Minneapolis — With each passing possession, as the Philadelphia Eagles continued to march up and down the field, lighting up the Super Bowl LII scoreboard, the tweets and emails started to slowly trickle in late in the first half and have continued through Monday.
Some were angry, some indignant, others merely expressing trepidation, but the refrain was consistent: Is New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia really the best hire the Detroit Lions could make?
Patricia’s defense was embarrassed by the Eagles on Sunday night. He was outcoached, his players didn’t come close to executing at a high enough level, resulting in the unit surrendering 538 yards and 41 points. The Patriots were particularly bad in the game’s biggest moments, allowing conversions on two-thirds of third- and fourth-down plays, three of which resulted in touchdowns.
There is no way around it: This was an ugly impression made by the incoming coach.
But let’s not overreact to one game, even if it was on the biggest stage. With sports, it’s easy to fall prey to recency bias, to formulate strong opinions on what we saw last. But Sunday’s flop doesn’t erase what Patricia has done in the past, the track record that’s earned him the opportunity to be a head coach.
After the Patriots got lit up to start the season, giving up 32 points per game the first four weeks, he made the necessary adjustments and his defense clamped down, leading to the Super Bowl run. The next 12 opponents averaged 14 points per game, scoring 20 or more just twice.
The strong finish meant the Patriots held opponents under 20 points a game, on average, for the fourth straight season, an unmatched active streak.
In the team’s two playoff games before the Super Bowl, Patricia’s defense gave up early scores in both. Again, the ability to adjust came into play and the Titans and Jaguars combined for 13 second-half points.
On Sunday, those adjustments fell flat. The Eagles came out with a superior game plan and Patricia couldn’t come up with a way to stop them. He waited too late to switch his best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, to the Eagles’ best receiver, Alshon Jeffery. Patricia couldn’t find a way to generate pass-rush pressure to help his secondary. And he never came up with an answer to the steady stream of wheel routes Nick Foles utilized to pick up big gain after big gain.
And we’re also left wondering about the curious benching of cornerback Malcolm Butler, a Super Bowl hero for the Patriots three years ago, and the player who played more defensive snaps than anyone on the team this year.
The decision may not have even been made by Patricia. Bill Belichick has the final say on all things in New England. Neither Belichick nor Patricia provided meaningful insight after the loss, other than Belichick saying the decision wasn’t disciplinary. Regardless, Butler was dressed, and it remained a possible solution curiously left untested.
Patricia believes every situation is a moment to learn. He’ll undoubtedly go over what went wrong with this game countless times, even after he’s traded in his Patriots gear for Honolulu blue attire. He’s made a career out of solving problems and making adjustments. It’s among the many reason the Lions quickly zeroed in on him with their search for Jim Caldwell’s replacement.
And, don’t forget, being a head coach is so much more than the Xs and Os that dominate a coordinator’s job description. Patricia’s reputation as a teacher, communicator and motivator with unrivaled work ethic and well-respected smarts aren’t unraveled because his defense had a lousy night.
Will Patricia succeed in Detroit? I have no idea, but it’s only fair we evaluate his chances based on his full body of work, rather than the results of his most recent game.