Matt Patricia, Dan Quinn and Doug Marrone are all doing something that would have seemed surprising to many just a few months ago -- preparing for another season of coaching the teams they led in 2019.
Patricia's Detroit Lions finished 3-12-1. Quinn's Atlanta Falcons got off to an alarmingly slow 1-7 start. Marrone's Jacksonville Jaguars faltered in the wide open AFC South. And yet, all three men receivedreprievesfor 2020. Now, of course, they're facing plenty of pressure to make good on their second chances.
Below, I've outlined three things that must happen for each coach to extend his employment to 2021:
Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions
1) Matthew Stafford and the run game need to be right. Stafford's early portion of 2019 -- including a 19:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 106 in eight games -- was an exceptionally strong stretch. It's not a coincidence that the Lions' season really flew off the rails after a back injury shut Stafford down in November. Getting a full season out of Stafford at the peak of his powers (and resisting the temptation to trade him!) would be a major boon to Detroit's competitive hopes. Injuries also took the air out of Detroit's rushing attack, with a raft of replacement starters failing to make up for the absence of Kerryon Johnson for eight games with a knee injury. Johnson has missed 14 of 32 games in his NFL career thus far, so the Lions must decide whether to continue counting on him as a bell-cow back or seek out an insurance policy via the draft or free agency.
2) The defense must play better. One of the biggest surprises of Patricia's tenure so far has been the lackluster performance of Detroit's defense under a coach who burnished a reputation as a defensive whiz in New England. After a relatively strong 10th-place finish in 2018, Detroit plummeted to 31st on defense in 2019. The pass rush in particular remains a major issue, with the Lions ranking 29th in sacks (28), even after signing Trey Flowers from New England last offseason. And, outside of three-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay at corner, the secondary needs major work -- new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin's experience as a defensive backs coach (including five seasons in Philadelphia and two in Denver) should come in handy there. Speaking of Slay, his recent desire for a new contract and rumors he might be traded could complicate this project.
3) Detroit must make the right choice with the No. 3 overall pick.Lions brass will have to think long and hard about this one. In terms of the immediate future, Detroit could use the pick to fill a roster need -- say, along the defensive line, with Damon Harrison mulling retirement and A'Shawn Robinson and Mike Daniels headed for free agency -- or trade down to plug even more holes. (Notably, Patricia and his staff had the benefit of coaching in the Senior Bowl and working firsthand with some of this year's top prospects.) That said, might they be tempted to draft the quarterback of the future if the right player is sitting there?
Playoffs or bust? Yes -- owner Martha Firestone Ford made it clear that she expects Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn to be "playing meaningful games in December." That might seem tough, given Patricia won just three games in 2019. But in my opinion, the NFC North is more open than people think. I'm not sold on Green Bay, which finished 13-3 despite ranking in the middle of the pack in most stats, and Aaron Rodgers is on the wrong side of 35. Chicago is facing a serious quarterback question. Minnesota appears to be the team to beat, but I think the Lions should be pretty good if Stafford can stay right.
Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
1) The second-half magic must carry into 2020. Quinn made several adjustments after Atlanta limped into its Week 9 bye at 1-7, including handing defensive play-calling duties to Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich. These moves paid dividends in a 6-2 finish that surely helped encourage Arthur Blank to stay patient with Quinn. The fact that Falcons players continued to respond well to Quinn's coaching and leadership despite being out of playoff contention over the season's final two months is a very promising sign.
2) The pass rush and run game must be fixed. Atlanta tied for 29th in sacks (28), marking a second straight season of decline in that area. Vic Beasley will not be re-signed after failing to build off his 2016 season, when he led the NFL with 15.5 sacks; finding someone who can step up where Beasley could not is paramount. The rushing attack, meanwhile, ranked 30th overall (85 yards per game). Lead back Devonta Freeman hasn't topped 1,000 yards rushing or 1,500 yards from scrimmage since 2016, and, in light of Blank's comments about the salary cap not being unlimited when asked about Freeman, the Falconscould be looking for a replacement ball-carrier in the backfield.
3) Matt Ryan and Julio Jones must be put in a place where they dominate again. Item No. 2 on Quinn's list is important insofar as it relates to Item No. 3. In 2016, when the Falcons reached the Super Bowl behind an MVP campaign from Ryan, they ranked fifth in the run and tied for 16th in sacks; in '17, when they reached the playoffs, they ranked 13th in the run, ninth in defense, eighth in points allowed and tied for 13th in sacks. Ryan and Jones continued to be productive these past two seasons, but they could not overcome a defense that left the team with negative point differentials in '18 and '19 -- despite the offense ranking in the top 13 in scoring both seasons -- or a rushing attack that saddled the aerial game with all of the heavy lifting. Ryan and Jones are the engine of this team; Quinn must make sure the pair is able to soar.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars
1) Gardner Minshew must take his game to the next level. Minshew Mania was not without its bumps, including 11 turnovers in his first nine games and a two-game stretch when he was replaced by veteran QB Nick Foles. Presuming he's the starting QB in 2020 (and at this point, Minshew appears to be the Jags' best option), new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and new QB coach Ben McAdoo will have to help Minshew find more consistent success throughout his second NFL season. I have confidence in Minshew, who did complete 70 percent of his passes at Washington State -- I see him as similar to Tony Romo, who occasionally had trouble with ball security but finished his career with 248 TDs against 117 INTs and the fourth-best passer rating (97.1) of all time.
2) The Jags' D must become a power once more, starting up front. Even in 2017, when the Jags reached the AFC title game with the league's second-best defense, they struggled to stop the run, finishing 21st in that category. Two years later, the defense plummeted to 24th overall and 28th against the run, and coordinator Todd Wash's unit, which had been a core strength, could no longer carry the team. The defensive front could use attention, with Marcell Dareus looking like a potential cap casualty, Calais Campbell at age 33 and end Yannick Ngakoue headed for free agency. One thing that could help in this regard: the addition to the front office of Trent Baalke, who has a history of finding strong defensive linemen (like Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in San Francisco).
3) The London games must be turned from a hurdle to an advantage. This particular coaching challenge is unique to the Jaguars, who will be playing back-to-back games in London in 2020. It's never easy to be the home team on a field that is thousands of miles away from the city on your uniform. But, as Campbell suggested, the Jags could have a leg up on their London opponents, given that they'll have extra time to acclimate to the setting, where Jacksonville has played an annual game since 2013.
Playoffs or bust? No, not necessarily. I'm sure Marrone will have to "compete for a postseason berth," as owner Shad Khan mentioned when Marrone's return was announced, but the road to the playoffs will be tricky in the AFC South. Houston is well-coached. Tennessee was one win away from Super Bowl LIV. And the Colts, who were already no pushovers in 2019, could sign a quarterback that takes them up a notch. The fact that Marrone and general manager David Caldwell kept their jobs while former executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin did not tells you how much Jaguars management felt Coughlin was responsible for the issues that dogged this team.