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How Matt Patricia and the Lions can show actual progress

Tim Fuller/USA Today Sports

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- They stood inside the team’s indoor practice facility two years ago with the belief that they would be the ones to finally make a change to the Detroit Lions. They had come from the same place, the New England Patriots, and both general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia knew it would be a process.

This would take time. It wouldn’t be overnight or over one season, a change likely necessitating a step back before a leap forward.

And yet, in an NFL where parity rules and turnarounds are often swift, what Quinn and Patricia have managed over two years has not shown much on-field results. Patricia, even if he wins out, will be under .500 his first two years as a head coach. After four seasons, Quinn, at 27-30-1, is trending in the same direction.

The Lions are in the midst of another seemingly lost season. Based off what Detroit's ownership has seen from four seasons of Quinn and two seasons of Patricia, do they have enough confidence they should return in 2020 with the Lions?

There are still six games to go, but the Lions losing six of the past seven games has turned the postseason into a highly unlikely possibility, which means the 2019 Lions will end the way so many teams have ended during the Ford family’s stewardship: out of the playoffs and potentially with a losing record.

There are things Quinn and Patricia can do to help their cases. Because while wins and losses are what ultimately matter, other demarcation lines can show things are ultimately still heading in a potentially positive direction instead of falling completely off.

The first thing they should check for is how the team actually plays over the last six weeks of the year. Not necessarily in terms of record, especially if quarterback Matthew Stafford doesn’t return for the rest of this season, but in terms of competitiveness and buy-in. Essentially, are the players still absorbing and believing in the messages and the teachings of the coaching staff? A telltale sign of a long-term plan not working is if players stop caring. So far, that hasn’t appeared to happen. Detroit has been in every game this season and led during most of them.

If that type of fight remains over the last six weeks, that can offer a glimmer of hope for the future.

Then there’s the defense.

There’s not a ton, personnel-wise, Quinn and Patricia can do at this point to make significant changes to the roster. The two of them might already have a plan in place for the offseason, whether that’s the jettisoning of coaches or more defensive tweaking, but Detroit has what it has defensively this season.

Despite how poorly ranked the defense is, there is a decent amount of talent. Darius Slay is still one of the better corners in the league. Justin Coleman started well this season before a regression the past month. Tracy Walker is ascending as a safety and Trey Flowers, when he returns from injury, has seemed to find his footing after signing a massive offseason deal. Jarrad Davis has shown he can do certain things very well and Jahlani Tavai has displayed some promise at linebacker. Da'Shawn Hand, in the middle of his own lost season due to injuries, looked like a player to believe in during his rookie season in 2018.

There are pieces to build with. Patricia has been big about his teaching and trying to get his message through. As recently as Monday, he still believed he was having good meetings and that the players still believed. There’s no question about his effort. But he has to continue to refine because based on results, it’s clear it’s still not completely connecting almost two years in -- especially with a complex defensive scheme.

Momentum is often a misnomer from season to season. When you’re good, you’re good. When you’re not, you’re not. Second-half surges in one season don’t lead to guaranteed success in the next one. This year’s Cleveland Browns are a prime example of that.

Patricia could unlock some things in the final six games of 2019 to show why there would be reason to believe in a 2020. A way to use a player here or an upstart performance from a rookie at a position of need there (cornerback Amani Oruwariye could be a candidate for this). It would show the teaching is still happening.

Most of all, ownership committed heavily to this regime. They extended Quinn after he hired Patricia. They gave them both contracts -- along with Stafford -- until 2022, seemingly with the understanding of what this build could take.

But it’s not likely anyone expected the Lions to be where they are two years in, 9-16-1 with a defense that looks like it needs a lot of help. Which is why this conversation -- of what Patricia and Quinn need to do to survive -- is happening so fast. While 2020, at this point, should still happen for Patricia and Quinn, it’s starting to reach the time of needing to prove something or else changes are likely to come.