Lions Free Agency: Fans Want Big Splashes, Forget the "Patriot Way"

(Image via Detroit Free Press)  — by Ben Kochanowski
(Image via Detroit Free Press)  — by Ben Kochanowski

When Bob Quinn was handed the keys to the Detroit Lions in 2016 following a front office purge during yet another disappointing year, Lions fans entertained themselves with thoughts of becoming the next dynastic New England Patriots clone. It hasn't happened yet, but the modus operandi remains the same.

Following a 1-7 start in 2015, the Lions sent President Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew packing, and if you were a fan of the franchise it was refreshing to see ownership actually take some initiative and attempt to throw mediocrity out the window. Quinn was hired as GM in January to work alongside President Rod “not a football guy” Wood, and Detroit seemed to be slogging forward in a new direction.

With the addition of Quinn, the Lions were poised to take the next step forward into not just contention, but sustained excellence. The team had been pulled out of the dumpster that Matt Millen had stuffed it into; GM Martin Mayhew and President Tom Lewand had made Detroit at least somewhat respectable and turned the franchise around from 0-16 to Wild Card cannon fodder, but as has been the case so many times in Detroit over the last fifty years, the group's ceiling appeared to have been met short of the ultimate goal. Quinn set out to put his own twist on the “Patriot Way,” New England's time-tested proclivity for signing valuable role players over big-name free agents, not overpaying players, and creating a disciplined, winning football culture that could sustain itself for years, and it's not fair to judge his results quite yet.

The Quinn era actually begins now

When Quinn was brought on board, he opted to retain Jim Caldwell as Head Coach. There were questions about whether or not he was actually granted the autonomy to choose his own coach given ownership's well-documented affinity for Caldwell, but what effectively happened was that Quinn bought himself the time to construct a core of players to hand over to whatever head coach he would ultimately end up choosing without much fear of having to shoulder the blame for whatever inadequacies took place on the field.

Nine men on the field? Not his coach.

Questionable use of the challenge flag? He didn't pick this guy.

Poor clock management week after week? Mrs. Ford, are you sure you still want to keep doing this?

Lions fans believed the transition into the new era of football in Detroit began with the hiring of Quinn, but it actually began with the firing of Caldwell. Quinn knew the team wasn't near ready enough to be a serious contender in the immediate future given Matthew Stafford's struggles, holes all over the field on both sides of the ball, and Caldwell's questionable decisions week after week, but keeping the ship steady while the team was built was valuable to the players themselves. It's well-known that the Lions locker room respected Caldwell a great deal, and if the team was years away from contention in terms of personnel, why rock the boat too much in the interim? Quinn wanted Patricia, Patricia wasn't available, and the soft rebuild needed to soldier on.

Lions fans wanted the “Patriot Way.” Now they've got it.

Now that Quinn was able to hire his friend away from New England, Detroit's “Patriot Way” experiment can truly begin. We've seen it already with the signings of versatile linebackers Devon Kennard and Christian Jones, both of whom fit the Patriot model of low-cost, high-value, versatile role players that don't become household names until they suddenly make huge plays in a defensive scheme that perfectly fits their skillsets.

In the defensive backfield Nevin Lawson and Tavon Wilson were locked up to ensure consistency in a secondary that should benefit from elevated play from Teez Tabor, Quandre Diggs, and Miles Killebrew this season. Quinn and Patricia watched San Francisco give Richard Sherman $27.5 million for three years and the Titans hand former Patriot Malcolm Butler $61 million over five years and said “we'll pass, thanks.”

And that's exactly the point of the “Patriot Way.” Overpaying for twilight-of-their-prime skill players is the absolute antithesis of what has made New England so successful for so long. Picking up a veteran running back like DeMarco Murray, Jonathan Stewart, or Frank Gore, any of whom would serve as a locker room presence and mentor to whichever back the Lions pick up in the draft, would only be done if the price is right. Are they the long-term solutions at running back? Of course not. But do they still have gas left in the tank and skills that would benefit a winning team? Absolutely.

New England values budget contracts, internal development and stability at the quarterback position. Yes, Matthew Stafford's deal is higher than anything the Patriots have ever paid Tom Brady, but Brady's willingness to take pay cuts is an exceptional circumstance rather than something that can be expected of top-tier quarterbacks in this era. Stafford was paid market value for his talents and his salary has already been eclipsed by a QB who hasn't yet played a full season's worth of games. There was no chance of Quinn allowing him to hit the open market and risk jeopardizing his team's future at the most important position in football.

Trust the process

No, not that process.

Lions fans, before you complain about not picking up Jimmy Graham, Butler, Sherman, or any of the other expensive big-name free agents on the market, just remember what it is that Quinn and Patricia are attempting to emulate. You're not going to pick up Odell Beckham if he ever hits free agency. If Von Miller were suddenly on the market, don't even think you'd read a tweet's worth of news about him visiting Detroit. The Lions will likely never be in the running for Jalen Ramsey, Ezekiel Elliot, or Travis Kelce. You're much more likely to grab a guy like Rex Burkhead. That's just the way it goes, and the sooner Lions fans come to terms with that, the better their collective peace of mind will be. Be less like this:

And more like this:

The future is the brightest it's been in Detroit for a long time. In a tough division full of teams gearing up for postseason runs, all we can hope for is that the “Patriot Way” will morph into the “Lion Way” and finally take Detroit to that elusive Super Bowl.