It’s well-worn territory at this point, holding up the bare statistics of Matt Patricia’s Lions tenure against that of his prematurely fired predecessor, Jim Caldwell. It’s obvious that stubbornness disguised as pragmatism is the only thing keeping the current staff there as the team plays out the string on a season that was supposed to be revelatory in its legitimization of Patricia’s body of work.
Instead, we’re treated to more moments like the one we saw in the third quarter of Sunday’s blowout loss to the Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook taking an ISO handoff and breaking through the first wave of Lions defenders with both of his lead blockers still intact, free to scrape up any of the minor speedbumps on Cook’s way to an easy touchdown. A few plays later, the Lions’ offense threw its third interception of the day and Minnesota was back on the attack, free to grind away at the remaining 10 minutes with a three-touchdown lead.
While the Vikings are an ascending team at the moment and could very well stabilize in time to make a run at a wild card berth, the game felt emblematic of Lions football over the past three seasons—a four-hour long hunt to figure out what this team does exceptionally well. What gives anyone reason for hope. What the hallmark of the Patricia tenure has been.
A coach who takes over for someone who has fired after three winning seasons in four years needs to be almost infallible, regardless of the circumstances. But Sunday was the second time this year the Lions have allowed a single rusher to gain more than 160 yards in a game (Cook finished with 206 and a pair of scores, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry despite the Lions having 8 or more defenders in the box on 60% of those rushing plays). They are not a top-15 pass rush or run stopping unit. They are not a top-10 anything, according to Pro Football Reference’s stats going into Sunday, except for turnovers and fumbles lost on offense.
In fairness to Patricia, maybe some of us expected too much. His fictional-sounding origin story in the lab of some rocket science classroom lends itself to the kind of outsized expectations that are difficult to live up to, which is not his fault. What Patricia can take the blame for, though, is how he handled not meeting those expectations (the Lions are now 12–27–1 in his two and a half years) and the excuses he made for the team’s litany of issues. He should also take responsibility for what has become week after week of football that is utterly punchless and devoid of identity. And while the Lions have faced their fair share of attrition on the injury front, a majority of Sunday’s game was a construction of his vision; his draft picks, his coaches and coordinators, his free agents and his game plans.
This isn’t an advocation for an in-season firing, especially with the way the NFC North is slowly eating itself alive, though an owner that has seen enough might be curious to see how this collection of personnel might perform without one significant variable tested. Anything can happen, even Patricia’s Lions unexpectedly blooming down the stretch against some of the best teams they’ll face all season. But it is a warning for other organizations that seem prone to buying into the same kind of fairytale the Lions did, then allowing it to corrode over too long a period of time while the franchise’s best players in their athletic prime twist in the wind. This team didn’t have to be milquetoast. It didn’t have to be 3–5, tied for last place. And it’s fair to wonder what Patricia will get out of it as they keep puttering along to the end.