2018 NFL Preview: Can Lions' Matt Patricia reverse a trend from Bill Belichick assistants?

Shutdown Corner

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 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Bill Belichick, the greatest football coach of this era and perhaps of all time, hasn’t produced one great NFL head coach from his tree.

Bill Walsh had seemingly dozens of assistants move on to NFL success. Paul Brown and Tom Landry had assistants who made great NFL coaches. Bill Parcells had successful coaching offspring, including Belichick. From this era, Andy Reid’s coaching tree has produced some of the league’s best head coaches. Yet, Belichick’s coaching tree is startlingly bare.

Nick Saban has done great at Alabama, but he was an assistant under Belichick a lifetime ago with the Cleveland Browns, and Saban’s one shot at the NFL was a failure. Romeo Crennel failed. People in Denver still curse Josh McDaniels. Eric Mangini was bad. Charlie Weis failed miserably in college. Bill O’Brien is 31-33 with the Texans and he’s clearly the best of the group. Belichick is a step ahead of the NFL in every way, and yet none of his assistants have figured out how to replicate that success.

The Detroit Lions are going to try to break the streak with Matt Patricia.

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Patricia was with Belichick since 2004, the last six seasons as his defensive coordinator. He’s a smart guy; you might have heard a time or 10,000 that he’s an actual rocket scientist. His stint at Lions coach hasn’t gotten off to a great start, to say the least. After everyone knew the Lions would hire him, Patricia’s Patriots defense allowed Nick Foles to become a legend at the Super Bowl. That was minor compared to the disturbing story about a dismissed 1996 sexual assault accusation against him. Patricia denied any wrongdoing and the Lions stuck by him.

Patricia takes over one of the NFL’s toughest jobs. The Lions’ history is remarkable. In a league that is designed so every team has a shot at building a winner in just a few years, the Lions have had almost no success. Detroit has never won the NFC North. The last time it won a division title was 1993, before realignment when it was in the NFC Central. Since 1957 it has won three division titles and one playoff game.

The past four years have actually been OK, based on that. The Lions have gone 36-28 with two playoff appearances, mostly due to Matthew Stafford’s steady improvement and a good cast around him. They still haven’t won a playoff game with Stafford (last playoff win: Jan. 5, 1992), and ownership’s lack of patience led Detroit to dump Jim Caldwell after consecutive 9-7 seasons.

Part of the frustration has to center on not doing more with Stafford. He has become one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks. He has a 96.5 rating over the past three years, which puts him a small step behind the NFL’s elite. The Lions wasted Barry Sanders’ career. They really wasted Calvin Johnson’s career. At least Sanders got to experience one playoff win. Stafford is only 30 years old so he still has a lot of time as a good quarterback, but the Lions have to worry about wasting his career too.

If you scan the roster, the Lions should be optimistic. They have good receivers. They have poured resources into the offensive line and running game. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has played at a Pro Bowl level, and cornerback Darius Slay was a first-team All-Pro last season at a loaded position. Stafford is a fine option at the toughest position to fill.

Patricia at least has pieces to work with. I’m not sure why Belichick’s assistants haven’t done much. McDaniels failed in Denver partially because he tried to replicate the worst traits of Belichick – intense secrecy and warring with the media, all while alienating the Broncos’ roster with his love for former Patriots players – while not using many of Belichick’s better traits. There was a report that part of McDaniels’ decision to return to the Patriots and leave the Indianapolis Colts hanging this offseason was that Belichick offered to open up his vault of knowledge to him, which seems to indicate Belichick really hasn’t mentored any of his assistants for the next step. Perhaps Belichick is so brilliant at what he does, it’s impossible to pick it up even if you’re around him every day. And, like McDaniels in Denver, his assistants end up copying the wrong things that have nothing to do with winning football games. Perhaps it’s a small sample size of failures. It’s a strange mystery.

“I’ll say this, there’s only one Coach Belichick, that’s it,” Patricia said at his introductory news conference. “He’s amazing. He’s in New England. I’m Matt Patricia. I’m kind of my own person. I’m my own guy. I’ve got my own style.”

