2021 NFL Preview: Lions finally move on from Matt Patricia, hope that Dan Campbell is better

·9-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Sometimes, in this social media-dominated era, one misstep at a news conference can stick with a coach for a long time. 

It happened to Jon Gruden. The whole tone surrounding his return to the Raiders changed with his "I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998" statement a few years ago. Adam Gase was laughed at from the moment his wandering eyes became a meme at his New York Jets introductory news conference, and he never produced the results to change that. 

Dan Campbell has kneecap biting to live down. 

When Campbell was introduced, he had a quote that was meant to fire up his players and Detroit as a whole. It was memorable, to say the least. 

“So, this team is going to be built on, we’re going to kick you in the teeth," Campbell said. "And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off. And we’re going to stand up and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap. And we’re going to get up and then it’s going to take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we’re gonna take another hunk out of you. Before long, we’re going to be the last one standing. That’s going to be the mentality.”

And so, the first impression of Campbell is that's he's a ranting lunatic. He didn't help that image when he said he wanted to have a pet lion at practice. Or when he wore a car racing helmet during a news conference

If Campbell wins, his wild and harmless quotes will be seen as a positive, a reason for the Lions' turnaround. But it's hard to see much winning this season. 

The Lions should have moved on from Matt Patricia before he even coached a game. Nothing about his tenure in Detroit, from beginning to end, was promising. He did the typical ex-Bill Belichick assistant thing and acquired as many former Patriots as he could in the name of recreating the "Patriot Way." He alienated players and media. He went 13-29-1 and like all other former Lions coaches, it's doubtful he'll get another shot to be a head coach. It was bad, but at least it's over. 

Campbell and new general manager Brad Holmes came in to clean up the mess left behind. The Lions announced they were officially in a rebuild by trading quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Jared Goff and, more importantly, two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick. The Lions passed on giving the franchise tag to receiver Kenny Golladay and watched him leave in free agency. Others like receiver Marvin Jones, linebacker Jarrad Davis and kicker Matt Prater left. The Lions re-signed defensive end Romeo Okwara and added some low-cost free agents, but it seemed the emphasis was on clearing salary cap space, adding compensatory draft picks and changing over the roster. 

It's not like the Lions won much with Stafford, or before him either. Campbell was a longtime NFL tight end who did a good job as interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2015 and stayed on the head-coaching candidate radar after that. He will try to revitalize the franchise through his motivational tactics. 

Long-suffering Lions fans are probably ready to see if some kneecap biting finally turns things around. It's not like anything else has worked. 

Is new coach Dan Campbell the answer for the long-suffering Lions? (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Is new coach Dan Campbell the answer for the long-suffering Lions? (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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The Lions' offseason can't be viewed simply by what they added or lost. New GM Brad Holmes wanted to get a rebuild started, and the moves he made were about the future. The Lions traded quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams for quarterback Jared Goff, first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023 and a third-round selection this year. It was a downgrade at quarterback, but Goff is a reasonable starter and Detroit got a lot of draft ammunition for the future. It was a smart move for a rebuilding team. Letting receiver Kenny Golladay walk without a sign-and-trade with the franchise tag was curious, but the Lions will get a good compensatory draft pick. They added vets like running back Jamaal Williams, and receivers Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman on low-cost deals. Detroit had a solid draft, with offensive tackle Penei Sewell in the first round, a couple defensive tackles and then a pair of intriguing prospects in defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in the middle rounds. It wasn't a banner offseason, but a necessary one to start over. 

GRADE: B-

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Jared Goff fell out of favor with the Rams, and fast. He went from a Pro Bowl quarterback helping the Rams get to a Super Bowl at age 24 to perhaps being benched for John Wolford last postseason. (It's unclear if Sean McVay would have gone with Goff or Wolford if both were healthy, and we may never know for sure.) Goff was exposed as a quarterback who could play well in ideal conditions but struggles if the supporting cast isn't great, if he's pressured or if a defensive coach can confuse him with coverages. The Lions aren't expected to be good, which isn't ideal for Goff. But the Lions felt they needed a veteran quarterback coming back to them in a Matthew Stafford trade. Goff, a former No. 1 overall pick who is just 26, might not have long to prove he can be the long-term answer before the Lions look for another quarterback in the draft. 

