Allen Park — Before you can coach the players, you have to coach the coaches.
And if there’s a lesson learned the hard way from Matt Patricia’s debut as an NFL head coach, it probably starts there. A late hire and a harried arrival from New England helped lay the groundwork for a regular season that exposed all sorts of cracks in the foundation here in Detroit.
But that’s not going to be an excuse this time around. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, where so much of the Lions’ optimism for a 2019 turnaround is rooted.
The addition of free agents Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels to a defense that was trending upward after the Damon Harrison trade last season is one factor. So is the point that coordinator Paul Pasqualoni reiterated Monday when asked to compare what it was like a year ago to now, as the Lions prepare for Sunday’s opener at Arizona.
For starters, the meetings are shorter. And better, really.
“Because everybody knows what everybody’s talking about, you know?” Pasqualoni said, smiling.
What he’s talking about is the sort of thing that often gets overlooked when a new coaching staff sets up shop and the employees all are asked to learn a new menu. The terminology, the verbiage — whatever you want to call it — it all changes, and even if the concepts are similar, “It’s like I’m speaking French and you’re speaking Italian,” Pasqualoni said, “so what does that mean?”
What it meant for Patricia was obvious, at times, beginning with that embarrassing debut against the Jets at Ford Field. Mistakes were made, clearly, and some of them were due to the mixed messages the Lions were sending on and off the field.
Offseason of reflection
“A lot of first-year teachers say you don’t smile until Thanksgiving,” Patricia noted this winter, and the truth is, by the time the Lions got to late November in 2018, there wasn’t much to smile about. Not for the head coach, or for the man who’d hired him, general manager Bob Quinn.
“Last year was a whirlwind, starting back to hiring very late in the process, trying to get a coaching staff together, trying to go through free agency, do all those things,” Quinn said.
All those things led to some serious self-analysis after the season for Patricia, who for all his coaching experience had only known life as a Bill Belichick apprentice in the NFL.
“And I think he definitely changed in the ways he’s done some things,” Quinn said. “He has taken a lot of input from the players, a lot of great conversations dating back to January, February, March, when the players weren’t even in the building, about things that he was thinking about and wanted to get input from the veteran guys. So, very reflective, very honest with himself.”
And also with his staff, which underwent some major changes — most notably a new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell — but remained largely intact on the defensive side.
“I think the offseason was big for us because we got an opportunity to spend more time with him,” said Brian Stewart, the Lions’ secondary coach. “And just like in any business, the second year or the second go-around is usually better than the first.”
That’s the plan, at least. And while it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Lions’ opener doesn’t go better than it did last season — that 48-17 loss to the Jets is still hard to fathom — there’s no guarantee here. Everyone understands that.
But Patricia also understands the importance of continuity, which is one of the hidden strengths in Belichick’s dynastic run with the Patriots. Assistant coaches come and go, but replacements — at least at the coordinator level in New England — usually are promoted from within. So while the players change, the playbook doesn’t necessarily. And instead of spending the offseason learning a new scheme, that time is spent refining or perfecting it.
Getting it right
The Lions are a long way from doing anything like that here. But there is a guarded optimism that you could sense growing throughout the offseason with the coaches, even though several key players were absent or idle, particularly up front where everything starts for this defense.
“Absolutely,” said Al Golden, the Lions’ linebackers coach. “We understand what Paul wants. We understand what Coach Patricia wants. And if we don’t know exactly, we’re not afraid to get it right. We’re not afraid to ask each other and get it right.”
And the fact that the coaches were all reading from the same script this spring and summer — both in the language they were using and the techniques they were teaching — allowed them to work in smaller groups. A more hands-on approach that, at least in theory, should result in a deeper understanding of the scheme and concepts.
Of course, that theory will be put to the test immediately, as the Lions get ready to face the Cardinals and their “Air Raid” offense with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft.
“This offense,” Pasqualoni said Monday, “is really an explosive deal.”
Stewart understands that better than most. As the defensive coordinator at the University of Houston back in 2010-11, he worked alongside first-year Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury when the latter was calling the plays for Kevin Sumlin and a Cougars team that led the nation in scoring, averaging just under 50 points and 600 yards per game.
“So I understand the philosophy of this offense,” Stewart said. “But where he’s gonna align people and those kind of things, they’re all guesses.”
That guessing game will continue through Sunday’s kickoff and beyond for the Lions’ defensive coaches. As Pasqualoni put it, “We don’t know what’s coming out of that tunnel.” And once it does, they won’t have much time to think. How fast will the tempo be? How much of the aggressive, fast-paced offense will they utilize in Week 1?
“We don’t know,” Patricia acknowledged Monday. “We’re just going to have to handle whatever it is. Pace, tempo, line-of-scrimmage checks, different formations, different personnel groups — those are all things that will be in-game adjustments for us that are going to be really difficult, especially playing in their stadium. … Defensively, it’s a big challenge.”
But it’s a challenge they should be better prepared to meet, even with some uncertainty of their own coming in, from the defensive-line absences in camp to linebacker Jarrad Davis’ preseason injury. And put it this way: Now that they’re all speaking the same language, the notion that games will be lost in translation simply won't fly.
“Certainly, we hope that everything is better than what it was last year with the defense,” Patricia said. “There are a lot of new pieces, though. There are a lot of new parts. It’ll be something that has to develop and grow for this year. …. Hopefully, it just grows faster than what it did last year.”