Matt Patricia took over the Detroit Lions in 2018 like the legendary Herman Boone took over the T.C. Williams Titans in 1971, by squeezing the fun out of football. You can almost see Patricia greeting his players for the first time by wiping a smile off the face of Darius Slay. And you can almost hear Slay a few moments later, like Petey Jones in the movie, confirming the new normal for his new coach: “Football is zero fun, sir.”
Football became fun for the Titans when they started winning, when all the long practices and cruel lessons and harsh rebukes from their coach paid off in the form of an undefeated season. (And, like, the destruction of racial barriers.) It never paid off for the Lions. And so Patricia is gone, replaced for now by a coach who wants to make football a little more … fun again.
“I’m asking the guys to come in with a refreshed attitude -- ready to work, number one, but ready to have a good time,” Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell said Monday. “Just let them play with their hair on fire, let them play fast, let them play free.”
The Lions never had fun under Patricia because they rarely won. At the same time, they rarely won because they never had fun. Patricia turned a game into a grind, for show more than effect. He lost his players, then lost a whole bunch of games.
Who knows if the results will be any different under Bevell, elevated from offensive coordinator. Even if they are, who knows if the Lions will seriously consider him in their search for a new head coach this offseason. But Bevell’s approach will be a breath of fresh air for a team that spent the past three seasons under a coach who scowled more than he smiled.
Bevell wouldn’t comment on the way things were under Patricia, out of respect for the man who hired him. But he did say the team’s attitude was “a little inconsistent at times.” That would make sense, considering how much the players put in and how little they got out. In the words of former running back Zach Zenner, all the hard work and none of the rings.
“It’s important to know that being able to have a good time and hard work don’t have to be individual deals,” Bevell said. “You can have a great time and work hard, that’s what I told those guys. That’s what I want them to do. It’s never really been about their work, they work hard. So I’m excited just to be able to bring that attitude for them.”
It’s an attitude that struck Matthew Stafford the moment he met Bevell nearly two years ago. Bevell, 50, coaches football because he loves it. And he loves it without squeezing it so tight that he deprives it of air. He wants to win as badly as the next guy, and he wants to enjoy himself while doing it. A little bit like the quarterback Bevell coached for six years in Green Bay.
“I think he’s lucky, early in his career he got to spend a lot of time around Brett Favre, and it’s a similar kind of feel where they just love the game for the game,” Stafford said Monday. “I know that Bev has great appreciation for Brett and I think it rubbed off on him a little bit, just how much fun a grown man can have playing a kid’s game. He brings that kind of youthful joy to the game and always has since I met him.”
Like Bevell, Stafford deflected most questions about his former head coach. He said he never expected Patricia and Bob Quinn to get fired, and commended the duo for all the “time and effort” they invested in the team. “Hate the way it happened for those guys,” he said, and it felt like he meant it. Stafford would never say this, but it also felt like Patricia spent three seasons here trying to be someone (Bill Belichick) he wasn’t. Bevell, for better or worse, will be exactly who he is.
“Like I told the players, I’m jacked,” Bevell said. “I’m excited. I get a five-game audition to show what I’m capable of.”
And Stafford and the Lions get five games to back him up.
“When you’re a player and you get a coach that’s excited like that, it’s a fun thing,” Stafford said. “This is a fun game, it’s an exciting game, so let’s go have some fun and play with some passion. I know that Bev brings that in his own way. Every person is different, but he’s going to be comfortable in who he is. He’s going to bring his energy that’s authentic and natural to him, and it’s on us to go make that come to life on Sundays.”
Under Patricia, the Lions had no more life to give. They were beaten down and defeated, resigned to their own demise. The only mistake the Fords made in firing him was waiting so long. Bevell won’t change the team’s fortunes this season. He might not be here next season. But for the next few games, he can give these players the pulse they’ve been missing. He smiled when asked if Detroit’s offense will look any different the rest of the way.
“Good question,” he said, like he might have a few tricks up his sleeve. “I think we’ll have to wait and see.”
At the very least things might feel different, which would be better than the numbness of feeling nothing at all.