No matter the reason for the history of Belichick assistants flopping, it makes Patricia interesting to track. At some point, just by the luck of the draw, one of Belichick’s assistants will become a highly successful NFL head coach. Detroit is banking on Patricia being the first.

Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia watches his team during practice. (AP)
Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia watches his team during practice. (AP)

The Lions didn’t do much in free agency. They signed linebackers Christian Jones and Devon Kennard, and they’re mediocre options. Running back LeGarrette Blount is good at his role, but his role is fairly limited. The team’s big move was giving the franchise tag to defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, which was necessary. The Lions didn’t lose much, either. The draft was solid and unspectacular. Center Frank Ragnow was a smart first-round pick for a team that can’t seem to figure out its offensive line problems. I thought there were better backs on the board when the Lions moved up for Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, though Johnson is talented and fills a need. There’s really not much to get excited about here, either way.

GRADE: C

Surprisingly, the Lions haven’t really missed future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson since his retirement. They’ve done a great job giving Matthew Stafford viable targets to throw to. Golden Tate is a reliable possession machine with the ability to hit a big play. Marvin Jones was another strong free-agent addition. He went from A.J. Green’s sidekick in Cincinnati to one of the NFL’s best receivers in Detroit. And the Lions seem to have struck it big on 2017 draftee Kenny Golladay, who would be starting for many NFL teams but has to be a high-level third option in this offense. There’s no tight end to make defenses worry, and that’s not ideal, but the receivers the Lions have are tremendous.

Lions fans booed Eric Ebron last season, but they might miss him now that he’s gone. Ebron, a disappointing first-round pick, was cut due to salary-cap reasons and the Lions have no clear replacement. It’s not mandatory to have a good tight end, especially when you have plenty of good receivers, but the Lions have one of the thinnest tight end depth charts in the league. Detroit signed Luke Willson, formerly of the Seahawks, ex-Falcons blocking tight end Levine Toilolo and still have 2017 fourth-round pick Michael Roberts. None of them have a 400-yard season in the NFL. Maybe Roberts emerges or Willson does well with a larger role, or the Lions have enough elsewhere that they won’t need much from the tight end. But that position is probably the biggest weakness on the roster.

The NFL is more than just the quarterback, but quarterback is where every conversation has to start. And the Lions have a good quarterback. There are probably “quarterback wins” zealots out there who don’t appreciate Stafford, but he’s clearly the Lions’ best hope. Over the past three seasons Stafford has averaged 4,345 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 66.1 percent of his passes. Put it this way: It’s not like Stafford is the reason the Lions haven’t won in the playoffs. Stafford has improved a lot the past few years, and a case can be made he’s the NFL’s most underrated quarterback. He’s underrated because the Lions have had little team success, but football is a team game.

The Lions gave Ezekiel Ansah the franchise tag. Did they do so because he’s worth the price, or because they didn’t have any better option? Ansah is good, but inconsistent. He followed up a 14.5-sack, Pro Bowl season in 2015 with an injury-filled two-sack season in 2016. Last season he had 12 sacks, but nine of them came in three games against a pair of awful offensive lines (Giants, Bengals) and a Packers team with Brett Hundley and nothing to play for in Week 17. Not that three-sack games are bad, but the Lions need more than the three sacks he produced in the team’s other 13 games, especially given his $17.1 million price tag this season. In fairness, Ansah gets more offensive attention than anyone else in the front seven. Anthony Zettel had six-and-a-half sacks last season and Kerry Hyder had eight sacks two years ago before missing 2017 with a torn Achilles, so Ansah has some help. But Ansah is probably the only one on the line with a Pro Bowl ceiling.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Kenny Golladay could have been an impact player as a rookie, but a balky hamstring limited him to 48 targets. Nonetheless, he made plenty of splash plays, averaging 17 yards per reception and scoring three times (he also had two preseason touchdowns). The Lions have two steady, fantasy-proven wideouts in Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, and they’ll probably be solid investments again. But the Lions were a mess when trying to convert touchdowns from just outside the end zone last year, and that’s where the lanky Golladay (6-foot-4, 213 pounds) could shine.

