A burly, 43-year-old former small-college football player, who sports a big, bushy beard on his face, a backward hat on his head and a No. 2 pencil in his ear, appears to be the linchpin of the NFL coaching carrousel, the belle of the ball who controls the fates of multiple franchises.
Oh, yeah, and Matt Patricia also studied aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“I am an engineer by trade,” Patricia, New England’s defensive coordinator, told Yahoo Sports last year.
He’s about to be an NFL head coach by paycheck, though, either after the next Patriots loss or three Patriots victories. That begins Saturday when New England hosts Tennessee (8:15 p.m. ET on the Yahoo Sports app). Soon enough Patricia will pick his job, reportedly between the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions.
The old joke is that football isn’t rocket science, which is why it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to make this selection. A history major would take New York. A calm, cool contemplation of the available data, assets and information, though, points to the Lions.
Engineers change the world by redefining what is possible. Choosing a franchise with one playoff victory since 1957 over a franchise with four Super Bowl titles since 1986 would redefine conventional wisdom in the NFL. This is where Patricia finds himself.
A track record of championship success?
A brighter immediate future with a familiar boss?
New York is New York and the Giants are the Giants, but Detroit has a hands-off owner, a general manager Patricia climbed the Patriots ladder alongside, a winning team in need of a tuneup, not an overhaul, a franchise quarterback and all sorts of talent at other cornerstone positions – from left tackle to defensive back to edge rusher.
Start with this, Detroit went 9-7 and if not for a tough, albeit accurate, call at the goal line on the final play against Atlanta, it would have been in the playoffs. In 2016, it went 9-7 and lost in the wild-card round. For decades under the ownership of William Clay Ford Sr. that would have been more than enough to retain coach Jim Caldwell, a good and likable man.
If there is a single reason the Lions have been so ineffective for so long it’s that Ford was too good to his employees – offering endless chances and sympathetic contract extensions. Cleveland, for example, is a mess, in part, because it changes plans seemingly every three months. The Browns are on their fourth head coach and fifth general manager since 2012 (and that doesn’t count Kevin Costner in “Draft Day”).
Ford just accepted the Lions’ fate. Matt Millen lasted eight seasons as team president before he was finally fired.
That was then. Ford Sr. passed away in 2014. Under the direction of his widow, Martha Firestone Ford, and general manager Bob Quinn, there appears to be some urgency. Caldwell was let go despite going 36-28 overall.
Quinn, of course, comes from the New England Patriots, where from 2000-16 he worked his way up from lowly player personnel assistant. For 12 of those years he worked in the same building with Patricia, who arrived as an “offensive coaching assistant” and, like Quinn, survived Bill Belichick’s meat grinder to thrive.
There’s familiarity here. There’s background. There’s a shared understanding of how the process should work. There’s cap money and an owner that isn’t cheap. And there is a guy in place who has been trying to establish the Patriot Way in the Midwest for two years.
Most importantly, there’s a quarterback – Matthew Stafford. Nothing dooms young coaches (or old ones, either) quicker in the NFL than the lack of a QB. Stafford has always been talented and always shown ability in late-game situations, but the last three seasons he’s taken off, averaging 28 touchdowns a year while playing (mostly) under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Stafford has lobbied for Cooter to stay no matter who gets the head job.
Patricia arrives with a defense-heavy background having worked in an organization with the greatest and most stabilizing quarterback of all time, Tom Brady. Finding, developing and handling quarterbacks is the toughest thing in football.
So why bother with it if you a) don’t have to and b) don’t have any experience doing it?
The Giants have 37-year-old Eli Manning, who may still be good enough or may not – and it may depend on the week. He’s certainly not a long-term answer for a coach who wants to be there for the long term. Yet he’s a fan and media favorite, so every move involving him is a political minefield.
Besides, the Giants just went 3-13. The pratfalls are obvious.
A little better coaching, a little more talent, a little more of a winning attitude and the Lions are not just a playoff team but a team that (gasp) could actually win a game in the playoffs. Any coach who delivers that – and just that – will be a hero in Detroit, where even moderate success is desperately sought. They’ve won nothing since 1992.
In New York, you need to reach Super Bowls, if not win them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sure feels a long way off and a long road to travel for a rookie coach.
Look, the Giants are one of the most storied and iconic franchises in the NFL. New York is the biggest, most dynamic and exciting city in America.
The Lions are a forgettable laughingstock. The city of Detroit is admirably bootstrapping itself back to respectability but there remains a long way to go.
On reputation alone, this is simple. You run to New York and try to become the next Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin.
Matt Patricia is an engineer, though, a self-described technology geek who still favors the old-school pencil because of its reliability. He’s like nothing the NFL coaching world has ever seen.
Which is why he ought to solve an equation in a way no one in the NFL has ever before: Detroit > New York.
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