ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matt Patricia was about two months into his tenure as the Detroit Lions coach when he saw an opportunity to create a team-building situation similar to what he had experienced in the past.
As an up-and-coming assistant coach with the New England Patriots in 2008, Patricia remembered the club spending two full weeks on the West Coast -- separate stints between back-to-back road games in the Pacific time zone in October and December of that season. The team came together, using the time away to bond while rallying around backup quarterback Matt Cassel in an 11-5 season.
More recently, in 2014 and 2017, Patricia had been part of a similar experience with the Patriots in San Diego and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
So when Patricia received the Lions’ preseason schedule in April and noted the first game was in Oakland, he reached out to Raiders coach Jon Gruden to gauge his interest in joint practices.
Gruden liked the idea, and the trip was set. To Patricia, it was an opportunity to get work in with another squad, but equally important, for the team to get away from the facility so relationships could grow. Since taking over the Lions, he has consistently stressed building culture, and trips like those are often beneficial in that regard.
Months have passed since that team-bonding journey, and a lot has unfolded for Patricia and the Lions. The club hasn’t gotten off to the fast start it was hoping for, but the trip nonetheless provided a springboard to highlight what Patricia is trying to establish in Detroit, after being hired by general manager Bob Quinn, a former Patriots director of pro scouting.
It also serves as a reminder of where Patricia was prior: spending 14 years as an assistant coach under Bill Belichick, who is always looking to capitalize on team-building strategies.
Patricia’s Lions host Belichick’s Patriots on Sunday night, and in a one-on-one interview with ESPN three weeks ago at the end of training camp, Patricia offered a peek behind the curtain.
"When I was making this transition ... he took that extra step to mentor, provide guidance, friendship of, 'OK, look, this is something you want to do, so here are some things you have to know.' ... It's not him giving you answers. It's, 'Here are the scenarios and you go figure it out.'" Matt Patricia
on Bill Belichick's head-coaching advice
Whereas Belichick has made the phrase “Do Your Job” famous in New England, the 44-year-old Patricia is stressing “Lion Pride” in Detroit.
“It’s a blue-collar work ethic that reflects our city,” Patricia said.
It’s a work in progress as he balances some notable lessons from his Patriots past with his own vision for the Lions’ future.
Don’t try to duplicate Belichick ... because no one can. “One of the biggest things for me when I got to New England, and it was different from what I had experienced before, was the way he coached the team. I don’t know any head coaches who can do that like he can, with as much detail. It’s just incredible.
“What I’ve learned -- and probably the coaches that have come out of there learned -- [is] we can’t do that. That’s something Coach Belichick can do. Only him.
“But the important thing that can be taken from that is a reminder of making sure the entire team is coached, and so how do you do that with such focus and intensity and a message coming from such a high level?
“The best way is that you definitely have to hire good coaches you can trust.”
Coaches need coaching, too. “The rhythm that is there in New England is a result of years of consistency. I am starting from ground zero in Detroit, so I’m trying to pave the way and get everybody on board. And once you get those people you can trust around you, then it’s making sure you reciprocate that and you’re coaching the coaches on what you want.
“That is one of the hardest things because the coaches are fired up, they’re trying to coach the players and do everything you want them to do, which is great. And the players are trying to do everything the right way. Where you run into issues is just time.
“In this role, everyone in the organization needs a bit of your time, and you have to realize that whatever they’re bringing to you is the most important thing in their world. As a head coach, you’re not just leading the team, you’re one of the top leaders in the organization. With that comes daily obligations beyond Xs and Os.”
Compartmentalizing with a personal touch.“The amount of time and attention that Coach Belichick gave me -- football, personal -- I can’t even repay him. I can’t thank him enough for that.
“When I walked into his office when I was learning how to be an offensive quality-control coach, or was trying to learn how to be a linebackers coach, or a defensive coordinator, you have a lot of questions and need an answer. And here he is -- with 1,000 things going on -- and he stops, explains it, teaches it, shows me what to do, and talks to me about things that could come up in different scenarios.
“I walk out of there and I got my question answered, and he’s got all these other things he’s dealing with, but it never crossed your mind he was that busy -- and how many different things were going on for him to manage -- because he always made the time for me. His ability to hit that pause button, switch gears, teach, coach, mentor another coach, it is something you can only truly appreciate if you’re behind the scenes.
“And something I’ve said other times before, he’s a better friend. When you’re in the football lifestyle, and you work with people 20-plus hours a day -- seven days a week, for seven months -- there is more than just football going on for everybody. To have not only my boss, not only my head coach, but someone I could go to and say, ‘Hey, this is going on, I need some help,' or, ‘It’s Christmas Eve, I totally screwed this, and I don’t have Christmas presents yet,' was extremely meaningful to me. He’d help you fix it, or give you advice.
