2020 NFL Preview: 9 wins over 2 seasons good enough for Lions to bring back Matt Patricia

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn’s sentiment when he spoke after his team went 9-7 in 2016 was understandable.

“You know, nine wins is a good season,” Quinn said. “It’s not nearly good enough for what we want.”

It’s not the worst thing to aim high. No team should settle for 9-7. After coach Jim Caldwell went 9-7 again in 2017, he was fired. Then some version of “9-7 isn’t good enough” has been used roughly a million times after Matt Patricia has gone 9-22-1 over two seasons.

Fair or not, Quinn’s words have stuck and he hasn’t lived up to them, at least when it comes to Patricia. Patricia was brought back for a third season, despite not living up to his reputation as a defensive mastermind and displaying poor leadership. Maybe a Matthew Stafford injury in 2019 bought him another year, but if the Lions aren’t at least in playoff contention this season, it’s hard to imagine Quinn and Patricia being around in 2021.

In other words, Quinn would probably be thrilled with 9-7 this season.

"Obviously we need to win next year. I understand that," Quinn said, via ESPN. "But when you're trying to build the organization, you're trying to create this lasting ability to win, you have to make decisions that are prudent for short-term and long-term. It has to be a combination of both."

The Lions were awful last season. They went 3-12-1, losing their final nine games. Losing a quarterback after eight games was tough, but the Lions were just 3-4-1 with Stafford in the middle of a fantastic season. There were some tough losses in there, including a rough one to the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Lions still didn’t look like they were on the rise.

Detroit’s biggest issue was defense, and in particular the pass defense. Patricia got the job because he was supposed to be a great defensive coach, but the Lions ranked near the bottom in most key defensive categories. They allowed a passer rating of 99.6, ranking 27th in the NFL. Then they traded top cornerback Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles after he and Patricia didn’t get along.

If the coaching is questionable then the roster better be good, and the Lions aren’t exactly overflowing with stars.

There weren’t any Lions on a few top 100 players lists this offseason, including one from Pete Prisco at CBS and another consensus list of NFL writers who study film. Pro Football Focus didn’t have one Lions player on its top 101 from the 2019 season, and nobody on its top 50 heading into this season.

There are some good players on the roster. Receiver Kenny Golladay is fantastic and could end up on those top 100 lists next year. Stafford was on his way to a career year when he got hurt. Trey Flowers might not have lived up to his big contract last season, but he’s a good defensive end. Rookie first-round pick Jeff Okudah is as good of a cornerback prospect as you’ll find. Other young players like tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift could emerge as fine players. You can talk yourself into the Lions having a better roster than they’re given credit for, but they’re not brimming with blue-chip talent.

Some good coaches needed three or more years to prove they were the right hire. NFL teams have become remarkably impatient, often to their detriment. Maybe the Lions are right to stick by Patricia even though the results haven’t shown up yet. Maybe they’ll turn a corner in 2020.

If not, it’s a good bet the Lions will have different leadership next year.

Matt Patricia of the Detroit Lions has nine wins through two seasons. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Since it’s the Lions, of course they added more former Patriots that Bill Belichiick didn’t want anymore. The team signed linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and traded for safety Duron Harmon. There should be a 12-step program for former Belichick assistants to break the habit of signing New England’s old players. The Lions paid $45 million over five years to offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and Philadelphia Eagles fans would likely say that’s an overpay. Vaitai has started four games over the past two seasons. The Lions traded away Darius Slay, one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks, cut pass rusher Devon Kennard and defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and lost guard Graham Glasgow in free agency. Cornerback was addressed with first-round pick Jeff Okudah and former Falcon Desmond Trufant, but the Lions are still light at pass rusher. It wasn’t an awful offseason, but it’s not too inspiring either.

GRADE: C-

Let’s prorate last season’s stats for two quarterbacks who missed time due to injuries, to reflect their 16-game paces:

QB 1: 4,868 yards, 31 TDs, 6 INTs, 104.6 passer rating
QB 2: 4,998 yards, 38 TDs, 10 INTs, 106.0 passer rating

The first quarterback is Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes (we removed his 11-attempt outing against the Denver Broncos to make the rate stats fair). The second quarterback is Matthew Stafford.

Stafford isn’t Mahomes in any way, shape or form, but he was having a really good season before a back injury shelved him after eight games. Darrell Bevell, who took over as offensive coordinator last season, played to Stafford’s strengths as a deep passer. His yards per attempt jumped by almost 2 yards. He led the NFL in average depth per target, according to Pro Football Focus. His average depth of target was 11.4; only two other quarterbacks were above 10. It never made sense that the Lions were turning Stafford into a checkdown artist, and Bevell figured that out right away.

While there’s no guarantee Stafford will resume that pace, he has reportedly been healthy since early in the offseason and the offense around him will still be good. The best hope for the Lions to have a breakthrough in 2020 is Stafford picking up where he left off and staying healthy for 16 games.

