The reputation of the Detroit Lions in football circles was improving. Bob Quinn has spent five years returning it to “glory.”
The story of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia failing in Detroit is a sad one. Not just for Lions fans, and not just for the obvious reasons. This failure is sad for the Lions, and the entire NFL, because it makes a lie into the truth. The lie is that you can’t win in Detroit. The lie is the “Same Old Lions” mantra. This is a lie that the fine people of Detroit hear every day out of the mouths of shock jocks. It rolls off of the keyboards of the few reporters on the Lions beat that are always looking for low hanging fruit. For the record, Detroit’s Lions beat is among the league’s best. The NFL is a league built on theoretical parity and the idea that any given Sunday, anything can happen. Detroit hasn’t had that feeling for three years.
I do not view the Jim Caldwell era with rose-colored glasses. He was the most successful head coach that the Detroit Lions had in the 21st century. That is just a fact. What is also a fact, however, is that the bar there is set painfully low. Another fact is that before Bob Quinn’s arrival, Martin Mayhew had put together a decent roster. They had a terrible eight-game stretch, and Mayhew got fired, but that roster was not bad. The final fact in this series is that Bob Quinn bought into the lie despite the evidence right in front of him. He had sealed his own fate before he touched down in MI.
The Lions were a winner. People like to call the Caldwell Lions mediocre, but it is simply not true. For those who don’t know, and that is a far greater number than I would have thought, the definition of mediocre is “not very good.” The Caldwell Lions were 36-28. By the Bill Parcells measurement scale, “you are what your record says you are,” that is one of the best runs by a coach ever to be fired. Was it Tony Dungy’s run in Tampa? No, it was not. It was a good run.
Quinn did not fire Jim Caldwell because he was failing. He was objectively not failing. He fired Caldwell because the Lions were not going to get better under Jim Caldwell. In hindsight, it is perfectly reasonable to ask the question:” Was that Jim Caldwell’s fault? And I will spoil the answer to that question immediately here: not entirely, but partially.
The blame for the team’s lack of success does not ever sit on a single man’s shoulders, but it is very close here. And that man was not going to fire himself. Bob Quinn did not inherit a perfect roster, but he almost immediately started making it worse. People laud the current offensive line, but let’s examine the moves made in what is probably the team’s strongest position group across Bob Quinn’s tenure.
How Quinn Created This Offensive Line
The 2015 offensive line was Reily Rieff, Laken Tomlinson, Travis Swanson, Larry Warford, and Cornelius Lucas or Corey Robinson were expected to take on the RT spot. Unfortunately, Michael Ola started more games due to injury. The OL was considered a hole in the Lions roster, but honestly, this is not an awful line in hindsight; it was a poorly coached line. Three of those players are still starters in the NFL, and Swanson might be, if not for concussion issues. Football’s a rough sport, so six seasons later, having one guy lost to injuries is inevitable along a position like the O-line. For the 2016 season, Bob Quinn Brought in Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow, and Joe Dahl. This offseason was great: Rieff moved over to the right side to fill the hole, and Glasgow backed up the entire interior OL and Dahl developed without having to play in games. For one year, Quinn had built a solid and relatively deep line.
In 2017, however, we began to see the trend Quinn would become known for: downgrading the roster with veteran players to save small amounts of cap space. Rieff left for greener pastures in Minnesota. Rick Wagner was brought in for a slightly lower salary than Rieff to fill the right tackle spot and play at a slightly lower level of quality to match. Warford, who immediately became an elite guard for the New Orleans Saints, walked. Quinn brought in veteran T. J. Lang as Warford’s replacement. Quinn traded Tomlinson for a 2019 fifth-round draft pick days before the season started. The Lions had already replaced Tomlinson the previous offseason with Glasgow, and Dahl was there to serve as depth. Quinn’s roster got a little bit older and a little bit cheaper. The 2017 line was Decker – Glasgow – Swanson – Lang – Wagner. They were a good but not great group to run the Lions offensive scheme. Swanson got hurt, Glasgow moved to center, and the Lions had a hole at left guard.
