DETROIT — The first smattering of boos by Detroit Lions fans came late in the first half Thursday night, and it mattered little that it was a meaningless exhibition game.
This was 27 game minutes into Detroit’s 31-3 loss to the New England Patriots in the preseason opener at Ford Field, and the Lions trailed by 20 and were getting bludgeoned.
Outgained 210 yards to 41.
Unable to move the football consistently.
And the play that tipped the scales: A sack by defensive end Derek Rivers, New England’s fifth in only 18 offensive plays by Detroit.
So yes, a few fans dressed in Honolulu blue and silver booed, though most of the announced crowd of 57,414 showed the appropriate amount of restraint, considering this was an utterly meaningless preseason contest.
But considering the 60-plus years of misery that Lions fans have endured, it’s easy to understand why some voiced their displeasure in that moment, and why a few more voiced their displeasure with their favorite team still scoreless at halftime.
The boos were revealing, as they reflected the frustration of the fan base as general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia enter their second season together following a 6-10 campaign that left some wondering if Detroit would have been better off keeping Patricia’s predecessor, Jim Caldwell, who was fired after consecutive 9-7 seasons.
So yes, it’s important for the Lions to show something in 2019, and as premature as it may be, Thursday’s slow start — in which they were outgained 459-93 — will be chum for those who are critical of Patricia’s course, and already eager to write the Lions off for 2019.
But the truth is, we won’t know what type of team this will be until the real games begin, especially since there are some reasons for optimism emanating out of Allen Park.
“We’re kind of flying under the radar,” Quinn told Yahoo Sports this week. “Which is fine by us.”
Can ‘do your job’ turn into ‘the Lions way’?
The Lions made several moves this offseason to bring in athletes who understand the disciplined, workman-like, “do your job” culture that Patricia and Quinn both learned in New England and would like to instill in Detroit — albeit with their own flavor.
“Matt and I have definitely both learned a lot of things from our time there, but we’re trying to do it the Lions way,” Quinn said. “We’re trying to create a team and organization we can be proud of. It’s a different situation, different team, different city, different ownership. Everything’s a little bit different. So we’re trying to do it our way.”
That effort started with signing defensive end Trey Flowers, a member of last season’s Super Bowl champion Patriots, to a massive five-year, $90 million pact in free agency.
“His work ethic and the way he goes about his business is kind of infectious,” Quinn said. “From the minute we signed him and talked to him, he knows other guys are going to look at him and how he goes about his business. He’s a great example for guys.”
The Lions also treated free agency with the necessary urgency of a team needing to show improvement quickly, as they also handed $16 million guaranteed to cornerback Justin Coleman, $11 million guaranteed to tight end Jesse James and $4.5 million to receiver Danny Amendola, to positive early returns.
“Some of the veterans have come in this training camp and really just dived in with two feet and really looked at the culture of the team, which is in a really good place,” Quinn said. “Everyone’s doing everything they can everyday to show improvement.”
That even includes most recent draft class, Quinn said, which was headlined by promising tight end T.J. Hockenson, and a speedy, versatile off-ball linebacker in Jahlani Tavai, and an athletic, tough-guy safety in Will Harris.
“You can ask around the league — those were high-character guys on everybody’s board,” Quinn said.
‘The standard is the standard’
In the NFL, anytime a coach with a gruff style — and yes, Patricia is a yeller — takes over for a coach that wasn’t, there is an adjustment. The Lions run a more physical camp than most teams, and Patricia makes players run more than other teams.
The difference in 2019, the Lions are hoping, is that players now know what to expect.
“The standard is the standard — everybody knows Patricia is a high-standard guy,” running back Kerryon Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “They know he’s gonna get after it.”
For example: during the Lions’ joint practice with the Patriots on Tuesday, Patricia kicked defensive tackle P.J. Johnson off the field for starting a skirmish. The coach did so while riding riding a black ATV (thanks to offseason surgery), yelling for several seconds as Johnson — who expressed contrition for his actions the next day — walked away.
The next day, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford chuckled about it.
“He expects a lot from us and we all expect a lot from each other, and that’s how you raise the level of play,” Stafford told Yahoo Sports. “You go out there and do something like that, you know what to expect. He’s the same about that all the time.”
These are things that Quinn expected when he hired Patricia before the 2018 season, and he doesn’t want his friend and coach to change.
“Tough, demanding and fair — he’s 1,000 percent authentic,” Quinn insisted. “Everyone knows what the standard is. It was new last year, now it’s not new. The guys that are here know it.”
Patricia makes effort to improve with players
At the end of last season, Patricia told reporters that he needed to dissect and realize what he needed to change about himself, and Quinn says Patricia has delivered on that promise.
“We both looked ourselves in the mirror and said ‘What can we do as a group to make this better?’” Quinn said. “And credit goes to Matt — he sat down and thought about the things that he wants to change.”
And those changed ranged from the macro — like firing offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and hiring Darrell Bevell — to the micro, as Patricia spoke with his leadership council this offseason and decided to accommodate the players’ requests to make some schedule tweaks to how they practice and meet for the upcoming regular season.
“Some of the changes he’s made schedule-wise during training camp, some of the stuff we’re doing going into the season ... he’s really thought it out,” Quinn said. “I think he’s done a really good job of self-evaluation and just trying to improve.”
Patricia’s efforts on the matter were also not lost on Stafford, who noted that he has “constant” dialogue with Patricia about ways to improve the team.
“He’s gonna learn a lot,” Stafford said, “and it’s a lot of credit to him to go back and look at himself and figure out what he thinks he can do better, as we all do as players. It was impressive that he did that as a coach, and he’s been doing a great job for us this offseason.”
For all those reasons for optimism, Quinn knows the best way to get Lions fans on board with the vision is to win football games.
“Winning cures everything,” Quinn said. “No matter how hard [your program] is or how different it is, if you win a lot of games … that doesn’t matter.”
‘Everybody feels the urgency’
Getting off to a good start won’t be easy, as the NFL’s schedule-makers did the Lions no favors. Three of Detroit’s first four games are against playoff teams from last season.
“The schedule is what it is,” Quinn said. “Ultimately, we’ll be judged by our record. But we’re gonna show improvement in a lot of areas a lot of areas, and I think we’ll take that step.”
The NFC North looks to be competitive this year — the Vikings, Bears and Packers are popular preseason picks to win the division — and that means it’s possible for the Lions to be a better football team, yet still finish last in the division.
Expecting that to be the case in the wake of Thursday’s preseason loss isn’t logical as multiple key Lions — from Stafford to Flowers — didn’t even play against the Patriots, a team the Lions beat during the regular season last year.
Afterward, Patricia seemed appropriately unbothered by the result, shrugging and offering calm, reasoned answers in his postgame news conference. Yes, it would have been nice if his backups played better. But he’s been around this league long enough to know that he won’t really be judged until Sept. 8, when the Lions open up on the road against the Arizona Cardinals.
If the losses stack up early this year — and the Lions largely don’t look better than they did during a rough 2018 — he also has to know that the boos in a city that has suffered a plethora of football punishment for six decades will rain down much, much harder than they did Thursday night.
“We’ve got to go compete and we’ve got to go win — it doesn’t really matter if it’s preseason or not,” Patricia said, when asked about his level of concern. “I think everybody feels that, everybody feels the urgency that we’ve got to make sure we’re consistent every single day when we step out on that field.”
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