Skip to main content

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Why third season could be the charm for Patricia, Lions

If Matt Patricia wants to look ahead with 20-20 vision to next season, he can see the history of former Detroit Lions head coaches who found the third season to be the charm in making the playoffs or posting winning records.

Monte Clark, Wayne Fontes, Bobby Ross, Jim Schwartz and Jim Caldwell – Patricia's immediate predecessor – all made the playoffs or had winning records in their third year as head coach. All had losing records in year two.

With Patricia and GM Bob Quinn given a mandate by ownership for the Lions to be playoff contenders in 2020, this week's Monday Countdown looks at those five coaches who bounced back from losing seasons.

Four head coaches in that time span that began with Clark in 1978 -- Darryl Rogers, Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli -- never had a winning season.

There are also takeaways from Sunday's game with the Broncos on offense, defense and special teams, who's trending and the bottom line.

View photos from the Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos Week 16 game at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 in Denver.

We start with a breakdown on the coaches – from No. 1 Monte Clark to No. 5 Jim Caldwell -- who had some level of success in year three:

1. Monte Clark, 1978-84.

First two years: 7-9 in 1978, 2-14 in '79.

Third year, 1980: 9-7, tie for first in the NFC Central with the Vikings but lost out on the division title under the tiebreaker. Drafting running back Billy Sims first overall made the difference. Quarterback Gary Danielson's return after missing all of 1979 with a knee injury also helped.

Bottom line: The Lions made the playoffs with a 4-5 record in the 1982 strike season and won the division title in 1983 at 9-7. Clark was fired after a 4-11-1 record in 1984. Mediocre quarterback play held Clark's teams back.

2. Wayne Fontes, 1988 (interim), full time 1989-96.

First two years: 7-9, 1989; 6-10, 1990.

Third year, 1991: 12-4, first place NFC Central, playoff win over Cowboys, loss to Washington in the NFC Championship.

Bottom line: Timing was perfect for Fontes. He was a popular choice among players to be promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach when Darryl Rogers was fired with five games left in 1988, and he had a franchise icon and super star when running back Barry Sanders was drafted third overall in 1989.

Sanders joined a group of Pro Bowl players the Lions already had begun to stockpile -- Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover, Jerry Ball, Chris Spielman and Bennie Blades among them with more to come. The Lions made the playoffs three straight years from 1993-95. Fontes was fired after a 5-11 record in 1996.

Like Clark before him and others to follow, Fontes was plagued by mediocre quarterbacking. Fontes often has said his teams would have won two Super Bowls if they'd had Matthew Stafford playing quarterback.

3. Bobby Ross, 1997 through nine games of 2000.

First two: 9-7, wild card,1997; 5-11, 1998.

Third year: 8-8, wild card, 1999.

Bottom line: Led in 1997 by Sanders' 2,053 rushing yards and Herman Moore's league-leading 104 catches, the Lions won five of their last six games to make the playoffs. They dropped back in 1998 and rebounded in 1999 to make the playoffs as a wild card.

Ross retired during the 2000 season with a 5-4 record. Assistant head coach Gary Moeller replaced him for the last seven games. The Lions finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs.

4. Jim Schwartz, 2009 through 2013.

First two: 2-14, 2009; 6-10, 2010.

Third year: 10-6, 2011 -- first playoff berth since 1999.

Bottom line: Schwartz inherited the 0-16 2008 team and made a steady climb the first three years.

The 2011 team cooled off after winning the first five games but had enough staying power to make the playoffs. Stafford started all 16 games for the first time and passed for 5,038 yards and 41 TDs. The Lions had their franchise quarterback, but Schwartz was fired after seasons of 4-12 and 7-9.

5. Jim Caldwell, 2014-17.

First two: 11-5, wild card 2014; 7-9 in 2015.

Third year: 9-7 in 2016, wild card.

Bottom line: Caldwell brought a culture change to the franchise and made immediate impact with the 11-5 record in his first year. A 1-7 start doomed the 2015 season. Two straight seasons of 9-7 got the Lions one more playoff berth, but Caldwell was fired after 2017.

6. Takeaways, offense:

  • Kerryon, rush job: Kerryon Johnson didn't start at running back, but he had four straight carries for 17 yards on the Lions' last possession of the first quarter. It looked like it was a plan to get him some work. There was more to come in the second half.
  • Future – Bo, Kerryon?: There's a long way to go before Bo Scarbrough and Johnson become key members of the running game, but a two-play sequence on the Lions' first possession of the second half was a possible glimpse into the future. Johnson gained eight yards on first down. Scarbrough hammered out 18 on second down.
  • Line dance: The offensive line's flexibility has been tested all season, and it got another one when left tackle Taylor Decker went out on the second possession. Tyrell Crosby moved from right tackle to Decker's spot, and Dan Skipper came off the bench to play right tackle. Decker was back in on the next possession, but it was another example of the line's interchangeable parts.

7. Takeaways, defense:

  • Drive time: Denver's offense couldn't be stopped on two drives that ended in critical fourth-quarter touchdowns. A 17-yard, 11-play drive gave the Broncos the lead, and a 61-yard, seven-play drive padded it to 10 points.
  • Lead changes: The defense couldn't hold 10-0 in the first half, and 17-13 after the offense had scored a go-ahead TD late in the third quarter.
  • Tip drill: Cornerback Darius Slay and safety Tavon Wilson took turns batting down passes after the Broncos had first and goal at the eight to start the possession. They had to settle for a field goal to break a 10-10 tie and take a 13-10 lead.

8. Takeaways, special teams:

  • Jamal Agnew's 65-yard TD return on a punt gave the Lions a lift.
  • A hit out of bounds by Steve Longa on a fourth-quarter punt return by the Broncos added 15 yards to the return. It gave the Broncos possession at their 39, in better position than they would have been without the penalty to add to their 20-17 lead.

9. Trending

  • Up: Agnew. A 64-yard punt return gave the Lions a 10-0 lead.
  • Down: The offense for not sustaining possessions, and the defense for giving up long drives to a pair of fourth-quarter TDs.
  • Holding: Once again, wide receiver Kenny Golladay maintaining performance at a high level. He had his 11th TD catch. However, he did not come up with a fourth-quarter pass that would have given the Lions possession deep in Denver's territory.

10. Bottom line: All that's left for the Lions is one more game – next Sunday at home against the Packers – to end their losing streak.

Related Content