Detroit Lions: Will head coach Matt Patricia keep his job in 2020?
Patricia faces a potentially defining year following back-to-back losing seasons since being hired as head coach in 2017
By Cameron Hogwood
Last Updated: 09/06/20 6:08pm
"We expect to be a playoff contender," stated Detroit Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford in December.
The challenge came as the organisation confirmed it was sticking with head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn following a 3-12-1 season.
Detroit fall short of brandishing clear playoff potential, but try finding a team owner in the NFL that doesn't expect post-season football. In truth, it's likely progression the Lions brass crave on the back of two-losing seasons under Patricia since plucking him from the New England Patriots defensive coordinator position.
From all-night study sessions as an aeronautical engineering student, to impressing in a mentally draining job interview with Bill Belichick that he described as the 'hardest' he had ever experienced, to sleeping overnight at Gillette Stadium after hours of analysing film for the Patriots. He is tailor-made for the challenge.
The pencil lodged between Patrica's ear and baseball cap will be worn thin over the coming months as he revises the blue-prints to a job that always promised to take not one, but multiple seasons to provide some direction.
The three-time Super Bowl-winning coach is accustomed to equations. His latest may well decide how much longer that backward cap sports Detroit's Honolulu blue.
No. 9 remains vital
The Lions undoubtedly felt the absence of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford last season as he missed half the year after being diagnosed with non-displaced fractures in his upper thoracic spine.
As a result, Stafford's run of 136 consecutive regular season starts (sixth for a quarterback in NFL history) came to an end on November 10, ultimately along with the Lions' campaign.
Stafford had been in inspired form until then with 2,499 passing yards for 19 touchdowns and five interceptions at a career-best passer rating of 106.0 over eight games.
Jeff Driskel, now of the Denver Broncos, was the man tasked with slotting in for Stafford and started in three defeats before being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring issue.
Then on Thanksigiving it was the turn of third-string David Blough who, despite taking the Lions close in a 24-20 defeat to the Chicago Bears, couldn't put the brakes on a nine-game losing streak to end the season.
A healthy Stafford alone represents a major improvement, particularly if he can rediscover those early 2019 performance levels.
For Quinn to so bullishly shut down trade rumours regarding the veteran is a reflection of how trusted the 32-year-old remains to be.
The opportunities have been there in the Draft and free agency to pursue a shiny new play-caller, but both Patricia and Quinn know Stafford is their best chance of producing what might be a job-saving winning season.
Talent on offense
Wide receiver Kenny Golladay was a shining light in an otherwise wretched season, the 2017 third-round pick finishing with 65 catches for a career-high 1,190 yards and a league-high 11 touchdowns.
His production was coincided nicely by veteran wideout Marvin Jones Jr.'s 62 catches for 779 yards and nine touchdowns, while free agency acquisition Danny Amendola proved a useful pickup with 62 catches for 678 yards and one score.
Though the team was in good hands on the outside, it lacked production at tight end from offseason addition Jesse James and first-round rookie T.J. Hockenson. The latter was among those that suffered in Stafford's absence and is projected to make a significant step up in year two after mustering just 32 catches for 367 yards and two touchdowns in a debut season cut short after 12 games due to an ankle problem.
Injuries also hampered Patricia's men in the backfield as knee surgery limited lead running back Kerryon Johnson to eight games, across which he rushed for a measly 403 yards and three touchdowns. Bo Scarbrough managed only six games, rushing for 377 yards.
Whether it be Stafford, Hockenson or Johnson, the Lions have three key cogs primed to make comebacks in 2020.
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The job of establishing the running game to oil Stafford's return will be aided by the introduction of second-round back D'Andre Swift, whose resume includes 2,885 career rushing yards, 17 career rushing touchdowns and two successive 1,000 yard seasons at Georgia.
He could also prove a welcome addition to Darrell Bevell's passing game as he enters year two as the Lions' offensive coordinator having teased glimpses of his ability to get the best from Stafford last season.
Crucially, the Lions have installed some depth to their receiver corps in the form of former Green Bay Packer Geronimo Allison and former Charger Geremy Davis, not to mention fifth-round pick Quintez Cephus out of Wisconsin.
Time to see the defensive guru
A lack of production on the other side of the ball has been one of the leading disappointments under Patricia when considering his influence and reputation in New England.
The Lions ranked 31st in the league overall on defense in 2019, dead-last against the pass and 21st against the run. This was a regression from Patricia's first season in charge in which they ranked 10th overall, eighth against the pass and 10th against the run.
Cornerback Darius Slay, who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, was desperately short of help and heavily relied upon to carry Detroit's secondary.
The Lions wisely plugged the gap by using the No 3 pick on Ohio State star Jeff Okudah and his potential as one of the NFL's premier cornerbacks.
They meanwhile recruited the veteran experience of former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant and again looked to strengthen in depth by signing safety Jayron Kearse from the Minnesota Vikings and cornerback Tony McRae from the Cincinnati Bengals.
Safety Tracy Walker has also displayed huge promise heading into September following his team-high 103 tackles last year.
Up front the Lions lacked a consistently disruptive pass rush, Trey Flowers leading the way with a joint-first seven sacks alongside linebacker Devon Kennard after reuniting with Patricia on a five-year, $90m deal last March.
The response has been an overhaul of the defensive line, with the signing of Danny Shelton from the Patriots and Nick Williams from the Chicago Bears introducing worthy replacements for Damon Harrison (released), Mike Daniels (unsigned) and A'Shawn Robinson, who joined the Los Angeles Rams, at defensive tackle.
At linebacker another former Patriot Jamie Collins comes in as a shrewd replacement for linebacker Kennard, now of the Arizona Cardinals, while free agency signings Reggie Ragland and Elijah Lee support the depth required in Patricia's hybrid defense.
Third-round pick Julian Okwara, who joins brother Romeo in Detroit, enters the frame with a lot of upside and 2017 first-round selection Jarrad Davis is playing for his job after the team rejected his fifth-year option.
There may be an onus on offseason additions to hit the ground running, but the experience and talent is there for Patricia to at least make some headway. But will that be enough to save his job?