Allen Park – With five interviews in the books, the Detroit Lions moved on to the presumptive favorite in the eyes of many analysts when they met with New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on Friday.
After a six-year stretch working as a lower-level assistant in the college ranks, the former engineer has spent the past 14 seasons with the Patriots. He’s worked on both sides of the ball under coach Bill Belichick and led the team’s defense the past six years.
“I think both (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) and Matt are great coaches,” Belichick said in 2016. “(They) should absolutely be on any head coaching list. I can’t imagine that there are many other coaches that could present a resume equal or comparable to theirs. They’ve done a great job here for a sustained period of time, so a great track record.”
Lions general manager Bob Quinn had a 12-year overlap with Patricia in New England. When Quinn was hired by the Lions two years ago, he echoed Belichick’s sentiments that Patricia was ready for a head coaching job.
Two years later, Quinn has the power to make that happen.
The underlying metrics for Patricia’s defenses haven’t always been great. Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which measures a unit’s down-to-down efficiency, ranked the team 31st this past season. No matter, the Patriots have had a knack for limiting points. Opponents have averaged fewer than 20 per game each of the past four seasons.
And Patricia, 43, has managed that consistency despite running a bargain unit. The Patriots spend significantly more cap space on their offense, and haven’t ranked higher than 20th in defensive spending the past five years.
Patricia’s work ethic is his calling card. He reportedly sleeps four or fewer hours per night, so he can commit more time to studying film and constructing game plans.
“I like that word (relentless),” he said in a 2015 interview. “I think for me, it’s all about work ethic and just trying to get in there and make sure that I do everything that I can to help those guys be productive on the field. That’s really my biggest – I don’t want to say panic – but that’s the thing that drives me the most, is just making sure that I’ve given those guys all the information they need to be prepared to win. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Prior to starting his coaching career, he was an undersized offensive lineman for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a small, private school an hour west of New York’s eastern border with Massachusetts. By undersized, we’re talking 230 pounds. He survived against stronger opponents by mastering cut blocking, earning him the nickname Scissors.
With an aeronautical engineering degree, he worked two years in the field after graduation, before trying his hand at coaching, reportedly earning $10,000 per year as a defensive line coach at Amherst. After two years there, and three as a graduate assistant at Syracuse, Patricia won over Belichick in an interview and landed in New England, where he’s worked with the offensive line, linebackers and safeties before his promotion to defensive coordinator.
This is Patricia’s third go-round on the coaching interview circuit. He met with Browns in 2016 and the Rams and Chargers last year.
Patricia has two things working against him. First, whether it’s fair or not, he’s cast against other former Belichick disciples who struggled as head coaches. Only Nick Saban, who served as Belichick’s defensive coordinator for three years in Cleveland, has been a clear success. Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, two Patriots defensive coordinators before Patricia, each posted records well south of .500.
Additionally, Patricia doesn’t exactly look the part. He’s known for his gnarly beard, paired with a hoodie and backwards ball cap. He also generated headlines after last season’s Super Bowl victory, when he stepped off the team plane wearing a T-shirt portraying NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a clown.
Patricia’s candidacy could come down to whether Quinn believes either issue matters. It’s certainly possible neither outweigh the positives, setting the table for the two to reconnect in Detroit.
After interviewing Patricia, the Lions have one other reported interview remaining, with Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. If that remains scheduled, the team will have met with six candidates to replace Jim Caldwell. The Lions would not be able to hire Wilks, Patricia or Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur until their teams are eliminated from the postseason.