Niyo: Patricia faces spotlight out from under Belichick's shadow

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Matt Patricia with the Lions is trying to be one of the rare disciples of Patriots coach Bill Belichick who goes on to have success as a head coach.

Allen Park — It’s a two-way street until you come to the fork in the road.

And if you’re still looking for the reason the Patriot Way seems to dead-end just outside Foxborough for Bill Belichick’s proteges, maybe it’s is as simple as that.

The reason the best tactician in NFL history has done such a poor job producing successful head coaches for the rest of the league is because, quite simply, it’s not his job.

Nor is it his obligation to spend any time this week extolling the virtues of the Lions’ Matt Patricia, Belichick’s longtime assistant and celebrated defensive coordinator who’ll face his mentor Sunday night in a nationally-televised game between the Lions and Patriots at Ford Field.

Ask him about the former — about why his one-time assistants have been eaten alive when released into the wild — and you’ll get a vintage Belichick answer.

“I’m just really focused on trying to get our team ready to play,” he grumbled Wednesday on a conference call with Detroit media. “I’m not in the analytics business.”

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Ask him about the latter — about Patricia’s 14-year career in New England and the similar paths he and Belichick took to get to the NFL — and, well, you’ll get more of the same.

“I try not to evaluate those kinds of things,” Belichick said. “Look, every player and every person is different, and every coach is different. No two of us are the same, even identical twins.”

Listen up

Again, though, that’s probably the answer right there: Duplication is never as easy as it looks. And when the original is as unique as Belichick — a fearless and flexible football mind who has been the envy of the league for the better part of two decades — those who try to copy the masterpiece are destined to fail. (Especially if they don't have a reasonable facsimile of Tom Brady playing quarterback.)

Patricia went out of his way to say as much during his introductory press conference in February, reminding the fans in Detroit, "There's only one Coach Belichick. He's in New England. I'm Matt Patricia. I'm my own guy.”

And that’s a point that the Lions coach says was driven home in recent years as he and fellow Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels discussed their respective futures.

McDaniels, of course, remains a bit of a cautionary tale as one of the branches on Belichick’s coaching tree that fell hard — and fast. Faster than most of the others,that came before or after, from Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis to Eric Mangini and Jim Schwartz.

Only 32 when he was hired by Denver in 2009, McDaniels enjoyed immediate success with a 6-0 start that season. But things quickly unraveled from there, as his boorish behavior and micromanaging ways helped create a toxic environment, and McDaniels — unprepared for the personnel control he was handed by ownership — was fired just 22 months after taking the Broncos job.

Years later, back in charge of the Patriots’ offense at another Super Bowl, McDaniels admitted “one of the things I really learned in Denver is the value of being a good listener.”

It's a message that Patricia says he has taken to heart as well.

“Part of it is the old adage, you have one mouth and two ears, so listen twice as much as you speak,” he said Wednesday.

'True to who you are' 

And when you do speak, he insists, it’s important that it’s not just some remastered version of the coach in New England who has won five Super Bowls, eight AFC titles and 28 playoff games — all league records — while largely refusing to conform to most coaching norms.

“I think that’s the biggest part of it, is just to make sure that you’re always true to who you are,” said Patricia, who joined Belichick’s staff in 2004 and worked his way up to the coordinator job in 2012. “That’s something that Josh and I talked a lot about in his experience and my experience here, (understanding) the players will always respond to you just being you. They have to just learn who you are first before anything, before you get into the installation of how you want to do things or what you want it to look like or what the importance is of some of the details that you think are critical to having a successful team.”

Just where Patricia is in that process is hard to say, at least from the outside listening in. And a rocky start to this season hasn’t made things any easier, with an 0-2 start — including that embarrassing debut against the New York Jets — accompanied by reports of players chafing at Patricia’s coaching, among other issues.

Now comes a showdown with Belichick, whose team is coming off a 31-20 loss at Jacksonville in a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game. Patricia probably doesn’t need to be reminded that the Patriots are 17-1 in their last 18 games following a double-digit loss, or that New England has won those bounce-back games by an average margin of 15 points.

Still, it’s worth noting that Belichick’s former assistants actually have fared better against New England (8-14 overall, .364) than the rest of the league (77-228, .253) has over the years.

Or is it?

“I don’t think a game that happened five years ago against two different teams has any bearing whatsoever on this week and this game,” Belichick said.

And though the idea of Patricia matching wits with his former colleagues is intriguing, McDaniels notes with a laugh, “Neither one of us will be in a helmet and pads on Sunday night, thank God.”

No, they won’t. But they wouldn’t be where they are now — McDaniels as the heir apparent in New England after turning down Indianapolis last winter, or Patricia leading his own team in Detroit — if they hadn’t spent all that time with Belichick. And vice versa.

In fact, if there’s one thing Patricia will admit he wasn’t entirely ready for, it’s all the demands on a head coach’s time. It used to be him sitting in Belichick’s office looking for answers to his questions or solutions to his problems.

“And your question is the most important question in the entire world, so you have to get it answered right away,” Patricia said. “And he would just stop and explain it, teach it, coach it. And I’d move on.”

And now that he has indeed moved on, now that he’s sitting on the other side of that desk, Patricia says, “you don’t realize just how much is coming at you.”

Not until you hit the road on your own, that is, and find out for yourself how easy Belichick has made all that winning look. And just how hard that makes it on everyone else in the same position, especially those closest to him.


Twitter: @JohnNiyo