At his introductory press conference, new Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia talks about his goals for the Lions and their fan base. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Allen Park — He has an unconventional look and unusual background, but Matt Patricia took the most conventional path to get here. He worked and he won, alongside others who worked and won, and a bond grew.
This is the latest big step in a Lions plan with roots in all the important places — in loyalty, in common vision and, yes, in New England. This may be a fairly repetitive process, introducing a new Lions coach every four years or so, but at least this is different in its foundation. And for that reason, who knows, it might be the gambit that actually works.
History suggests the odds are daunting. Lions head coaches say all the right things when hired — as Patricia did Wednesday, mixing humor with earnest intent — and then do what almost every Lions coach does. They win some, lose a bit more and pay the price when it unravels.
This plan is tighter than perhaps any we’ve seen, bound by years and a shared philosophy between Patricia and Lions GM Bob Quinn, who worked together for 12 years with the NFL’s gold-standard franchise in New England. Besides the Lions’ title-less drought, that’s the other trend Patricia must defy — the puzzling failure of Patriots assistants once they leave the wide aura of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Why could Patricia be the guy who bucks both those trends? This is just a guess, and if it too must be crumpled in three or four years, hey, those are the odds. But Patricia has factors in his favor virtually no Lions coach ever has had. He has a franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. He inherits a team that posted a winning record three of four seasons under Jim Caldwell. He has a background after six years as Patriots defensive coordinator that engenders deep credibility.
Most important, Patricia has a boss he knows and trusts, and vice-versa. Why is that important? Because football is a complex game of philosophies and strategies, and if the man who compiles the roster isn’t aligned with the man who coaches it, the divisions eventually become apparent.
The cohesion was abundantly apparent Wednesday, as Patricia stood in the Lions’ practice facility, his beard freshly trimmed, and made it clear he’s here because Quinn is here. And if you think relationships don’t matter, go call the poor Indianapolis Colts, who announced they’d hired another Patriots assistant, Josh McDaniels, only to have him renege on the deal Tuesday night and return to New England.
“Bob’s and mine’s working relationship has been outstanding, and obviously there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be that way moving forward,” Patricia said. “We believe in a lot of the same things, as far as how we evaluate players, how a team should be run and coached.”
It’s known as the Patriot Way, producing five Super Bowl championships, and it’s marked by smart, fundamental football, by adaptability and creativity. They’re not Belichick and Brady, but can Quinn, 41, and Patricia, 43, create a Lion Way?
“When hopefully you have some success, maybe that’s when you start calling it the Lions Way,” he said. “But we got a long way to go before we have any particular way.”
It’s definitely a long way to sustained success, but it shouldn’t be a long way to short-term contention. Patricia and Quinn made no promises, but they know the deal. In fact, Quinn essentially struck the deal when he fired Caldwell after a 9-7 record.
“Matt and I want to win now, but we’re gonna win the right way,” Quinn said. “We’re gonna build from what we have currently. We’re not putting any timelines or timetables on when we’re gonna win what, but we have great aspirations about what we want to do.”
I appreciate the absence of fake pomp and noisy predictions, but that doesn’t mean there’s an absence of expectations. The Lions aren’t a tear-down project, not even close, not in Quinn’s third season here.
Other Belichick assistants — McDaniels, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini — have failed as head coaches for various reasons. Some perhaps tried too hard to be Belichick. Some inherited poor teams with unproven quarterbacks.
Patricia wasn’t interested in making comparisons or picking through the past, but he’s already shown the willingness to adjust. Whether at Quinn’s urging (or Stafford’s prodding) or not, Patricia is keeping offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter for now, although he said he wants to add his own elements to the offense.
If those nasty aforementioned trends — Lions history, Patriots assistant history — are intimidating, Patricia isn’t letting on. He has a personable, disarming personality, straddling the line between business and charm. Midway through his news conference, he said he wanted to get comfortable and pulled out his trademark No. 2 pencil and stuck it behind his right ear.
“I’ll say this, there’s only one Coach Belichick, and he’s amazing,” Patricia said. “I’m Matt Patricia, kind of my own person, my own guy, got my own style. But I’d certainly take all those lessons on how to teach and coach, those fundamental beliefs in New England.”
Patricia and Quinn essentially began together and grew together, low-level grunts in New England’s back offices, a couple of guys living, loving football. They scouted players on the road together, talked about football until the late hours and gradually rose up the Patriots ranks.
By 2016, Quinn was one of New England’s bright minds, ready to be a GM, and when he took over the Lions, he opted to retain Caldwell. Maybe Patricia was ready then, but two years later, with two more Super Bowl appearances and top-10 defenses, he’s ready now.
Quinn said he wanted a coach with these qualities: Integrity, leadership, intelligence, work ethic, innovation. He was uniquely qualified to know if Patricia possessed them. Quinn and team president Rod Wood traveled to New England twice to interview Patricia, but it sounds like their decision came easily.
“There were hours and hours built up over those 12 years that really made the interview process seamless,” Quinn said. “It was as if we were back in his office talking football again. Obviously Matt and I are gonna be tied at the hip in terms of player acquisition. We’re gonna draft the players we both want, we’re gonna sign the players we both want, we’re gonna develop the players we both want.”
Is familiarity the most-important factor when hiring someone? Not necessarily. Lesser GMs have hired familiar, lesser coaches here over the years.
But there’s encouragement in the side-by-side rise of Quinn and Patricia from the humblest roots. Patricia played football and studied aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and coached at Amherst. Quinn joined the Patriots as a player personnel assistant in 2000. Belichick once said of Patricia, “This guy could probably build a plane and fly it; this guy is smart-smart.”
It’s not that Patricia and Quinn happened to work together; it’s that they happened to work together there, in New England. But when removed from that environment, great minds tend to falter, and that’s what Patricia is trying to defy.
“Whatever anybody’s done in the past, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me,” he said. “I just have to try to do my best moving forward.”
Patricia is both technical and practical, kind of like the pencil behind his ear. He’s smart enough to recognize the past, and that’s a start. The real challenge is replicating something more promising and familiar, in a place that’s never seen it.