The Lions couldn’t entice anyone to trade up for the third overall pick in the draft, but that’s OK. Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah was a phenomenal prospect at a huge position of need. The Lions play as much man defense as anyone in the league, and teams need strong cornerbacks for that (especially when they can’t rush the quarterback, a weakness in Detroit). Given how bad the Lions’ pass defense was last season, Okudah’s play as a rookie is of the utmost importance for Detroit.

The Lions’ over/under win total is 6.5 at BetMGM. A prop bet on Matthew Stafford stands out as a better bet.

The over/under for Stafford’s passing yards this season is 4,149.5. He had 2,499 yards through eight games last season. Assuming the Lions’ defense is still below average, the Lions should be passing plenty in 2020 and Stafford has good targets to throw to. There is the risk of injury, but Stafford didn’t miss a game from the start of 2011 through the middle of last season. And from 2011-18 he threw for at least 4,257 yards in seven of eight seasons. Take the over.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Before Mathew Stafford got hurt in the middle of 2019, the Lions’ passing game was humming along. If you grade every NFL player through their first eight games of last year, Stafford grades as fantasy’s QB5, Kenny Golladay is the WR7, and Marvin Jones checks in at WR10. 

“Golladay is priced expectantly this year — justly so — but the Yahoo market allows an interesting opportunity with Stafford [QB13] and Jones [WR44]. The Lions have a fairly narrow usage tree, and Stafford seems comfortable with second-year OC Darrell Bevell. Even if you don’t like this team overall, you can still feel good about Stafford and friends.”

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Kerryon Johnson has three 100-yard rushing games in his career. That also means the Lions have still had only three 100-yard games since November of 2013, when Reggie Bush did it. Patience apparently ran out on Johnson, who has played only 18 of 32 possible games due to injuries. The Lions used a second-round pick on D’Andre Swift, considered by many the best running back prospect in the draft, in an effort to improve a running game that has been bad since Barry Sanders retired. It sounds like Swift will play a lot right away.

“We’re super excited to have him,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said, via the Detroit News. “We feel like he’s a really talented, well-rounded running back. A guy you feel like could handle the run, but he has ability in the pass game where you could do some things with him there. So, really, just a complete guy.

“I think you’ll be able to do a lot of things with him. He can handle as much as you want to give him.”

Can Matt Patricia win over the locker room?

Quandre Diggs said he was traded because the Lions wanted to control voices in the locker room. Damon Harrison, who was cut this offseason in a “mutual” decision, didn’t want to answer the phone when he was traded to the Lions because he’d heard about what it was like to play in Detroit. Darius Slay checked out on Patricia after Patricia called him out in a team meeting and made an inappropriate comment about Slay praising an opponent.

“Shoot, I didn't have that much respect for Matty P, as a person,” Slay told the Detroit News after he was traded. “It was hard for me to play for him."

Relying on the word of players who were released or cut by a team is tough because there are usually hard feelings. But there has been a negative drumbeat out of Detroit since Patricia took over.

It seems Patricia’s solution is to get rid of people who don’t like him. There were a lot of changes on the roster last year, and more unhappy players were sent away this offseason, most notably Slay. Patricia fired an offensive coordinator after his first season and his defensive coordinator after last season, a sign of a coach diverting blame.

You can drive players hard like Bill Belichick if you produce results like Belichick. Patricia would need to go 15-1 to finish this season with a career record over .500. A coach’s players don’t have to like him, but the way Patricia leads his team hasn’t resulted in anything positive yet.

On one hand, the Lions weren’t nearly as bad as their record last season. They led 14 of 16 games, including 10 in the fourth quarter, but won just three times. They never trailed the Green Bay Packers during either matchup but lost both, falling on the final play both times. Is that bad luck that’s likely to turn around, or a fatal flaw in the coaching or personnel? If you want to be an optimist, the Lions see their luck turn around and Matthew Stafford has a healthy 2020 that mirrors his excellent first half last season. With all the other NFC North teams having questions to varying degrees, it’s not entirely crazy to think the Lions could be in contention all year.

I’m not sure if the worst-case scenario is losing so many games that Matt Patricia is fired during the season, or winning just enough games to persuade ownership to give Patricia a fourth season. This is a roster that’s light on top-end talent and, well, it’s the Lions. Another last place finish is well within the range of outcomes this season.

I worry I placed the Lions too low. You can tell yourself a story that the offense plays well and the defense finally makes progress. But I don’t trust Matt Patricia as a head coach. Maybe by the end of this season I’ll do a 180 and believe he’s the right man for the job, but there aren’t any signs of it yet. I think the Lions struggle again and move on from Patricia and Bob Quinn after the season is done. Those won’t be easy jobs to fill either, given the Lions’ losing history.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers
21.
Houston Texans
20.
Arizona Cardinals
19.
Minnesota Vikings