Published Feb. 7, 2018
There was some delicious symmetry today when the Lions introduced Matt Patricia as their new coach. It was unintended symmetry, but it was there, nonetheless.
Patricia, the erstwhile defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, stood in front of the media throng today in Allen Park and talked about playing electric football.
“I used to like setting the players up in different formations, studying how they move,” Patricia said of the classic game that seemingly every young boy had stashed in his bedroom closet.
I’m a self-confessed electric football fan, but even the most fervent participant of the game will admit that eventually the molded plastic players on the metal field start to spin around in circles and crash into the sides, out of bounds.
Ah, the symmetry, because the Lions have been figuratively doing the same thing for 60 years.
A battle of cultures
Patricia’s charge—to win a championship—isn’t any different than it was for the other 16 men hired to coach the Lions during the Ford ownership. Except, it keeps getting harder to accomplish. Because the “Here we go again” culture with the Lions keeps digging its meat hooks deeper into the organization.
Patricia spent 14 seasons with the uber successful Pats in New England, where they say, “It’ll be OK. We’re the Patriots.” He now works for an organization where the mentality is, “Oh no! We’re the Lions.”
Football isn’t a game that’s only played between the white lines. It’s also played between the ears.
And therein lies, in my mind, Matt Patricia’s greatest challenge as he embarks on his new career adventure. Coaching the Lions isn’t only about knowing your football chops. If that was the case, the franchise wouldn’t be stuck on one playoff win in six decades.
No, it’s more than the Xs and Os when you coach the football team in Detroit. The ridiculously obscene lack of success the Lions have experienced since 1957 is mind-boggling. And the longer it goes on, the harder it is to reverse.
If it seems like it’s always something with the Lions, it’s because it is.
Whether it’s on-the-field tragedy, draft busts, career ending injuries, curious officiating or heartbreaking (and often self-inflicted) defeats, you can count on something happening to torpedo the Honolulu Blue and Silver.
Let’s face it: we’re all conditioned now to think this way.
The Lions have long been the team you hate to love in Detroit. They’re like the relative in the family who just can’t get his act together. We all have them. And one of them resides in Ford Field.
A Few Good Men, but bad results
Patricia has an impressive football background for a 43 year-old coach, but you could say that about a lot of the men that Bill and now Martha Ford have sent to the podium for introductory pressers. Again, it’s not about how much football you know. There’s an intangible here–a certain je ne sais quoi that no man hired since Bill Ford forced George Wilson out in 1964, has been able to identify and exorcise.
Have the Lions made bad coaching hires? You bet your sweet, um, rear end. But they’ve also brought in people who you thought could finally turn things around—until they couldn’t.
Joe Schmidt went from Hall of Fame linebacker to a pretty damn good coach in the late-1960s, early-1970s but Joe’s teams could never beat the Minnesota Vikings, which killed their chances every year.
Monte Clark, recommended by no less than Don Shula, had the makings of a rising star in the coaching ranks, but the Lions could only flirt with success under his watch. And success didn’t really flirt back.
Bobby Ross took the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl but Bobby’s military style almost caused a player rebellion with the Lions. Bobby was reduced to screaming, “I don’t coach that stuff!” and he’ll forever be accused of being the single man who drove the great Barry Sanders into retirement.
Steve Mariucci seemed like a hiring coup by GM Matt Millen when tabbed in 2003, but Mooch’s Lions stint was marred by the disaster that was Charlie Rogers and the pro football fraud that was Joey Harrington.
Jim Caldwell was a fine man who also had taken a team to the Super Bowl, but Caldwell’s head hit the ceiling here after four seasons.
So the coaches in Detroit haven’t all been dopes. Not all of them were Darryl Rogers or Marty Mornhinweg. But it hasn’t mattered. The Clarks and Mariuccis earned their firings just like the dopey ones, fair and square.
Patricia knows his football. That much is clear. The $64,000 question is, how can he erase 60 years of expecting the worst and replace it with that feeling of Zen that the Patriots have enjoyed forever?
If only it were as easy for Patricia to pack up the Patriots winning culture and bring it to Detroit as he did his suitcase this morning.
“Same old Lions” hard to get rid of
As for the Lions players over the years who’ve tried to rid the franchise of its demons, they’ve talked a good game. In fact, that’s been part of the problem. Certain players have been guilty of diarrhea of the mouth, and rarely have they been able to back up their trash talk.
Remember offensive tackle Lomas Brown—who was a very good player—guaranteeing a playoff victory in Philadelphia in 1995? The Lions lost, 58-37, in a game in which they trailed 51-7.
Over the years, Lions players have told anyone who will listen that the whole “culture of losing” thing or “same old Lions” mantra is a bunch of hogwash. Yet the failures, sometimes fantastic in their scope, have continued unabated.
Matt Patricia didn’t just inherit a football team today. He has now plunked onto his back a gorilla of King Kong size. It’s a gorilla that has been fed over the years by his predecessors and the players whose continued stumbling and bumbling have made today’s task of winning a championship so much more difficult than it was 20, 30 years ago.
So why should fans think Patricia can succeed after 60 years of failure?
Well, if it means anything to you, I heard Patricia speak of preparation and being disciplined and being fundamentally sound and insisting on his players going about their business professionally and playing the game the right way.
Lip service? Maybe, but I don’t recall those points being emphasized as strongly at any of the previous Lions coaching pressers I’ve watched, and I’ve seen a lot of them.
I will also say this.
Never have the Lions, in my lifetime, hired someone to coach their team who has the long time connection to a winning program as Patricia had with the Patriots. In fact, not even close.
You can be cynical if you want. You can roll your eyes. You can say you’ll believe it when you see it. You have my permission. Totally understandable.
The Lions have hired Matt Patricia and the way I see it, it’s going to boil down to finding out what force is stronger: the grooming of a smart, prepared, organized coach by perhaps the greatest head coach and most successful franchise in pro football history, or the “Oh no, we’re the Lions!” mentality in Allen Park.
Place your bets.