The NFL season is a long way off, but that's not stopping Yardbarker's Chris Mueller, Sam Robinson and Michael Nania from identifying coaches on the hottest seats.
Matt Patricia, Lions
MUELLER: Two years into his tenure as Detroit Lions head coach, Matt Patricia looks much more like another failed branch of the Bill Belichick coaching tree than one of its successes. Patricia is 9-22-1 with the Lions, and while much of last season’s dismal record can be pinned on quarterback Matt Stafford’s injury — Detroit lost all eight games he missed — the team was just 3-4-1 while he was healthy and productive.
Patricia’s calling card was defense: The Patriots finished no worse than 10th in points allowed in each of his six seasons as defensive coordinator. He hasn’t taken it with him to Detroit. The Lions were 16th in points allowed in 2018 and 26th last season. Detroit has funneled plenty of resources to that side of the ball, too, particularly this offseason. General manager Bob Quinn drafted Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah with the third overall pick and then nabbed Notre Dame edge rusher Julian Okwara with the 67th selection.
Detroit has further catered to Patricia’s side of the ball in free agency, reuniting him with some of his former Patriots players in defensive end Trey Flowers, linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive tackle Danny Shelton. Flowers signed in 2019, and Collins and Shelton came aboard this offseason. The combined value of their contracts is $128 million, $78 million of which is guaranteed. Patricia has the resources, and now it’s time for him to get results. Ex-Patriot safety Duron Harmon came over via trade as well.
What remains to be seen is whether Patricia will get the most out of those new additions and win big. The part of the equation he can’t control — Stafford’s health — happens to be the biggest key to Detroit’s success. However, while owner Martha Firestone Ford didn’t quite lay down a “playoffs or bust” mandate for 2020, Detroit needs to make clear that Patricia must make decisive steps forward in his third season for him to keep his job. Part of that equation requires Patricia’s players to actually want to go to battle for him. Recently traded cornerback Darius Slay ripped Patricia for a training camp incident in 2018, and safety Glover Quin, who was released by the team after the 2018 season, also questioned Patricia’s capacity to lead. GM Quinn, though, has made it clear that he has no worries about Patricia’s leadership ability, but the rest of the league will be watching for signs of friction.
Detroit can contend in the NFC North, as Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota are not insurmountable opponents. The Bears have major quarterback issues, the Packers made the league’s most controversial draft choice when they selected Utah State’s Jordan Love, and while the Vikings appear to have the most balanced roster in the division, they aren’t a juggernaut.
A healthy Stafford might be the best quarterback in the division, and pairing him with a retooled, refocused defense could be a recipe for success; maybe even a worst-to-first turnaround. If Patricia can’t take advantage of the franchise’s efforts to build the kind of team he wants, he’ll be looking for work sooner rather than later, and deservedly so.
Doug Marrone, Jaguars
ROBINSON: Since officials prematurely whistled Myles Jack down after his fumble recovery in the 2017 AFC championship game, little has gone right for the Jaguars. They reverted from Super Bowl LII should-have-been to their usual sub-.500 status within months and are now unmistakably rebuilding. The Jags are 11-21 since their 10-6 season in 2017, and they parted ways with more starters from their famed “Sacksonville” defense this offseason. Las Vegas gives the Jags the worst odds of representing the AFC in Super Bowl LV. This stacks the deck against Marrone, Jacksonville’s fourth-year coach whom owner Shad Khan nearly fired after the 2019 season.
The problems Marrone must navigate are in place because of decisions made at a higher organizational level. Khan fired executive VP Tom Coughlin in December, after the old-school coach-turned-executive alienated players. But he opted to give Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell a shot sans Coughlin. The problem with this philosophy: Caldwell’s four years before Coughlin’s return to Jacksonville. Hired in 2013, Caldwell is 36-76 as a GM. The Jags were worse during Caldwell Solo (15-49) from 2013-16 than they were during the Coughlin-Caldwell front office partnership of the past three seasons. Franchises risk damaging their future when they allow embattled GMs to hang on too long. Now in his eighth year, Caldwell being allowed to pilot another rebuild is borderline stunning considering his track record.
The Bovada sportsbook slots Jacksonville at plus-2,200 to win the AFC South. As of Memorial Day, no team has worse odds to win a division. The Jaguars will feature their third Week 1 starting quarterback in three years, transitioning from Blake Bortles’ four-plus-year run as starter to Nick Foles’ brief stay to Gardner Minshew. Although the 2019 sixth-round pick became quite popular in north Florida after throwing 21 touchdown passes and six interceptions — which certainly speaks well of Marrone — there is a reason the Jags are being linked to the 2021 No. 1 overall pick and Clemson phenom Trevor Lawrence.
Since October, the Jaguars have traded All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell and Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye. They made Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus a cap casualty in February. Only three starters from 2017’s dominant defense remain, and that is only if disgruntled franchise-tagged defensive end Yannick Ngakoue — who has vowed never to play for the Jags again — counts. Jacksonville’s defense remained strong in 2018, ranking sixth in DVOA. Last season, the unit plummeted to 29th. With defense spearheading the Jags’ brief resurgence, Marrone does not have much left on which to depend.
After being tasked with coaching teams primarily built around first-round busts E.J. Manuel and Bortles, Marrone has not been blessed with the most stable of situations. He opted out of his Bills contract after two seasons (2013-14). Being 1-for-5 in playoff berths, Marrone receiving a third head-coaching opportunity is unlikely. While Marrone came closest to elevating the Jags to a Super Bowl, he is being set up to take the fall for organizational missteps. Caldwell surviving the Bortles draft pick and the Bortles extension decision may somehow give him a chance to stick around in 2021. After what will likely be another disappointing Jags season, Marrone will almost certainly not be joining him.
Dan Quinn, Falcons
NANIA: Following a disastrous 1-7 start heading into the bye week last season, it seemed obvious that Dan Quinn's tenure as the head coach in Atlanta would end after five seasons at the helm. It seemed only an incredible finish would be enough to save Quinn's job.
And finish incredibly he did. Atlanta went 6-2 following its bye, and it was no fluke. The Falcons had the league's fifth-best point differential from Weeks 10-17 (+67) and went 4-0 on the road, including wins against the Saints, 49ers and Buccaneers. (Those teams went a combined 16-5 in the second half against teams other than Atlanta.)
Most importantly, the Falcons made extreme progress on defense, the side of the ball that Quinn primarily oversees. After yielding 31.3 points and forcing 0.5 turnovers through eight games, the Falcons gave up 18.6 points and forced 2.0 turnovers in the second half. Atlanta ranked fourth best with a touchdown allowed on just 15.1 percent of drives in the second half.
The Falcons were one of the absolute best teams in football throughout the second half, fighting through numerous injuries to emerge as what looked like an entirely new team. All of that was enough for the franchise to give Quinn another crack.
It took an elite half football for Quinn to make it to 2020, but he is going to have a ton of pressure on him to come out of the gates firing. Progress won't do it this time around. Atlanta wants to be in the NFC South title mix. The franchise was ready to move on when Quinn could not get the team in that position last season, so if he is going to make it to 2021, he will at least need a repeat of last season's second half.
Should the Falcons fall behind the Saints and Buccaneers quickly, Quinn may not get his chance at another second-half turnaround.
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