In 2018 Quinn fired Caldwell for only being above average. The Lions added Kenny Wiggins to the fold for depth. They lost Travis Swanson, who had been missing many games due to injuries anyway, to the New York Jets in free agency. The Lions also drafted center Frank Ragnow who played primarily at guard for his rookie season, with Glasgow moving to center. Quinn also took a depth tackle in Tyrell Crosby. The 2018 Line was Decker – Ragnow – Glasgow – Lang – Wagner. Lang, a 30-year-old player who had been banged up but played through most of his injuries, continued to do that for this year. Wagner was also dinged up for a large part of the year, but he also played in most of the games. The line of a rookie, two oft-injured veterans, a center who hasn’t regularly held that role at the NFL level and Decker, was not very good.
In 2019, Lang retired, Wagner was too injured to play more often, and Quinn had done nothing to bring in further depth. They added journeyman depth player Oday Aboushi, who played like a journeyman depth player when pressed into action. They moved Ragnow back to his natural position fit, moved Glasgow to right guard, and played a revolving door of Aboushi, Wiggins, and Dahl at left guard. Crosby stepped up and played well.
For the 2020 season, the Lions let Glasgow walk and drafted Jonah Jackson in the third round to start immediately. They cut Rick Wagner and signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a player who had never held a starting role due to merit. The 2020 starting line was Decker – Dahl – Ragnow – Jackson – Vaitai on paper.
I chose the offensive line for this post because it is considered by many to be the best position group on the team. This judgment is almost entirely by default because the line is not terrible, and most other groups are. The Lions have spent two first round, two third round, and two big free-agent contracts to fill five positions in five years, and they still do not have a locked-in long-term legitimate starter at left guard or right tackle. Larry Warford was openly critical of Ron Prince, the Lions’ offensive line coach, during his time with the team, so it is not reasonable to blame Quinn for losing him. But replacing Warford with Glasgow was one of the only solid moves Quinn made. After that first offseason, there has been nothing but skill downgrades. The point of this walkthrough is that Quinn could never build off of what he had. He was continually reallocating resources to downgrade one position or the another, and only in a couple of cases did he manage to improve anything as a result. By always shuffling the deck rather than building off his solid foundation, Quinn drove the Lions ship into the rocks.
What Quinn Did to the Rest of the Lions Offense
The story is the same across every position group but quarterback. Though, you could argue that making no moves to shore up the QB spot when Matthew Stafford has been unable to perform at a high level due to injury for large portions of each of the last four seasons is irresponsible management. That is minor when compared with every other group. Four former Lions tight ends (Robert Tonyan, Darren Fells, Eric Ebron, and Logan Thomas) are productively starting for other teams while making less money than Jessie James, the Lions TE 2. Quinn also spent a top ten pick on the position in 2019. I am a T. J. Hockenson fan, he is out-producing any of those players, but this is an example of grossly incompetent resource management.
Quinn used one draft pick earlier than round five on the wide receiver position. He used that third-round pick on a 24-year-old prospect. The 2021 Lions receiver corp is currently Quintez Cephus and Geronimo Allison, whose contract is only in effect for 2021 because he opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19. This is unforgivably short-sighted management by a terrible GM.
Quinn has used two second, a fifth, a sixth, and two seventh-round picks at running back. He spent two second-round picks on players with notable injury histories. Running back is the position with the shortest shelf life, even for players without significant college injury issues. More damningly, 2019 sixth-round pick Ty Johnson and scrap heap free agent pick up Bo Scarborough both objectively outperformed 2018 second-round pick Kerryon Johnson, during the 2019 season.
Kerryon is still on the team, putting up that same low production level, while Ty plays well on limited action for the terrible Washington offense. Scarborough has also been productive for the Seattle Seahawks on his few touches. Rather than keeping his draft hit or free-agent diamond in the rough, Quinn signed Adrian Peterson to a one year deal. Every season Quinn has signed an over the hill veteran back to keep his draft picks off the field. DeAndre Swift looks good when he is healthy and playing, but he is the only competent running back on the Lions roster.
