Most of them get it now. And if they don’t, they’re mostly gone.
That’s how these things go in the NFL. That’s how it has been here in Detroit, too, where things haven’t exactly gone smoothly in Matt Patricia’s first two seasons as the Lions’ head coach.
After an awkward — and ugly, at times — introduction in 2018, Patricia found more common ground with his players last season. But then, after injuries and an anemic defense led to a disastrous 3-12-1 finish, there were more grievances aired, as veteran players like Darius Slay and Damon Harrison left the team — and left little doubt they were happy about it, albeit for different reasons.
That’s old news now, the complaints about the disrespect and harsh demands and poor scheme fits, all of which got lumped together as a lack of “buy-in” that both Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn clearly undersold a couple of years ago.
But what’s still relevant, and maybe even telling as the Lions press forward in uncertain times, is the way team leaders like Danny Amendola and Trey Flowers addressed those issues Wednesday — echoing comments Matthew Stafford made last week — when asked about some of the parting shots their ex-teammates delivered this offseason.
Flowers and Amendola were two of the Lions’ high-profile signings in free agency last year, and notably, they are players who knew what they were signing up for in Detroit, having spent multiple seasons with Patricia in New England.
“I mean, obviously, any (new) coaching staff you have, you’re gonna have guys who are accustomed to another coaching style or a different environment or a different way of just going about business,” Flowers said on a video conference call from his home in Huntsville, Alabama. “I gave as much insight as I could as far as what was the expectation or what was the demand and why the demand of excellence was so high. But Coach Patricia, he’s a guy that’s all about winning, and so however he can get that out of guys, he’ll demand highly of ‘em, expect highly of ‘em, and the standard is very high no matter what environment he goes in.
“So I think guys probably were accustomed to a different style or a different type and, you know, that’s just how business goes. Some people like it, some people don’t. You know, any business you go in, you’re gonna have people that agree with things, people that don’t agree with things. As far as me being a guy that has been around Coach Patricia and understands his style, I tried to shed light on it and explain it as much as I could. But that’s just how the business goes.”
A learning process
And so it has, obviously, as the Quinn and Patricia have almost completely overhauled the Lions' roster over the last two-plus years, dismantling the one that won more than it lost for Jim Caldwell from 2014-17, but didn't win enough to keep him around.
On the Lions’ current 90-man roster, only a dozen players are left whose time in Detroit predates Patricia, and two of those are the kicker and the long-snapper. So, in other words, aside from the 2020 rookie class and some of the new free agents who’ve only just begun to meet their coaches through a virtual offseason program, they all know what to expect.
So does Patricia, for that matter. The Bill Belichick disciple understands his approach isn’t for everyone, and by most accounts, he did tone down his act somewhat last season.
“I think Coach Patricia, as everybody has, has learned,” said Stafford, who is entering his 13th NFL season. “I think he learned about himself, learned about our team, learned about how he wants to be as a head coach, all those things. … Steps from Year 1 to Year 2, probably like rookie year to second year as a player, are some of the biggest leaps you can make, and I thought he did a great job last year. It didn't reflect so much in our record, but I thought he did a great job.”
Of course, the job doesn’t get any easier now, particularly in the middle of a pandemic that'll likely keep the Lions from hitting the practice field together until training camp in late July, if all goes well.
But even in this virtual world they’re all muddling through, there’s a better sense that everyone’s on the same page here. Or close to it, at least, though I understand why there's some healthy skepticism out there that this whole thing is just another pyramid scheme that has fooled the Ford family.
Still, there are more veterans on board who think and act like Amendola, the no-nonsense receiver who was careful not to criticize Slay and others Wednesday, but also quite matter-of-fact about what’s expected, and why that matters to him.
“Personally, the way I operate as a football player … I want it to be as tough as possible in practice,” he said. “So when I get to the games, it’s … I’ve been there before, and I understand what it feels like to be tired in a game because I was tired in practice and I understand what my body can go through and how I can push my body mentally and physically. That’s something that, personally, I really relate to. That’s something I look for.
“This is my sixth NFL team in 13 seasons and I’ve played for all different types of coaches, all different types of offenses, and methods. So what Coach Patricia has to offer is something that I eagerly look for, because I know that I’ll get the best version of me.”
Flowers, who got off to a slow start last season coming off shoulder surgery but finished strong, uses a similar compass when it comes to taking direction. And while he says he’s enjoying the extra time at home this spring with his young daughters, Skylar and Shylo, he’s also anxious to get to work and see some familiar faces. That includes new free-agent pickups like nose tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins, both of whom he played with — and won with — in New England.
“Obviously, adding guys that have been successful on teams, and been successful on successful teams, they understand what it takes,” Flowers said. “They know how the defense should be run."
That played a big part in the Lions' personnel moves this offseason, as Quinn and Patricia made wholesale changes on defense, replacing a handful of starters with players that seem like better fits, at least. Nearly half of the projected starters for this year's defense are ex-Patriots, if you're keeping track. And particularly in the front seven, Patricia says, the versatility those new additions bring "and kind of the overall understanding of what we were doing" should help fix some of the myriad problems that plagued the Lions' 31st-ranked unit last season.
We'll see about that, hopefully in September. But if nothing else, those signings should help in less tangible ways.
"I think adding veteran guys that understand the scheme and understand the standard is a better source for other players," Flowers said.
Especially some of the younger, more impressionable ones. The ones Patricia was no doubt trying to protect with some of the trades he and Quinn made the last two years. Because when it comes to modeling behavior, what gets said matters almost as much as what gets done.