Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Lions, a team that fired its head coach, Matt Patricia, and general manager, Bob Quinn, just after Thanksgiving. Patricia went 13–29–1 over three years at the helm.
1. What went right this year?
Matt Patricia was gruff with the press and I think in a return serve did not get an extended warranty on “benefit of the doubt” that other coaches might. Let that be a lesson to all Belichickian disciples that you must win first before you start insulting peoples’ intelligence. Plus, there were the optics of how much worse the team performed under Patricia than Jim Caldwell, who, in hindsight, was dismissed prematurely. The Lions had a few bad bounces this year, like the Deandre Swift drop in the end zone in Week 1. It’s when the losses ballooned into consistent blowouts and whispers of complete detachment from the locker room started that the emergency lever was pulled. It’s hard to blame ownership if they view Matt Stafford as a bit of a ticking entity.
2. What went wrong this year?
Everything? The Lions were banged up, checked out and steamrolled in 2020. Their offense was competitive despite some key issues up front and only four appearances from Kenny Golladay, but the defense—Patricia’s specialty—is 30th in turnovers created, dead last in points allowed, dead last in first downs allowed and dead last in rushing touchdowns allowed. There were a few games this year that really exposed the defense’s ideological shortcomings, which some opposing coaches had noted in the past.
3. The Big Question this offseason
What direction will the Lions go in with this hire? They must bring in both a general manager and head coach who can not only align this disjointed roster but reinvigorate an already battered fan base that has had to slog through three years of Trust me, I got this without ever getting this. We’ll get more into this in the next section, but I think the hire is a fairly obvious one for Detroit. This is about winning games, yes, but this is also about crafting an identity for a franchise that has not had one since, maybe, Bobby Ross was there? There is a serious need for a connection there and not just another float in a parade of dour coaches playing out the string.
4. Coach/GM outlook
I think the Robert Saleh interest is beyond just jokes about the letter signed by various state politicians imploring the Lions to hire him. Saleh makes sense as he was not only a solid defensive coordinator in San Francisco, but largely responsible for the team’s stage presence, so to say. That’s easy enough to see on the sidelines. Saleh is a gregarious presence, always chest thumping players and bouncing off the walls. It’s something the Lions have not had on their sideline in their modern history. Plus, Saleh is a Michigan native who helps sow some organic ties that have long been missing.
5. Key free agents
• Kenny Golladay, wide receiver
• Marvin Jones, wide receiver
• Danny Amendola, wide receiver
• Duron Harmon, safety
• Matt Prater, kicker
• Everson Griffen, defensive end
• Jarrad Davis, linebacker
• Romeo Okwara, defensive end
• Adrian Peterson, running back
• Jamal Agnew, wide receiver
• Mohamed Sanu, wide receiver
• Don Muhlbach, long snapper
• Darryl Roberts, cornerback
• Reggie Ragland, linebacker
6. Top priority
The Lions cannot do anything before hiring a general manager and coach. Then, the long haul begins. I think this hire will come together relatively quickly given the start of the virtual interview period and the leg up they got on the hiring process after firing Patricia in late November. This should allow the Lions to move quickly if they have a candidate in mind.
7. Positions of need
Wide receiver. The Lions might be priced out of the market for Kenny Golladay. As we’ve seen in the recent past, the market for skilled veteran wideouts can get ridiculous in a hurry, and if teams miss out on one of their primary targets it will only drive up Golladay’s asking price. Amendola, Golladay, Jamal Agnew and Marvin Jones will all hit the market, leaving a massive hole for the incoming coach and GM to patch up.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Hire Robert Saleh and pair him with a familiar front office executive who can tailor personnel to his needs. The good thing about hiring a coach from San Francisco is that they’d be hiring a coach who knows how the coach-GM relationship should look; a pipeline of direct needs from the coaching staff filtered through the GM and scouting experts. Few teams have perfected this, but to count on the draft as more of a reliable pipeline and less of a lottery would be a tremendous lift for a talent-deficient team like the Lions.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Trade Matt Stafford. Stafford has been a loyal soldier forever and may be interested in life under a more exciting and amenable system. The Lions could start chipping away at the dead money and use the move as a signal that they are open for business. This team needs to get young and cheap anyway, and by bringing in an energetic, young head coach and forward-thinking GM, the Lions can methodically strip the roster and be back in contention much sooner.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2024. This build is going to take some time. The next coach could say, to quote Matt Patricia on Jim Caldwell, we had a lot of stuff to fix once we got here.