“When I was making this transition, it was the same thing. He took that extra step to mentor, provide guidance, friendship of, ‘OK, look, this is something you want to do, so here are some things you have to know. Here are some things you have to study. Here are some things you have to figure out how you’d do it.’ It’s not him giving you answers. It’s, ‘Here are the scenarios and you go figure it out.’ But just the level of conversation through the last four, five years of ‘What does this entail?’ and ‘How do I do this?’ couldn’t have been any better as far as my preparation.”
A "constant football environment" with historical roots. “There was so much in that [Patriots] building, just in general, of really good football, really good coaching, really good thoughts and ideas. It was a constant football environment: scheme, Xs and Os, technique, fundamentals, drill work. That is what I’m trying to establish in Detroit.
“We had an unbelievable amount of tape. We had tape going back to the Giants. We’d sit there and watch and study that and say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘What are the origins of this play, this defense, this personnel group? Where did this come from?’ I love the history of the game, so to ask, ‘Hey, where did this personnel come from?’ And you’d get the full dissertation of exactly where it did -- the date and time, you never want to lose history.
“There is so much history in the game and where he’s been and what he’s gone through in the game. You learn from that the most. Those are the ones you can’t get from a playbook. If you know the ‘why’ of how it came about, then you can teach it better. That’s the beauty of it.”
How his beginning in New England has shaped his beginning in Detroit. “The way my time with Coach Belichick started taught me another big lesson I have tried to bring with me to Detroit: how every position on the coaching staff is critical, especially when you’re trying to develop young coaches.
“It was February of 2004, and I was at Syracuse University with Coach [Paul] Pasqualoni, and knew I was kind of coming to the end of my run there. He was looking at moving me to the defensive side of the ball, offering me a job as a full-time coach, and with the limitations of college football, we were trying to make that work. At the same time, I just kind of threw some résumés out there -- a random kind of blind portfolio of my work. Bright orange paper. Bound. You’re just hoping to get someone to take a look at it. I didn’t have any expectations that anything would come through, as I didn’t really know anyone at the NFL level.
“I sent one to New England. Sent one to Cincinnati. I got a phone call from [current Bills offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll. It was Brian and Josh McDaniels, they were young quality-control coaches moving up to position coaches at the time. Brian and I actually played college football against each other. He went to the University of Rochester. I went to RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). He recognized that, gave me a call, and said, ‘Hey, we have this quality-control job. Would you be interested? It doesn’t pay a lot of money.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’
“From there, I had the opportunity to go out and interview. I was put through the grinder of ‘Can you do this job?’ I had a good day, and got through everything, and then it was time for the meeting with Coach Belichick in his office.
“It was just one of those really intense interviews, where it was football philosophy. ‘How do you think?’ ‘How do you recognize plays?’ ‘What is this adjustment?’ It was a long interview. Focused. Detailed. Everything that now is second nature because I just understand what it is. But at the time, you have no idea. So you’re just diving into that, trying to answer the questions, ‘What is he looking for?’ ‘Why is he asking this?’ I’m trying to problem-solve, which is what I do.
“I thought it was great, but I walked out and had no idea how it went. It felt like it went on forever. Felt like three hours.
“For the head coach to spend that much time and intensity to make sure the right people were in that job set the stage right away, set the expectation.
“Working with Coach Belichick, I learned how critical that position is to help him prepare, and to get the information to the coordinators and the rest of the coaches. You definitely could tell why that quality-control job was important to him. There were a lot of times when you were going into a meeting and you had to pull film, tape, and help the coordinator or head coach get the message across to the team. He has very little time to explain to you what he needs, and you just have to figure it out and make sure it’s right.
“Now in Detroit, I can appreciate that much more, just in the limited time I’ve been in this role, and how important that is.”
Finding his own style. “I have great respect for Coach Belichick as both a mentor and friend, but the main thing that is important for me to stress is that we’re not building the Patriots here. We’re building the Lions.
“I’m trying to do it the way I know, and the way I believe the game should be played. A lot of it is influenced by my time in New England, but in the end, it has to be the style that fits me and this team.
“I’m not Coach Belichick. There’s only one. He’s unbelievable. I just have to try to be the best head coach I can be that helps our team, and that’s the biggest thing.
“Starting out here in Detroit, I think about all those things I learned there, and before that at Syracuse, Amherst and RPI, and from my parents growing up. I think about all I’ve learned from the many great players I’ve coached, but the biggest thing is when you take these transition steps is to determine what are all the things you like? What are the things you learned that you didn’t like? And how do you apply them to best fit you, and your program, and what you’re trying to build?”