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The Lions' win total is 5 at BetMGM. It's the second-lowest total on the board, with the Texans at 4. Detroit has the fourth-hardest schedule in the NFL, according to analyst Warren Sharp. Still, with a total this low it's hard to take the under. The Lions have a long rebuilding road ahead, but perhaps a coaching change helps. Either take the over or pass. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "We've been spoiled by rookies in recent seasons, with several wideouts turning into instant stars, some quarterbacks smashing from the word, "Go," and plenty of running backs producing right away. Tight end remains the position in which rookies need to be handled carefully; generally, they're not dynamic fantasy options on their first lap. This is my roundabout way of saying I want you to target T.J. Hockenson as he enters Year 3.

"Hockenson showed notable improvement in his second season, though it was partially screened by the collapse of the Lions. With the team's wideout group significantly weakened, Hockenson is likely to lead this team in targets, especially inside the 20, where the touchdowns are. Jared Goff is likely a step back from Matthew Stafford, but he can still be a league-average quarterback. Hockenson is an interesting upside stock to monitor, with a current Yahoo ADP around 50." 

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Matt Patricia was hired for his defensive prowess. In Patricia's three seasons — with him and GM Dan Quinn acquiring players to supposedly fit Patricia's scheme — the Lions went from 10th to 31st to 32nd in yards allowed per game. Detroit fell from 16th to 26th to 32nd in points allowed per game. The problems start with pass defense. The Lions allowed the most yards per pass in the NFL and the highest passer rating (112.4) in the league. Detroit couldn't rush the passer and couldn't cover anyone. Their former coach was in over his head, but there was a talent deficiency as well. That won't get fixed in one offseason. 

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Can Jeff Okudah turn it around?

The rudderless Lions passed on quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert last year with the third overall pick to take cornerback Jeff Okudah. He seemed like a fine choice (though not the right one if the Lions were going to trade Matthew Stafford a year later), but he was one of the most disappointing first-round rookies in the class. Okudah struggled all season, allowing an NFL-high 579 yards in coverage on 251 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. There were injuries for Okudah, and Matt Patricia's poor coaching didn't help. Okudah was considered an elite prospect coming out of Ohio State, so he can presumably make a big leap in his second season, but there's a lot more doubt after a poor first season.

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It's possible Jared Goff plays well enough that the Lions won't miss Matthew Stafford too much. Then they'll have a viable young quarterback and plenty of future draft picks to build around him. While Dan Campbell is a wild card, it's hard to imagine he'll be worse than Matt Patricia. The Lions are unlikely to be a playoff contender, but if Goff plays well, Campbell has a good first season, and young players like Jeff Okudah and T.J. Hockenson have big seasons, there will be some hope for the future. 

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Maybe the Lions' rebuild is going to take multiple seasons. If Jared Goff struggles with a bad cast around him, Detroit has to start over at quarterback. If Dan Campbell's methods are clearly not a good fit for the Lions, that becomes a problem, too. The Lions could finish as the NFL's worst team, which would give them a shot at a quarterback of the future, but it would be a tough blow for a fan base that just wants some success. 

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The history has been discussed often: The Lions have won one playoff game since 1957. They have not won a division title since 1993, when it was the NFC Central. And now Detroit is starting over, trying to get it right this time. The Lions could be a little better than expected this season. There's a reason Matt Patricia has been mentioned often in this preview. He was ruinous for this franchise. Taking him out of the equation can only help. 

The Lions still aren't going to be good enough to make 2021 a successful season. Detroit needs to figure out the long-term quarterback situation (it probably isn't Jared Goff) and which young players can be the foundation of a rebuild. Actual wins will be tough to come by. Wish there was better news, Lions fans. 

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32. Houston Texans

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