DETROIT -- At the end of his first game as the Detroit Lions coach in 2018, Matt Patricia and his team could hear chants of "J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets" in a mostly-empty Ford Field as his team was embarrassed on Monday Night Football.
At the end of his final game, on national television on Thanksgiving two-plus years later, there was total silence because no fans were allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If fans had been allowed in the building, there wouldn't have been much for them to do but boo.
Between the first game and the last, not much went well for Patricia. And it led to his firing and that of his boss, general manager Bob Quinn, on Saturday afternoon -- signaling a complete regime change and an all-out failure of the New England Patriots Midwest experiment.
Quinn's biggest failing was entrusting Patricia to take the Lions from the middle of the NFL pack to a contender as a replacement for Jim Caldwell, who had three winning seasons in four years. At the time, Quinn said he wanted a coach who could beat the better teams on Detroit's schedule, which Caldwell did not do. Instead, Patricia turned the team closer to what they were a decade ago, looking at a rebuild in the cellar.
Ownership gave Patricia a mandate of "major improvement" and playing meaningful games in December prior to this season. Patricia's Lions never met those standards. In his two-plus seasons, Patricia finished 13-29-1, ahead of just Marty Mornhinweg and Rod Marinelli in winning percentage among modern-era coaches for Detroit.
“We had hoped that this year, the third year, things would gel, and Matt’s process and his coaching ability and everything would come together in a good way,” Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp said Saturday. “And then it just became clear that it wasn’t working.”
Nothing worked for Detroit. Patricia was hired for his defensive prowess and the Lions saw their defense regress each year of his tenure, never fixing their problems. Detroit couldn't stop the run his last two seasons. Patricia's insistence on playing a man-heavy scheme with little ability to create consistent defensive pressure left cornerbacks and safeties in poor positioning for success.
Offensively he preached he wanted a team that could run the ball. The Lions ranked No. 20 or worse in rushing each season. He went from 6-10 to 3-12-1 and then 4-7.
Quinn's draft picks did not work out, particularly ones he took when Caldwell was still head coach -- linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerback Teez Tabor. Not all of Quinn's picks were bad ones -- Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker and Kenny Golladay -- but they didn't take enough stars or bring in enough impact free agents.
Then Quinn hired Patricia, and while Patricia's first year on the field was his best one, everywhere else it was a disaster.
Before his first season started, a sexual assault indictment from a quarter-century ago resurfaced -- allegations Patricia said were false, proclaiming his innocence with the dismissed case -- and forced him to address them. Lions ownership backed him, but Patricia said it also did not come up in his interview.
In the locker room, Patricia alienated some of his best players when he arrived, including cornerback Darius Slay, and traded away key players and popular locker room figures in Slay, Quandre Diggs and receiver Golden Tate.
He was often gruff with the media and continuously showed up late for news conferences. He handled criticism poorly -- including a four-minute, 900-word defense for practicing in the snow in November 2018.
Hamp downplayed those factors, saying they didn’t play much into her decision to move on from Patricia.
“Players are going to have different ideas. Some players are going to think one way, some are going to think another,” Hamp said. “Not really, no. I mean, (I was) hoping that it was going to all pull together. I think in many ways -- I think we’ve got a really talented team, or a talented team. I think we should have come together better than we have. I guess we just felt like the leadership wasn’t getting that job done.”
In his off-the-field dealings, Patricia made marked improvements in his second and third years as head coach. That was helped by bringing in players such as Trey Flowers, Danny Amendola, Duron Harmon and Jamie Collins, former Patriots who knew him and understood his style of coaching. He also improved his relationships with players who had been there in his first season. Patricia also became more accessible to the media and took fewer shots at reporters, working to mend those relationships.
In December 2019, ownership decided to retain Patricia and Quinn for 2020 with expectations of improvement. Yes, Detroit had been 3-12-1, but the Lions were also without quarterback Matthew Stafford for the last half of the season.
At the time, then-vice chairperson and now-owner Sheila Ford Hamp said she knew it wasn't the popular decision. She believed, at the time, that it was the right one. Improvement would come.
Turned out that was wrong.
While there was far less grumbling about Patricia's style from players this season -- and a real connection seemed to emerge from Patricia and his players around social justice issues -- it never translated into on-field improvement.
The Lions too often looked disorganized and unprepared, hallmarks of coaching failure. Players blamed the team's failures on execution but it often comes down to how they are coached during the week.
As the 2020 season wore on, Detroit made critical mistakes in key games, including having 10 men on the field on defense for three plays in the span of two weeks and having a penalty wipe out a touchdown in a 20-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 22.
The Lions consistently lost fourth-quarter leads in Patricia's Detroit tenure and lost four of his final five games by double-digits. Patricia never won more than two games in a row during his tenure.
Patricia continually talked about needing to make improvements and just get back to work. But those improvements, from Game 1 to Game 43, never arrived. It was, too often, more of the same each week -- the main reason Patricia is out of a job less than three seasons after taking over and Quinn is with him less than five seasons on the job.