“The Lions don’t have a pass-catching threat at tight end, so this is an offense that could, theoretically, support three fantasy wideouts. Golladay is an excellent late-round choice, when plausible upside is the primary thing you’re after.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Lions.]

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It’s time for everyone’s favorite segment of the NFL offseason preview countdown: Guess how many games it has been since the Lions had a 100-yard rusher! One of the truly amazing streaks in the NFL continued for another year when the Lions failed to have a 100-yard rusher last season. The answer to the trivia question remains Reggie Bush, who had the last 100-yard game for the Lions on Thanksgiving of 2013. The Lions have gone 68 games without a 100-yard rusher. According to Football Perspective the all-time record is 72 games set by the Washington Redskins in the 1960s. The Cowboys have had 34 100-yard rushing games since the Lions’ last one, according to Football Perspective. The Lions drafted Kerryon Johnson, signed LeGarrette Blount and still have Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick. If they don’t have a 100-yard rusher this season, something is seriously wrong. But that one stat is a good reminder: If you’re blaming Matthew Stafford for the Lions’ lack of success, you haven’t noticed the deficiencies around him.

WHAT’S MATT PATRICIA’S CORE PHILOSOPHY, AND HOW DOES IT FIT THIS LIONS TEAM?

Matt Patricia offered a glimpse into his vision for the Lions when he was introduced as the team’s head coach.

“From a philosophical standpoint, what I’ll tell you is this,” Patricia said. “When you build — and this is really both sides of the ball — you want to build from the ball out, OK? So start at the ball, and work out. You always want to be strong in the middle of your defense. So anybody who plays through the core, whether it’s the linebackers or safeties, they’re critically important to what you’re trying to do. And that was one thing we were able to do consistently over the years in New England.”

He’ll have time to build that, and the first-round pick of center Frank Ragnow shows a commitment to that inside-out philosophy. What he inherited isn’t a great fit for what he wants to do. Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson hasn’t done much yet. Former first-round pick Sylvester Williams was signed and could start alongside Robinson, but he hasn’t done much either. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, a 2017 first-round pick, had his rookie struggles. However, he could blossom in Patricia’s defense. Things look OK at safety, where Glover Quin is pretty good and there are solid options to play alongside him.

The Lions’ priority in upcoming years will be to add at defensive tackle, but the middle of the defense isn’t close to being a strength yet.

It’s hard to concoct a scenario in which the Lions win the NFC North. The Vikings and Packers are loaded. The path to a division title probably includes Matthew Stafford having an MVP season, which I can’t rule out. If the running game finally produces something and Matt Patricia fixes the defense, the Lions will be a tough out. They haven’t been that bad recently, so a jump to 11 or 12 wins isn’t impossible. Still, it would be a tremendous upset if the Lions beat out both behemoths in the division.

The Lions seem to have one of the narrowest ranges of outcomes in the NFL. I don’t see them being that great, but I can’t see them being terrible either. This was a 9-7 team last year and all the stats say they should have been about 9-7. Outside of Matthew Stafford getting hurt or Matt Patricia pulling a “Josh McDaniels in Denver” debacle, it’s hard to see the Lions slipping too far under .500, even in a worst-case situation. They’re probably going to finish close to .500, give or take a game.

You have to think the Lions finishing in third place of the NFC North is one of the safer predictions there is. They’re not as good as the Packers and Vikings, and the Bears are probably a year away at least. The Lions are No. 16 on this list, right in the middle of the 32 teams, and that seems about right. They’re probably not good enough to make the playoffs in a loaded NFC and not bad enough to be picking high in the 2019 draft. Lions games are typically fun to watch so it’s not like they’re boring, they just seem predictable. We’ll see if Matt Patricia surprises us.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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