The Detroit Lions: Cradle of mediocre coaching

Lion looking derpy

UPDATE (Nov. 28) – Add Matt Patricia to the list of former Lions coaches. The now 4-6 Lions announced that he, along with general manager Bob Quinn, have been “relieved of their duties” this afternoon.

Let’s take a break from the depressing state of American politics today. Let’s talk about something uplifting and positive, instead. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the 2020 Detroit Lions!

For those of you who mercifully don’t follow professional football, the Lions are currently 1-3 this season after blowing double-digit leads in all three games they’ve lost. Worse than that, they’ve done the same thing in the last six games they’ve lost going back to the 2019 season. Six losses where you had at least a ten point lead and blew it. No other team in NFL history has done that. But those are our Lions.

Matt Patricia, who’s been on the job (if that is in fact the correct term for what he’s been doing) since the start of the 2018 season, has now coached 43 games for the Lions. His record is currently 13-29-1 (updated after his firing on Nov. 28) for a winning percentage of .314, meaning his teams have won about 1 out of every four games. That’s bad, but it’s also Lions bad, which is a pretty low bar to crawl under. Only four other Lions head coaches achieved a lower success rate:

  • Rod Marinelli, who coached from 2006 through 2008, with a record of 10-38 (.208), including the epic winless 2008 season;
  • Dick Jauron, who finished the 2005 season as interim head coach, winning one of five games (.200);
  • The legendary Marty Mornhinweg, who coached in 2001 and 2002, with a record of 5-27 (.156);
  • “Bull” Karsis, who took over from Bill Edwards in 1942 after the Lions lost their first three games, and proceeded to lose the remaining eight (.000), in which the Lions, talent-depleted due to World War II, scored only 38 points and gave up 263.

Karsis gets a pass since his team was decimated by players who got called into military service. And you will please note that the other three all coached in this century. You might even consider that a trend.

The overall futility of the Detroit Lions goes back much farther, though. In fact, the Lions have had 27 head coaches (including Patricia) since the franchise started in 1930 as the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, and only eight of them compiled winning records: “Potsy” Clark (1931-36, 1940), “Dutch” Clark (1937-38), Gus Henderson (1939), Buddy Parker (1951-1956), George Wilson (1957-1964 and coach of the last Lions team to win the NFL Championship), Joe Schmidt (1967-1972), Gary Moeller (4-3 as the interim successor to Bobby Ross in 2000), and Jim Caldwell (36-28, .563, with two playoff appearances in his four seasons from 2014 to 2017). Yes, that’s only one non-interim head coach with a winning record since 1972.

(Wayne Fontes, who coached more games than any other Lions coach – 133 from 1988 to 1996 plus five playoff games, finished with a 66-67 record (.496) after his 1996 Lions dropped their last five games and nine of their last ten. Otherwise, he’d be on this list.)

Yesterday, Matt Patricia claimed in his post-game press conference that when he was hired in 2018, “there was a lot of work to do,” implying that the team he’d inherited from Jim Caldwell was a losing mess.

Not true. Caldwell was 11-5 in his first season (a season in which he, unlike Patricia, actually had “a lot of work to do” to fix the disaster that was Jim Schwartz’s bad 2013 team, followed by a 7-9 regression year and then by back-to-back 9-7 records. Caldwell’s Lions made the playoffs twice, losing to Dallas in 2014 and Seattle in 2016. After not making the playoffs in 2017, he was fired. (Many people, myself included, were convinced that if he had been white, he’d still be coaching the team, but that’s another topic deserving its own post.)

It’s been 63 years since the Lions won a championship. They’ve never been to a Super Bowl. It’s embarrassing. Perhaps the next generation of Ford family ownership of the team can turn things around, but it will require the ability to recognize when things clearly are not working (i.e. right now) as well as the courage to stay the course when something worth building is underway.