Matt Patricia’s look back on the 2018 season and projections for 2019 are pretty much what one would expect after his first season as head coach of the Detroit Lions.
There is a mixture of disappointment from the 6-10 won-loss record and optimism on how it can improve next season.
His feelings expressed in his end-of-season press conference aren’t unlike those of his predecessors, who expected better results in the second season. In most cases, they had a hard time achieving them.
“We’re trying to build something here at a championship level, and we have a lot of work to do,” Patricia said after the season. “The teams that win consistently play and prepare consistently every week.
“They improve, and they have a good toughness about the way they approach their way to win. The teams that don’t (win) beat themselves with bad football, penalties, turnovers, mistakes and just fundamentals that aren’t up to par.
“I think our first season was a mix of both.”
One man's opinion: It has to be proven on the field, but the Lions showed enough improvement in key areas – run defense, run offense and ball security – to improve in 2019. And in reality, most teams should improve on a 6-10 record.
A review of four decades of Patricia’s head-coach predecessors shows mixed results in improving from year one to year two.
Here’s a look at those coaches, what they did in the first two years and their bottom line:
Monte Clark, 1978-84
First two seasons: 7-9 in 1978, 2-14 in 1979.
What happened: A 6-3 finish after a 1-6 start was partly the result of a quarterback change – from Greg Landry to Gary Danielson — that stoked interest for 1979. It all collapsed when Danielson went out for the season with a knee injury in the last preseason game. Rookie Jeff Komlo started most of what was a failed season.
Bottom line: The Lions had two winning records – 9-7 in 1980 and ’83 – and made the playoffs twice in Clark’s last five seasons. Clark was fired after a 4-11-1 record in 1984, his seventh season as head coach.
Darryl Rogers, 1985-88
First two seasons: 7-9 in 1985, 5-11 in 1986.
What happened: Rogers’ start was the opposite of Clark’s. The Lions were 5-3 in 1985 but faded to 7-9 with a 2-6 record in the second half. That set the tone for Rogers’ tenure.
Bottom line: Rogers was not ready for the jump from college head coach (Arizona State was his last stop) to the NFL. His teams lacked discipline, and the offense was antiquated. Rogers was fired with five games left in the 1988 season and replaced by his defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes.
Wayne Fontes (interim in 1988 through 1996)
First two full seasons: 7-9 in 1989, 6-10 in 1990.
What happened: The Lions were 2-9 in 1989 when they caught fire and finished the season with a five-game winning streak. Fontes had a good, young roster led by rookie Barry Sanders and other future Pro Bowlers such as Chris Spielman, Bennie Blades, Jerry Ball, Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover.
Better days were ahead – but not before a step back to 6-10 in 1990.
Bottom line: For all the criticism Fontes took, the Lions made the playoffs four times in five seasons – from 1991-95 – and won division titles in ’91 and ’93. The one position where they were lacking was at quarterback. Fontes has said often that if he had Matthew Stafford he would have won multiple Super Bowls.
Fontes was fired after the 1996 season, when the Lions went 1-9 in their last 10 games to finish 5-11.
Bobby Ross, 1997-2000 (resigned after nine games)
First two seasons: 9-7 in 1997, 5-11 in 1998.
What happened: Barry Sanders rushed for a career high 2,053 yards in 1997 to lead the Lions to a 5-1 finish, a 9-7 record and a wild card playoff berth. Like other coaches before him, Ross couldn’t sustain it.
The Lions were 5-11 in 1998 – with a change in quarterbacks after two games, from Scott Mitchell to rookie Charlie Batch. It proved to be Sanders' last season. He retired in 1999 on the eve of training camp.
Bottom line: Veteran players never fully adjusted to Ross’ coaching style. He resigned after a loss in Game 9 of 2000 and was replaced by assistant head coach Gary Moeller. The Lions were 4-3 under Moeller and missed the playoffs when they lost to the Bears in the final game.
Marty Mornhinweg, 2001-2002
First two seasons: 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002.
What happened: The Lions lost their first 12 games under Mornhinweg, and it never got much better. The 2002 won-loss record was one game better than in 2001, but the team was just as bad – if not worse.
Bottom line: Mornhinweg made his share of mistakes, from riding off in a motorcycle in his first training camp to electing to kick off in an overtime loss in his second season, but he was not solely to blame for what could charitably be called the Lost Decade in franchise history. Matt Millen arrived as team president in 2001. Bad draft picks and other personnel decisions – including hiring Mornhinweg as his first head coach -- doomed the franchise.
Steve Mariucci (2003-05)
First two seasons: 5-11 in 2003, 6-10 in 2004.
What happened: It looked like the football gods has smiled on the Lions when Mariucci surprisingly was fired by the 49ers after the 2002 season and hired by the Lions. The smile didn’t last long. Like Mornhinweg before him, the won-loss record was one game better in Mariucci’s second season, but the team was just as bad – and got worse.
Bottom line: Mariucci was fired after 11 games and a 4-7 record in 2005. Like many before him, Mariucci could not solve the quarterback problem. He never warmed to Joey Harrington as his starter, and Harrington felt the same away about Mariucci as a coach.
Rod Marinelli (2006-08)
First two seasons: 3-13 in 2006, 7-9 in 2007.
What happened: A noted defensive assistant before and after his stint with the Lions, Marinelli brought in discipline and toughness. It paid off with a 6-2 start in 2007 but didn’t last. A 1-7 finish was a sign of what was to come.
Bottom line: The Lions made history in 2008 as the first team to go 0-16. Marinelli was fired with a year left on his contract.
Jim Schwartz (2009-13)
First two seasons: 2-14 in 2009, 6-10 in 2010.
What happened: Schwartz had the advantage of three high first-round draft picks who panned out – Calvin Johnson (2007), Matthew Stafford (2009) and Ndamukong Suh (2010). The Lions were 4-24 in his first 28 games but ended the 2010 season with a four-game winning streak to show real promise for the future.
Bottom line: The Lions made the playoffs in 2011 with a 10-6 record, but they couldn’t sustain success. They were 4-12 in 2012 and 7-9 in 2013 and faded in the second half both years. The Lions lacked discipline on and off the field, and it cost Schwartz his job.
Jim Caldwell (2014-17)
First two seasons: 11-5 in 2014, 7-9 in 2015.
What happened: Players warmed to Caldwell immediately. He had a calming demeanor that encouraged players to play the game the right way. The Lions made the playoffs as a wild card in 2014 behind a defense that ranked second overall and an offense that was much more disciplined under Caldwell.
However, a 1-7 start doomed the 2015 season and triggered a massive overhaul in the front office. Team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew were both fired midseason. The Lions rebounded, going 6-2 in the second half, but fell short of making the playoffs.
Bottom line: Caldwell survived two seasons under new GM Bob Quinn with 9-7 records both years and a wild card playoff appearance in 2016. But the record against winning teams was atrocious, and Quinn questioned the team’s toughness in explaining the decision to move on from Caldwell.
Matt Patricia, 6-10 in 2018
What happened: The Lions showed improvement in some key areas last season. The defense wound up being ranked 10th overall, with a dramatic improvement in stopping the run after a bad start. On offense, the run game and ball security got better but the attack was stagnant and predictable.
Bottom line: The Lions need to add playmakers on both sides of the ball to contend for the NFC North title.
As Quinn said in his postseason press conference after firing Caldwell, 9-7 wasn’t good enough. Quinn is right. A 9-7 record isn’t good enough if a franchise has championship aspirations.
Obviously, neither is 6-10 – Patricia’s record in his first season. The Lions should be better in 2019, but how much better depends on whether they make the right personnel decisions to upgrade the roster.