Analysis: New Lions coach faces long odds for long haul
Whether it happens next week or early next month — assuming the New England Patriots earn their ninth trip to the Super Bowl in 22 years — the Detroit Lions are expected to hire Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as the franchise’s 27th head coach.
And while none of the six candidates the Lions interviewed were ever going to garner unanimous approval, a quick taking of the pulse on social media shows Patricia was the fan base’s overwhelming favorite from the moment the Lions opted to part ways with Jim Caldwell.
And so it begins again — a recharging of optimism for a team that has provided little happiness for its supporters the past six decades. What is sports for fans without hope?
Patricia would come to Detroit with a promising balance of intelligence and experience, bred in New England’s cauldron of unparalleled success. The former small-school offensive lineman and aeronautical engineering graduate has spent 14 years with the organization, working on both sides of the ball and climbing his way up the ladder from a quality control coach to defensive coordinator.
The hallmark of Patricia’s defenses has been versatility, and their greatest trait has been keeping opponents out of the end zone. For four straight seasons, the Patriots have held the opposition to fewer than 20 points per game. That streak was in jeopardy this year, when the team gave up 30 or more three of the first four games, but over the final 12 contests, opponents were held to an average of 14.0 points, the best in the league during that stretch.
That’s some serious adjustments.
Plus, New England has won two of the past three Super Bowls, and with this season’s field down to four, they’re the favorites once again.
That’s some impressive resume fodder.
So yeah, the excitement is understandable. But before anyone gets too carried away, it’s worth looking at the NFL’s recent history of coaching hires. For this exercise, let’s go back 10 years.
Excluding interim coaches following mid-season firings, there have been 66 coaching hires the past decade. Of the 39 hired from 2008-13, only five remain employed by those franchises — John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens), Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks), Jason Garrett (Dallas Cowboys), Ron Rivera (Carolina Panthers) and Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs). That’s 84.6 percent who have moved on, most of whom were fired.
Even more eye-opening is that group of 66 coaches has netted only three Super Bowl victories. Harbaugh and Carroll show up on that list, as well. The final one, Gary Kubiak, mutually agreed to part ways with the Denver Broncos after the team missed the playoffs in his second season.
Of course, it must be noted a fourth could join the list this year, if any team other than the Patriots wins Super Bowl 52.
A championship is the ultimate goal for every NFL franchise, but maybe we should lower the bar for what would be considered a successful Lions coach for this conversation. After all, the team hasn’t won its division since 1993 or a playoff game since 1991. Looking once again at the list of 66, only 34.8 percent earned a division championship, and 21 netted at least one playoff victory.
Those aren’t exactly great odds.
Some good news with Patricia is previous head-coaching experience, either in the NFL or at a Division 1 program, seems to have little impact on success rate.
The 26 coaches with previous head-coaching experience won 47.4 percent of their regular-season games, 18 division titles, 24 playoff games and two Super Bowls. The 40 hired with no such experience won 47.7 percent of regular-season games with 22 division titles, 32 playoff games and one Super Bowl.
And for what it’s worth, first-time head coaches with a defensive background have had a bit more success, with that group of 19 coaches winning 12 division crowns and 26 playoff games.
Patricia also walks into a more stable situation than most coaches. Only 12 were hired by teams coming off a season with a winning record, and even fewer inherited a quarterback as talented as Matthew Stafford.
What does all this mean about Patricia? Nothing, really. It only highlights how difficult it is for a general manager and coach to have sustained success in the NFL. General manager Bob Quinn appears to be saddling his horses to Patricia, and maybe the rocket scientist will beat the long odds of league-wide trends and longer odds of the franchise’s trends. Either that, or we will be back here in four or five years, discussing replacements for both.