CBS Sports analyst and former NFL MVP Boomer Esiason speaks to the media on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, ahead of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
ATLANTA — Matt Patricia’s first season as Detroit Lions coach was a struggle, with a locker room that was slow to buy into his ways and an on-field product that didn’t approach anyone’s definition of success.
But just because Year 1 was a failure, former NFL players and coaches said Tuesday that doesn’t mean the Lions are doomed for a repeat performance in 2019.
“Let’s give him a while,” CBS analyst Phil Simms said. “What was Detroit’s final record? Six and 10? Quite honestly, I didn’t think they would be that. I thought they’d be worse. It was a huge start over and they lost some tough games, too.”
The Lions got off to a slow start this season and never seemed to recover.
They were embarrassed in their opener by a bad New York Jets team that started a rookie at quarterback, and they went on to lose more games than they had in any season since 2012.
While injuries, especially on offense, and the installation of a new defense (early in the season) were contributing factors, the real culprit seemed to be a culture shock that caught many off guard.
“I think that takes time, and I was hearing the same thing, is what Patricia selling being bought by the players?” former Lions receiver and current NFL Network and CBS analyst Nate Burleson said. “And I feel like, guys are going to come in skeptical about everything. When I would get a new coach, I didn’t care if he came in with Super Bowl rings in his jewelry box, I wanted you to convince me that you’re the best man for the job and that everything that you’re coaching is going to work on gameday. And I think there were times when players didn’t feel that. And you can see almost this funk that they were in.”
The Lions have 16 unrestricted free agents on their current roster but return many of their most important players like Matthew Stafford, Darius Slay, Kenny Golladay and Kerryon Johnson.
They’ll have to convince potential free agents that this season was an anomaly, something that had to happen in order to change the path of an organization coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons.
But in the NFL, every year and every locker room is different, and that’s why Burleson, who played four seasons in Detroit and still has friends in and around the organization, said this offseason for the Lions is going to be about “Patricia and what he delivers to the players, and if that stuff lands and hits home.”
“I think having this reset this offseason, and him having another year — people forget, just because he’s a head coach don’t mean he’s a good head coach right now,” Burleson said. “Let’s not get fooled by what Sean McVay’s doing (winning immediately). Being a rookie head coach, you’ve got to take your rookie lumps, too. There’s not always a success story out there.”
If Patricia can engineer a rebound in Year 2, he’ll be one of the few former Bill Belichick assistants to find success as an NFL head coach.
Bill O’Brien, who’s 42-38 in five seasons with the Houston Texans, is the only former Patriot assistant under Belichick who’s gone on to have a winning record as head coach. Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini all had disastrous runs as head coaches and finished below .500.
Belichick declined to speculate on why his assistants have struggled as head coaches when asked Tuesday at the Super Bowl, but he defended Patricia and the job he did in Detroit this year.
“I’m here to talk about the Patriots and the Rams,” Belichick said. “And that’s what our job is this week is to get ready for the Rams. I think Matt’s a great coach, I think he does a great job. He did a great job for me. He’s very smart, he understands football, he’s an excellent teacher, but really I’m here to talk about the Rams.”
Simms, whose knows Patricia “from doing 100 Patriot games” during his time with the network, said this year was one of transition for the Lions coach, who he said is “adapting” to his new role, too.
“I think what they’ve done, they’ve kind of solidified where they’re going forward,” Simms said. “I really thought that.”
Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said Patricia needs three seasons before he can be properly judged as a head coach.
“He changed the thinking right now in Detroit,” Cowher said. “Give him a chance to now cultivate that this year. Now, it may not be the playoffs, but it may be more wins. By the third year, how are you trending? Do you like the direction you’re going? Is there a sense that you know what, there’s a plan in place that we see beyond this?
“So again, to change something sometimes, it takes time.”
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!
Former Detroit Lions running back Justin Forsett talks about Darrell Bevell and his ShowerPill business on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Atlanta.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press