Allen Park — Matt Patricia came in last year stomping and stonewalling, the new guy with the proven plan, no need to yield. He came in Thursday as the Lions opened training camp, gliding with his left leg on a scooter, recovering from minor surgery.
We can take this imagery as far as we wish, as far as Patricia is willing to go. Some of the differences are symbolic. Some are real, as the Lions’ head coach enters his second season with an altered perspective, and hopefully, a finer-tuned plan. If he’s as smart as advertised, he’ll adjust after his humbling 6-10 debut, and so must his players.
Oh, there won’t suddenly be popsicle breaks during practice and naps during team meetings. Patricia won’t be happily outlining strategy to the media. But there are indications he learned from his rookie campaign, when the discontent among veteran players was palpable. Practices were longer and tougher, punishment sprints were a common tool, daily schedules were inconsistent and poorly timed. The most-graphic display of resistance came in the 48-17 opening loss to the Jets on Monday night football.
Patricia’s team now has more of his guys, more depth and flexibility, as GM Bob Quinn turned over the roster by about a third. Former Patriot compatriots such as Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola came aboard, suggesting Patricia’s overbearing ways are bearable when you get used to them.
There are no excuses for how the Lions started last season, and if Patricia got a mulligan because of the dramatic shift from Jim Caldwell’s less-frantic ways, it should be gone now. That doesn’t mean his job is in jeopardy — his tight relationship with Quinn probably buys him modest leeway — but if there’s another disaster, it might be irreparable.
Patricia said he did extensive self-evaluation, and while training camp won’t necessarily look much different, he solicited feedback from team leaders. Schedules and practice lengths might be adjusted to account for wear. The offense was completely reworked, with Darrell Bevell replacing Jim Bob Cooter to balance an attack that has relied too heavily on Matthew Stafford’s arm for too long.
No signs of strife
At the moment, there are no visible signs of strife, not even a holdout, as Darius Slay and Damon “Snacks” Harrison both reported. It’s not like they had much leverage with two years left on their contracts, but as two of the best players on a defense that improved steadily the second half of last season, their appearance was vital. Slay was in his standard glib mood Thursday, saying his contract situation won’t affect his performance and “I’m going out there to dominate.”
Last year when players were asked about Patricia’s demanding ways, they answered robotically, vaguely, sending subtle but unambiguous messages. Stafford endured one of the worst seasons of his 10-year career, battered and befuddled by an offense with no identity. Now, ask him about his relationship with Patricia, and he talks about mutual adjustments.
“With experience, he’s a smart guy, he’s not gonna sit there and not learn anything from his first year as a head coach,” Stafford said. “And I’m not gonna sit there and say I’m gonna be this way my whole life, you gotta adjust to me. It’s a compromise. We talk quite a bit. We’ve got a great relationship.”
Patricia put up an adversarial wall last season, between himself and the media, between himself and some of his players. Maybe it was a necessary culture shock, and there were signs of progress. Partly thanks to the acquisition of Harrison, the defense performed much better near the end, and finished 10th in the league in yards allowed.
The first day of camp doesn’t prove anything, especially because Patricia was confined to a golf cart, motoring between position groups instead of stalking the field, shouting and exhorting. When he scootered into his morning news conference, he seemed almost sheepish, his mobility hampering him in aggravating ways.
“I’m a little bit caught, 10-15 yards farther away from the action (in practice),” Patricia said. “I’m a coach that likes to be in the middle of it. My favorite part of the game is to be hands on. But just being able to step back a little bit through early training camp, I’m excited to have that familiarity and watch those guys just run practice on their own.”
Treading a bit softer
From his surgically induced vantage point, Patricia almost is forced to trust and empower players and assistants more. Again, it’s more symbolic than anything, but perhaps he’s less inclined to be intimidating now, more inclined to listen.
Players still might not feel completely comfortable with his style, but they surely understand it better.
“I laugh every time I see him on the golf cart,” Kerryon Johnson said. “I promise you, he’s as tough as nails, and I’m sure he’s in pain. But he’s fighting through it, and that means a lot to us. He could be off the field, up in a booth somewhere, but he wants to be out there as close as he can. … But look, it is funny.”
It sort of is, in a sympathetic way, seeing the burly, bearded Patricia confined to his cart. He’s being overly cautious after getting a tendon repaired, and joked, “We all need training camp.”
Football teams all need levity too. Hey, maybe Patricia is just trying to keep up with the Packers, whose rookie head coach, Matt LaFleur, suffered a torn Achilles this offseason. It can be humanizing, in a way.
Johnson, a second-year running back who could become a star in Bevell’s run-oriented offense, is loaded with personality and confidence. And he says Patricia’s lighter demeanor is really nothing new.
“He’s always been receptive to joking around, but he loves football, man,” Johnson said. “The man lives, breathes, eats, drinks football. If you pull him aside, you can joke with him, laugh with him, but when those whistles blow or it’s meeting time, he’s a football coach and you gotta respect that. He’s learning just like we are, but that man gives 1,000 percent effort every day, and he expects us to do the same for him.”
It’s not too much to ask, for either side. Patricia might be hobbled, physically and metaphorically, but just like his team, he has training camp to work it out. A most enlightening training camp, indeed.