Niyo: Quinn-Patricia past gives Lions promise for future

John Niyo
The Detroit News


Matt Patricia

It's not what you know in the NFL. It's not always who you know, either.

But it certainly helps when a former longtime colleague takes over as general manager of another NFL franchise and doesn’t lose your number.

And with the Lions finally making it official Monday, announcing the hiring of Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as their new head coach, that’ll be the common thread we all start pulling, trying to figure out where it’ll end.

Why might this move work when so many others before it have failed, both here in Detroit – with more than a dozen head coaches over the last six decades or so – and elsewhere as various branches of the Bill Belichick coaching tree have quickly splintered?

Might as well start with the ties that bind, as Patricia – fresh off what he called a "bittersweet" ending Sunday night in Super Bowl LII – joins forces again with Lions general manager Bob Quinn, with whom he spent more than a decade in New England learning from the best in the business.

More: Wojo: Matt Patricia steps into the Lions’ den of darkness

"Matt is driven to succeed, has extreme passion for the game and excels in preparation," Quinn said in a statement, adding he's "confident" Patricia is the right leader to take the Lions "to the next level."

That's not exactly next-level stuff as press releases go, and they'll both be asked to offer more specifics on the plan to get there when Patricia is formally introduced Wednesday afternoon.

This isn't really about the Patriot Way, though, whatever that is. It’s simply about the smartest way to get things done in this league, and the surest bet to building something successful – and something that lasts.

'Most important relationship'

Because as Quinn himself explained a month ago, after he’d fired Jim Caldwell following another 9-7 finish, “The most important relationship in this building is between the head coach and the general manager.”

That’s why Patricia’s name was tossed around for the Lions’ job two years ago when Quinn first arrived. It’s also why Quinn didn’t bother dismissing the obvious connections a month ago, acknowledging that familiarity could be a factor – “For sure,” he said – in his decision. And it’s undoubtedly a big part of the reason why Patricia will step to the podium in Allen Park instead of in East Rutherford, N.J., where the Giants were forced to go with their Plan B.

The Lions have been there and done that, of course, most recently four years ago when Martin Mayhew hired Caldwell. But what they haven’t had in quite some time is the kind of synergy between the front office and the coaching staff that Quinn and Patricia are going to promise. And if you listen to the latter talk – “For me, it’s all about relationships,” Patricia says – it sure sounds like they plan on delivering.

More: Rogers: Don’t judge Patricia on one lousy night

Reporters spent last week in Minneapolis trying to pry something – anything – from Patricia about this next step he’s about to make. But he kept his composure – and a sense of humor – as he answered dozens of questions the same way: All his focus was on Philadelphia, not Detroit.

Sunday’s performance probably proved him right about that, as the Eagles’ offense was simply too much for a patchwork New England defense that had overachieved for months. Afterward, he wasn't about to add to the disappointment by talking about his own future.

"Teams change every year, and players, and my first accord is to go in and tell those guys in the room how much I appreciate them," he said. "They worked really hard this year, obviously came up a little bit short."

Still, he did offer some thoughts his time with Quinn in that football factory in Foxborough. About how Belichick demands more than just hard work -- he demands strong opinions, too -- and the kinds of bonds that ultimately creates.

"You start to think alike," Patricia said. "You start to think in kind of the same manner."

Major differences

On Wednesday, we'll find out a bit more about what he thinks of the Lions, and why he thinks this is the right job for him. There are the obvious reasons, starting with a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford and ample salary-cap space. But as he talked about his own coaching path last week, he hinted at another.

“You get really good coaches, really good staffs,” Patricia said, “and then they branch out and they know that there’s people around them that they want to be around and with.”

And then, naturally, they find ways to make that happen. That’s what Quinn is doing here in Detroit, and it’s what Patricia will do as he finalizes his first coaching staff in the next few weeks.

But it’s also something that hasn’t really happened before with previous Belichick disciples ascending to NFL head coaching jobs. Much has been made about the Belichick coaching tree not bearing fruit, but take a look at the four previous assistants who made the leap – Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien and Josh McDaniels, who’s about to get a second crack at it in Indianapolis – and you’ll see they all had something in common.

First off, they all dearly missed Tom Brady, forced to rely on the likes of Derek Anderson and Chad Pennington and Kyle Orton and a half-dozen bad ideas in Houston before Deshaun Watson came along. (And then got hurt.) Patricia won’t have that problem in Detroit with Stafford in his prime and signed through 2022.

The other piece that was missing was just as important, though. And that’s the shared vision – and trust – between the head coach and the front office, between the folks who buy the groceries and the guys that are asked to make the meals. It fell apart for Mangini with the Jets, and for Crennel in Cleveland as well. McDaniels was mostly his own worst enemy in Denver, but in Houston that scenario is playing out again, with reports of a “toxic” and “dysfunctional” relationship between O’Brien and GM Rick Smith – now on an extended leave of absence – clouding the future there.

It’s hard to imagine something like that happening here with Quinn and Patricia, given their history together. And while it's too early to say much, that alone might bode well for the Lions' future.