Allen Park — Based on the unrelenting noise, from rational to irrational, it’s all about Matthew Stafford. And when the Lions play their next game in eight months, it will be all about Stafford, for the 11th consecutive year trying to prove he can win anything.
But take a breath, just for a second. Because right now, it’s all about GM Bob Quinn, the man who repeatedly deflects pressure from his quarterback, and in the process plants it firmly on himself. Quinn emerged from the shadows last week and vowed to fix his 6-10 team, swearing he knows how to do it.
I say this without hysteria or inside info, but with logic: This might be Quinn’s last best shot, entering his fourth season, to show he can do it, and he needs to treat it that way. I understand logic has never been a founding principle of the Lions’ organization, but in today’s NFL, evidence mounts and excuses wane. Teams with fewer resources than the Lions make big jumps every year.
Quinn needs to embrace the possibility with aggressive moves that deliver short-term benefits, not just long-term promises. He and Matt Patricia first must make a critical, inspired offensive coordinator hire, and no, it doesn’t have to be someone from the Home of Wayward Patriots. The Lions have the No. 8 pick in the draft and about $30 million in cap space. They have options and flexibility, lots of it.
The Lions finished last in the NFC North, just like the Bears did a year ago with a 5-11 record. This season with first-year head coach Matt Nagy, the Bears won the division at 12-4 and were one clanked field-goal attempt away from advancing in the playoffs.
Am I suggesting a worst-to-first rebound for the Lions? Haha. How dopey do you think I am? (Please keep answers to yourselves).
But just because the Lions never, ever do it, doesn’t mean we should absolve them from NFL realities. Don’t chalk up the Bears’ rise to some fortuitous anomaly either. It happens all the time, in numerous forlorn places.
Since 2009, 14 teams have finished last and then won the division (or made the playoffs) the following season. Last year, the Texans and Colts tied for last at 4-12. This season, the Texans won the AFC South at 11-5 and the Colts went 10-6 and launched a playoff run. Don’t forget the Eagles, who went from a last-place 7-9 to 13-3 and a Super Bowl championship in Doug Pederson’s second season.
No leisurely rebuild
Talk about the Lions’ difficult transition under a first-year coach is blather to justify the drop from 9-7 to 6-10 after firing Jim Caldwell. Maybe that’s why Quinn didn’t speak all season — he knows he can’t explain it away.
He doesn’t need to make a bunch of huge, showy moves, but he can’t act like he has time for a leisurely rebuild.
Quinn has shown potential, but now has to up the urgency. His drafts have ranged from OK to pretty good, with his top five picks last year — Frank Ragnow, Kerryon Johnson, Tracy Walker, Da’Shawn Hand, Tyrell Crosby — contributing as rookies.
“Will we have a splash signing in free agency?” said Quinn, 24-24 here. “I don’t know. We might, we might not. We do have more cap room than we did last year, we do have a higher draft pick. But I’m not into splash signings. I’m into good football players.”
Good football coaches too, we assume. The Colts hired quarterback-savvy Frank Reich after Josh McDaniels backed out, and in Reich’s first season, he helped Andrew Luck post one of the best performances of his career. Luck missed an entire year with a shoulder injury, then authored an amazing revival, something a mostly healthy Stafford hasn’t been able to do.
Colts GM Chris Ballard just finished his second season and has made the shrewd, unspectacular moves that can turn a franchise around. They traded down in the draft and picked up a couple prizes — guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, both All-Pro as rookies.
OK, they got lucky, right? Well then, did the Bears also get lucky?
They got desperate. They fired GM Phil Emery in 2014 after just three seasons and canned the next two coaches — Marc Trestman and John Fox — after two and three seasons.
New GM Ryan Pace hired an inexperienced, offense-minded coach in Nagy to develop young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, whom they traded up to get at No. 2 in 2017. Pace also boldly dealt two first-round picks for star Khalil Mack, instantly turning the Bears’ defense into one of the best.
Patricia has displayed his defensive acumen at times, putting together a solid group without many stars, outside of Darius Slay and Damon Harrison (easily one of Quinn’s strongest acquisitions). But the Lions can’t ignore the offensive renaissance in the NFL. Rams head coach Sean McVay, 32, is branded the revolutionary and others are following. The Packers hired Matt LaFleur, 39, and the Cardinals tabbed Kliff Kingsbury, 39, as head coaches.
Quinn keeps saying he needs to find ways to help his quarterback, and if he believes it, time to do it, or ditch it. There have been conflicting messages. Last weekend, Golden Tate scored the winning touchdown for the Eagles and Eric Ebron keeps scoring touchdowns for the Colts. Quinn let both leave, although he got a third-round pick for Tate.
Long-term, the moves made sense. Short-term, they ended up being damaging. Quinn has to do a better job balancing those two time frames and balancing his offense.
One popular name for the coordinator opening was former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, 40, but he’s headed to New York to be the Jets’ head coach. It’s interesting that Lions offensive line coach Jeff Davidson reportedly is sitting in on coordinator interviews, furthering the notion the Lions want someone cohesive with the running game.
Seeking better balance
Jim Bob Cooter is gone for multiple reasons, from Stafford’s stark regression to the slow development of the run game, although Johnson’s injury was a blow. If, as Quinn pledges, the Lions will seek better balance, someone like Ravens assistant Greg Roman might be a decent candidate. He has no ties to Patricia, which may be a good thing, and as an offensive coordinator with the Bills and 49ers was known to develop running games. For all the Lions’ purported improvement, they still finished 23rd in rushing.
Quinn can defend Stafford all he wants, and I get it. His contract makes him virtually untradeable, at least for a while. The Lions’ horrid history makes it tricky to fully judge the quarterback’s culpability, which is why it’s such a raging debate.
Suffice to say, a ton of responsibility sits squarely on Stafford, as it should. Also suffice to say, more will pile up on Quinn, starting now.