Super Bowl LII: Ghost of Lions Coaching Past vs. Ghost of Lions Coaching Future

With this year’s Super Bowl featuring the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, Detroit Lions fans should be particularly interested. Not only because their soon to be head coach Matt Patricia is leading the New England defense, but to see him match up with former Lion’s head coach Jim Schwartz as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Lions fans will get to see both defensive juggernauts square off for the ultimate prize. A prize that every Lions fan has dreamt of from the beginning but never seen Detroit play for. A Super Bowl championship.

It was apparent early in the coaching search that the Lions would go from a more offensive minded coach in Jim Caldwell to a defensive-minded approach. It’s an interesting decision after Caldwell, who had moderate success in Detroit, saw the Lions offense regress during his tenure. The Lions offense was coming off three straight top-six finishes when Caldwell was given the reigns but didn’t come close to that during his time in Detroit. The running game was a non-factor and Detroit still hasn’t seen a 100-yard rusher since Reggie Bush.

Bob Quinn has decided to switch gears with Patricia who has made his name on the defensive side of the football. He is considered by most a defensive genius. The question remains though, haven’t the Lions gone down this route before?

In 2009 the Lions hired highly sought after Jim Schwartz, who many considered the defensive guru at the time. Schwartz who coached the Lions from 2009 through 2013 did not have the success he had hoped for in his first head coaching gig. Ironically a big reason for that was that his defense could never tread water in Detroit. Schwartz’s defenses here never sniffed the top 10, coming closest in his final season with Detroit when they ranked 15th.

In 2011, the only winning season the Lions had under Schwartz, the defense had the ultimate letdown against Drew Brees and the New Orlean Saints in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The Lions had a top five offense led by a historically great season from quarterback Matthew Stafford, but they couldn’t overcome the 45 points Sean Payton’s crew hung on them in New Orleans. A Lions defense that finished 23rd in points allowed was yet again unworthy. Schwartz would finish his tenure in Detroit with a 29-51 record finding himself in the same situation many of his Detroit predecessors did, unsuccessful and jobless. After the 2013 season, he was let go by the Lions.

Schwartz wasn’t without a job for long before he landed the defensive coordinator job for the Buffalo Bills in 2014. He took over a defense that wasn’t in bad shape but became one of the top defenses in the league in 2014 under Schwartz. Buffalo finished the season as an elite defense, ranking fourth overall, and finished in the top five in numerous defensive categories.

In 2016 Schwartz moved on as the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. He elevated one of the league’s worst defenses in 2015 to a defense to be feared during his first year in Philadelphia. His second year with the Eagles defense saw further growth into arguably the NFL’s best. Schwartz, who did not see this type of success as the head coach of the Lions, continues to succeed as a defensive coordinator and has put himself in a situation to land another head coaching gig in the near future.

Will Patricia succeed in his first head coaching job where Schwartz failed? He is considered by many as one of the top defensive minds in the game today. Patricia enters his sixth season as defensive coordinator. He originally joined the Patriots coaching staff in 2004 and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012.

Patricia spent five seasons as the Patriots’ linebackers coach and one season coaching the safeties. Since moving to coach the Patriots on defense in 2006, the team has finished in the top-10 in fewest points allowed in 10 of his 11 seasons with the defense. Patricia’s 2016 defense finished as the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL by allowing only 15.6 points per game. The six rushing touchdowns allowed by his defense were fewest in the league last season. Patricia has also helped the Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential in 2012 and 2010 and finished first in the AFC in 2011. The plus 28 turnover differential in 2010 is tied with the 2011 San Francisco 49ers for the second highest single-season differential in the NFL since 1970.

Just like Schwartz in Tennessee, Patricia defenses have consistently ranked among the top in the NFL making him a hot head coaching commodity. Another link the two defensive coaches share is Bill Belichick. Both started their NFL coaching careers under the leadership of Belichick. Schwartz was an unpaid intern under Belichick when he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Both coaches are students of the game, studying relentless hours of film, which is a Belichick trait. Both coaches adjust their game plan to the team they are playing, so in one game you might see them run mostly a cover 2 type scheme, while the next game has an eight-man front to stop a heavy run-based team. They are both analytical coaches as well, believing in numbers and stats which both coaches emphasize the importance of points allowed per game, a more bend but don’t break defense rather the number of yards they give up a game.

So again the question is asked, what will be different with Patricia leading the helm in Detroit than it was with Schwartz?

One glaring difference in the two coaches is their resume. Patricia has been a part of 4 of the 5 super bowls that the Patriots have won. While other coaches under the Belichick coaching tree have failed as a head coach, Patricia has been groomed under Belichick since 2004 as a young bright mind and has had great success with their defense despite constant improv with changing parts and schemes.

Lions fans will see similarities between the two. They will get to watch their past match wits with their future in this year’s Super Bowl. Can their former coach stop Brady and the Patriots or will their soon to be head coach earn another ring with a role in five Super Bowl championships. The parallels between the two coaches are many, from their defensive schemes, the way they dissect film, and of course, both growing up under the Belichick coaching tree. Patricia brings a Super Bowl pedigree to the table that Schwartz didn’t, but Jim Caldwell had been there too. Above all else, Detroit Lions fans should be excited to see winners brought into the organization, first with Bob Quinn and now Patricia following.

So will Patricia succeed where we saw Schwartz failed? I believe he will. Patricia has been groomed for a head coaching job and won’t let the pressures of being the head man in charge get the best of him, unlike with Schwartz at times when he was with Detroit. A large factor in Patricia’s potential success is the chemistry and trust he’s built with Bob Quinn after years of winning in New England together, an essential relationship for any successful franchise. Patricia has the hardware to prove that he is a winner and players respect that.

What Patricia did this year with the Patriots defense should be a reason for optimism among Lions faithful. After numerous personnel losses and some tough luck injuries, New England’s defense was torched early and often to start the year but Patricia adjusted and retooled on the fly surging to another top ten defensive finish. He just makes it work with whatever personnel he has and isn’t stuck in a style or system like many coordinators. What looked like a truly awful defense at season’s beginning is now in the Super Bowl. The hope is that he can similarly maximize the talent that Lions have and get more out of our players by adjusting his system to their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. If he can do that, he will assuredly find success in Detroit.



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