Quinn Destroyed the Lions Defense
If the Lions were starting Josh Bynes, Kyle Van Noy, and Tahir Whitehead right now, would their linebacker play be worse? Not to mention Devon Kennard or Jon Bostic, who are also starting for other, much better defensive teams after getting ditched by the Lions. Kennard was the Lions’ best linebacker in 2018 and 2019. He was replaced in 2020 by Jamie Collins, who has been the Lions’ best linebacker. God forbid the Lions ever have two good linebackers at the same time. Quinn spent first-round, second-round, fourth-round, and fifth-round picks on linebackers. He got nothing for all that draft capital.
Every year The Lions have signed journeymen like Paul Worrilow, Christian Jones, or Reggie Ragland, who quickly stepped over Quinn’s failed picks to start for the Lions defense. He continuously churned the defensive line during his time with the Lions. The pass rush has been a glaringly obvious hole for Quinn’s entire reign at the top of the front office. Quinn has used only one pick earlier than the fourth round to address the position, a third-round pick (Julian Okwara) in 2020. He signed Kennard and Collins, but in the Lions scheme, each was used in coverage too often to truly help the pass rush because none of the other linebackers were capable.
The Lions signed Trey Flowers, but Flowers is a guy who is very adept at almost getting sacks. He is the third highest-paid defensive end in the NFL by cap hit in 2020, and he has produced nine sacks along with 24 quarterback hits since singing his massive contract in 2019. Romeo Okwara has responded well to being in a contract year twice for the Lions. During his time as Trey Flowers backup, Okwara has produced 7.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hits. For similar production on far fewer snaps, Okwara makes 1/4 of what Flowers does. Okwara had a 7.5 sack season in 2018. That is the same number that Flowers put up for New England during the same season. Flowers is a better player than Okwara, but he is not more productive in the Lions defensive scheme. Quinn’s only big signing along the line is a disastrous flop when his production is compared to his price tag.
Quinn could not have managed the secondary more poorly. In the last three seasons, Quinn gave out two big free-agent contracts (Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant), used a first-round (Jeff Okudah), and spend two third-round picks (Tracy Walker and Will Harris) in the secondary. The two best players in the secondary have been a 2019 fifth-round pick (Amani Oruwariye) and a guy that the Patriots were willing to move for a swap of day three picks at safety (Duron Harmon).
Quinn’s dismal evaluation of players on the defensive side of the ball has been consistent across all position groups. He has continuously let decent players walk while he brought in bad players. Much has been made of the necessity to bring in players who fit Patricia’s scheme, but the Lions had plenty of slow linebackers who can’t cover when Quinn got to Detroit. Now they have slow linebackers who can’t cover or tackle.
Five More Games
The Lions were a decent team when Bob Quinn got here. He was able to keep that intact for two years using players leftover from the Martin Mayhew regime. Much has been made of how Matt Patricia alienated the Lions locker room immediately and irrevocably upon his arrival in 2018. Very few of those players remain on the Lions roster. The abysmal roster that the Lions are trotting out onto the field in 2020 is the result of Bob Quinn’s constant roster mismanagement of assets.
Darell Bevell has a tough gig for the next five weeks. We should see everything he has to show the league during his run as the interim coach. There is often a surge in play when a team that has been struggling under a bad coach, and Matt Patricia was an objectively lousy head coach, gets fired. But the Lions were a roster bereft of talent last week, and they continue to be that. It would be surprising to see a late-season run from them. If Bevell can get something better than we’ve seen from this roster, it will speak well of him as a coach, but anything short of a miracle run to 9-7, and the playoffs is irrelevant to the future of the team. I have just spent 2400 words telling you just how unlikely I think that is. Good luck coach, I’ll still be rooting for you every week.
Ash Thompson is a teacher who lives in Canada. He is not pushing his brand, and he is not advertising his social media accounts which deal more with Canadian politics and his profession than football. He does, however, spend a lot of time in the Detroit Lions Podcast Patreon Slack chat, the most intelligent Lions chat on the internet, which you can be a part of for as little as $1 a month here.