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When it comes to the NFL, the subject of firings is generally verboten among coaches during the season.
Oh, sure. There might be some gallows humor on the topic, like Herm Edwards’ “We all rent the whistle.” Or Mike Smith’s “They don’t hire you to retire you.” And even this gem Darryl Rogers gave us at the end of the Detroit Lions’ 1987 season: “What's a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
But mostly coaches avoid the topic altogether, and especially at the end of a season when they know the ax could be swung in their direction.
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Monday was different, though. It was different because Cory Undlin went there.
During what was likely his final news conference as the Lions’ defensive coordinator, Undlin spoke with reporters with a refreshing tone, full of candor.
Undlin, 49, has been around the NFL long enough to know what’s coming on Black Monday, regardless of what happens when the 5-10 Lions on Sunday play the Minnesota Vikings.
“I know this,” Undlin said in a conference call. “We won three (games) last year. So we won five this year. It’s not going to be enough probably for most of us on this coaching staff. We’ll see what happens with the roster. I’m most concerned with the players on this roster than I am about myself. I’ll figure something out, we’ll move on.”
Then a reporter asked Undlin to clarify if he meant he expected coaches to be fired after Sunday.
“I would think that would be safe,” he said “I have no idea what’s going to happen after the season. I have no idea. But we all know how this business works. And when you don’t win games then that usually costs people’s jobs.
“I’m not assuming that we’re all — that people are getting fired. I don’t know that. But I’ve seen it happen before and we’ll all deal with that accordingly when it’s done and they make those decisions.”
Undlin, who has presided over one of the NFL’s worst defenses in his first year as a coordinator, will be at the center of an expected house cleaning that started in November with the firings of coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn.
The Lions rank last in scoring defense and second-to-last in yardage allowed. But the defense isn’t just bad. It borders on historic failure. The Lions have allowed 482 points this season. If they allow 35 points to the Vikings, they will tie the franchise record of 517 points allowed in 2008.
Naturally, Undlin wants no part of being tied to that kind of history. But he admitted he’s “not a stat guy” and was more concerned with winning a game than saving face statistically. Either way, he knows whatever his defense does Sunday won’t matter much as owner Sheila Ford Hamp looks to the future and the new regime that will build it.
“But ultimately we won five games and then that’s not what Sheila and the ownership group is looking for,” he said. “So at the end of the day, we won five games. It’s not good enough. Then they’ll make the decision on what they need to make the decision on. I’m looking for a competitive, great showing by these kids when we go out there Sunday and then we’ll deal with whatever comes next.”
Besides the dose of brutal honesty Undlin dispensed, his other theme Monday centered around how much he cared about his players who've endured a difficult season that reached its low point Sunday. Five coaches — including Undlin and three of his defensive assistants — had to miss the 47-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because of COVID-related protocols.
“I watched it from my house,” he said. “Paced around my kitchen island for about 3 ½ hours. Yeah, it’s not good. But it is what it is, so that’s what it was.”
What it really was for Undlin was an excruciating exercise in helpless isolation. As Undlin paced around his kitchen, Tom Brady and the Bucs’ offense dragged around the Lions’ defense by its hair for 588 yards.
“I know that doesn’t give me any consolation on the fact we got beat,” Undlin said, “but in the hand that they were dealt, I couldn’t be more proud of them for dealing with that all week: practice, the players dealing with it. Everybody had to step up.”
As he reflected back on his time with the Lions, Undlin said what he was most proud of was the resolve his players showed.
“You guys are stating the facts to me that we haven’t been very good,” he said. “And I understand that. But I would say this. At no point during this entire run in this crazy whatever you want to call 2020, there was not a kid on this roster that has not showed up every single day to go to work. Not one time.
“And (for) you, for me, probably for all of us, when you’re in situations of, I would say I guess, defeat or you’re in situations that are not positive — whatever the quote is — you find out more about a man in times of (defeat) than you do in times of success. And I can honestly say that these kids have shown up every single day regardless of the situation, regardless of the outcome of any game that we have played and they come back and they go to work and they go out there and fight.
“And for that, I wouldn’t change anything as far as being around these young men. So I’m very proud of that.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' Cory Undlin expects firings from Sheila Ford Hamp