MINNEAPOLIS -- There’s an old football saying that you are what your record says you are. Seemingly everyone has used it. Even Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn, when he fired Jim Caldwell two seasons ago, said he takes “full ownership” of his record.
That record, at the time, was 18-14 in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. All of that makes Matt Patricia’s postgame comments Sunday intriguing. In a league in which a coach’s record often defines him and spells the reality about a franchise, Patricia essentially said that is not what is going on in Detroit.
At 3-9-1, the Lions are losers of six straight and nine of their past 10 contests. The question is whether to believe Patricia.
“The hard thing for us and what I appreciate about this team is we don’t look at our record and say, ‘This is what we are,’" Patricia said. “I think we look at our record and say, ‘That’s not what we are,’ and we got to do better, and we have to try and figure out how to get the record to match up with what we are.
“That’s kind of where we’re struggling right now.”
The Lions have had issues for months -- since the middle of October, really, when three straight losses to potential playoff teams in Kansas City, Green Bay and Minnesota sent Detroit on its half-season slide.
All of that has led the Lions to be out of the playoff race by Thanksgiving and finishing in last place in their division for two straight years for the first time since the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Patricia will be the first Lions coach to finish in last place in the division in back-to-back years since Marty Mornhinweg in 2001 and 2002 -- his only two years in Detroit.
The Lions’ spin into football oblivion has led to questions about whether Patricia will get what Mornhinweg did not: a third season. He has been in the NFL long enough to understand the questions and the scrutiny, but unlike most head coaches, he has been at only one highly successful place in the pros: New England, where those questions don’t come very often.
“I do understand [the scrutiny], but I also understand what we’re trying to do,” Patricia said. “I know there’s been a lot of coaches that have taken over programs and have really tried to start and build something and work from the bottom and try to grow on it and build it.
“I know what those records look like, too, when those guys have all started out.”
Patricia’s best recent case for a third season is in San Francisco, where the combination of head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch went 10-22 in their first two seasons before going 11-2 so far in 2019. An injury to starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hampered the duo's second season, much like the Lions have dealt with an injury to Matthew Stafford since Nov. 10.
The difference, though, is what Shanahan and Lynch took control over. San Francisco was atrocious prior to their hiring, with three head coaches in three seasons and double-digit losses each season. That wasn’t the case in Detroit, where Caldwell had three winning seasons in four years and was let go as one of the franchise’s most successful coaches in the modern era.
Patricia, 9-19-1 in his first 29 games, has a winning percentage of .328, better than that of just Darryl Rogers (.310), Rod Marinelli (.208) and Mornhinweg (.156) among full-time Lions head coaches in the modern era.
History doesn’t say that the start Patricia has had will likely lead to success, either. Since the 1980 season, only four coaches who have won a Super Bowl started their coaching tenures with that team with two straight losing seasons.
Pete Carroll was 14-18 his first two seasons in Seattle. Dick Vermeil was 9-23 his first two seasons in St. Louis, Jimmy Johnson was 8-24 his first two seasons in Dallas, and Bill Walsh was 8-24 his first two seasons in San Francisco. Of course, those four coaches also took over franchises that had at least two straight losing seasons when they were hired -- unlike Patricia.
The best thing Patricia has going for him at the moment might be inside the locker room, where he seems to have the attention of players with a message that is a version of “keep working” every week.
“The message may be the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “So I don’t think it’s lost any of its validity in that aspect.”
It’s a message that fixing what has ailed the Lions -- whether defensive struggles, an inconsistent running game or special teams that have errors at inopportune times -- can be cured only through work.
“We’re sticking together. Our work ethic hasn’t changed. Guys haven’t gotten nonchalant. Guys aren’t getting lazy,” linebacker Devon Kennard said. “That’s a core of building something good. I think that’s the message coach should be sending and the message that he is sending.
“That’s something that leads to winning, and you can’t change that just because we’re losing right now. Hard work and discipline and consistency, that’s a formula for winning.”
So far, it hasn’t been. The players are frustrated by the losses. So are the coaches. They believe they are close. The question team owner Martha Ford and team president Rod Wood have to ask is whether they are close enough -- and whether they believe Patricia's message is one that can change things in the future or just lead to more of the same.