was wrong.
While there was far less grumbling about his style with his players this season and a real connection seemed to emerge from Patricia and his players around social justice issues, it never translated into on-field improvement.
The Lions too often looked disorganized and unprepared, hallmarks of coaching failure. Players blamed the team’s failures on execution — as many players on many teams do — but it often comes down to how they are coached during the week.
As the 2020 season wore on, Detroit made critical mistakes in key games, including having 10 men on the field on defense for three plays in the span of two weeks and having a penalty wipe out a touchdown in a 20-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 22.
He consistently lost fourth-quarter leads in his Detroit tenure and lost four of his final five games by double-digits. Patricia never won more than two games in a row during his entire tenure and, whenever he was asked about it, would always say some version of needing to coach and play better.
Patricia continually talked about needing to make improvements and just getting back to work. But those improvements, from Game 1 to Game 43, never arrived. It was, too often, more of the same each week — the main reason Patricia is out of a job after less than three seasons after taking over and Quinn is with him less than five seasons on the job.