That the Detroit Lions would fire general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia had seemed like a foregone conclusion by the time it happened Saturday afternoon. Patricia had gone 13-29-1 in his three seasons as Quinn's hand-picked coach, and had overseen consecutive meltdowns, one to Carolina’s backup quarterback and the other with the entire nation watching on Thanksgiving.
Quinn fired Jim Caldwell, who had two playoff appearances and winning records in three of his four seasons, including his final one, in Detroit, to hire his friend, the Patriots' former defensive coordinator. Patricia proceeded to lead the Lions to the basement of the NFC North and to bottom-10 rankings over three seasons in scoring, total and pass defense. Great job, everybody.
With more than a month left in the regular season, Patricia is already the third head coach to be fired -- he follows Atlanta's Dan Quinn and Houston's Bill O'Brien -- which means, if nothing else, that there are going to be plenty of opportunities for NFL owners to prove they might be capable of changing their ways and conducting comprehensive, inclusive coach searches after all. The Patricia debacle only underscores Caldwell's skill -- his .563 winning percentage was best among full-time Lions coaches in the Super Bowl era -- and should make him the target of any intelligent coaching search.
This hiring cycle will be a test for the NFL's practices, especially considering the recent enhancements to strengthen the Rooney Rule. Those enhancements, which, among other things, mandate multiple diverse candidates get interviews, should boost the profile of candidates like Dearborn, Michigan-native Robert Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator who should receive serious consideration from multiple teams.
On the local level, though, these firings, and whatever comes next, present a coming out party for Sheila Ford Hamp, the team's owner since taking over for her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, who had overseen the hirings of Quinn and Patricia. Hamp said she and team president Ron Wood had been considering the futures of Quinn and Patricia for a few weeks, but the two embarrassing losses in five days sealed their fate. The Lions won't be playing meaningful games in December, as Hamp had hoped when she took over for her mother.
"It clearly wasn't working," Hamp said in a video conference Saturday afternoon.
In cleaning house, Hamp has given herself and her franchise the clean slate that it so desperately needed. A lot of teams talk about the need for a culture change, but in Detroit, that has been an issue nearly since Patricia's arrival, when players started talking about how he treated them. Hamp said she and Wood have some idea of what they are looking for, although their target is not entirely defined. Hamp offered some refreshing candor for an owner -- she said she did not have all the answers about what she would look for in the next coach or general manager. There were no platitudes about previous head coaching experience or championship pedigree. That probably won't appease people who want a clear target, but Patricia was the last clear target the Lions had and here we are.
Perhaps the most firm statement Hamp made about the future was what she did not say. She did not guarantee that quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has been with the team for 12 years, would be part of the future.
"We'll see what the new coach has to say," Hamp said.
That is the smart answer; there is no need to close the door on candidates who might want to start over with a younger quarterback. The most important thing Hamp can do, in fact, is leave all doors open during this search. Don't target people only from particular organizations, as so many have done with the Patriots, with mostly disappointing results (four of the five people fired so far this year -- O'Brien and Patricia, Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff have Patriots roots). Don't get convinced that the coach has to come from the offensive side of the game -- the best recent hire is Miami's Brian Flores, the former defensive assistant for the Patriots. Don't limit the candidate pool by NFL or college experience or even how high the candidate is on everybody's radar.
Hamp said she and Wood will receive input from many sources -- they will probably use a search firm to some extent, but Hamp also emphasized Wood's relationships in the league as important now -- and that will be critical. While Hamp's family is a league stalwart, she is a relative newcomer. The late Steelers owner Dan Rooney used to advise his colleagues not to cave to media and fan impatience and rush through coaching searches. Too many owners still do that, shutting off possibilities before they can even set up a meeting. Hamp has to remember the case of Mike Tomlin, who was not high on anybody's coaching list, until Rooney interviewed him and made him the Steelers coach.
Hamp has one unique advantage as she conducts her first search: She has seen the mistakes both of her parents made in leading the Lions. She said she will look at those mistakes -- one was allowing Quinn to fire Caldwell and then conduct a search with Patricia as the obvious target to the exclusion of other possibilities -- but prefers to dig in to what is in front of her.
"We can't hide our past, that's for sure," Hamp said. "I'm very dedicated to turning this ship around and really making a difference, and hopefully we won't have to look back very much, we'll just look forward."
For a franchise that last won a championship in 1957 -- very much the pre-Super Bowl era -- looking back is acutely painful. There are no guarantees, Hamp said a few times. Quinn and Patricia are the most recent examples. But if Hamp is as open-minded about the possibilities as she sounded Saturday, the Lions are already ahead of where they were when Quinn and Patricia got started.