ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The New England Patriots play the Detroit Lions on Sunday, which means Bill Belichick matches up with Matt Patricia, the most recent of his former assistants to move onto a head coaching job elsewhere.
Belichick may be the greatest coach in NFL history. You just wouldn’t know it if you examined his track record of producing head coaches.
Romeo Crennel, Al Groh, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini and Jim Schwartz didn’t cut it in the league. Bill O’Brien has taken Houston to the playoffs a couple times, but hasn’t fully broken through. Nick Saban, who worked under Belichick in Cleveland, is Nick Saban, although his success has come in college. He lasted just two years with the Miami Dolphins.
The college level is a mixed bag. For every Kirk Ferentz at Iowa or Pat Hill at Fresno State, there’s a Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Kansas.
Patricia is a mere two games into his career, so the jury is still out. He’s 0-2, however, and the Lions have looked terrible in what appeared to be winnable games. Now here come the Pats, and with the schedule that follows (at Dallas, Green Bay, at Miami) something big has to change to avoid an extremely rough start. That he inherited a 9-7 team only adds to the pressure.
So why do Belichick assistants struggle once they leave his side?
“I’m not in the analytics business,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I’m just trying to get our team ready to play against the Lions this week.”
That prospect alone might terrify Detroit fans. Since the start of the 2001 season, Belichick’s second in New England and when the Patriots dynasty cranked to life, he is 14-6 (.700) against his former assistants. Of course, that’s, comparatively, actually pretty good. Belichick is 223-68 (.766) against all the other coaches since then (playoffs included).
“Again, I don’t think really anything matters other than what happens this week between these two teams,” Belichick said when asked about his head-to-head success against his protégés. “I don’t think what happened in a game five years ago between two different teams really has any bearing on this week and this game.”
It doesn’t. Or shouldn’t. Although who really knows. The Belichick-assistants-don’t-fare-well storyline is so well known that it may actually hurt the job prospects of his assistants — although Patricia was hired and Josh McDaniel briefly accepted the Indianapolis Colts job before reversing course and staying in New England.
It’s certainly enough of a known entity that Patricia said he and other members of the Belichick coaching tree discuss the experiences and failures of those who went before them in an effort to avoid the same pratfalls. In Patricia’s case, that meant many long talks in particular with McDaniels, who went 11-17 with the Denver Broncos from 2009-10.
“I think Josh and I had a lot of conversation about the opportunities that he’s had and really I’ve done the same with a lot of the coaches or even the former players I’ve had that are now coaches in the NFL,” Patricia said. “We had an open conversation about it.
“I think the good thing is that we are all individually our own guys, we are our own individual leaders and coaches and things like that,” Patricia continued. “It’s just to make sure you are always just kind of true to who you are. That is something Josh and I talked a lot about in his experience and my experience here and just making sure everybody understands.
“The players will always respond to you just being you,” Patricia said. “Just marking who you are first, before anything. That’s the biggest part of it before you get to how you want to do things.”
Essentially, trying to be Bill Belichick if you are not Bill Belichick is a recipe for failure. Belichick’s inter-personal skills, his motivational tactics, even his roster moves have worked historically well in New England. Tom Brady is part of that. It didn’t work during his first coaching stop in Cleveland, where he went 37-45 (playoffs included) over five seasons.
So who is Patricia? He went to school to be, and worked early in his career as, a rocket scientist before jumping into coaching. He wears a trademark pencil above his ear at all times. He dresses down, ala Belichick.
Early reports from Detroit have revealed players bristling at his hard-line coaching tactics, including running sprints and being what they perceive as abrasive. Maybe that’s the true him. Or maybe that’s what he learned from Belichick. Or maybe that’s just what the Lions need considering they have won just a single playoff game since 1957. That Patricia replaced Jim Caldwell, who carries himself in a genteel way and a sense of calm, is probably exasperating things.
Or maybe that’s a guy who knows only the Belichick way and can’t quite duplicate it – particularly without Brady serving as a locker room example and on-field savior.
Winning, of course, would solve all problems.
So far, the fans in Detroit are unimpressed. A much-anticipated season opener ended in a flood of boos and then most leaving during the third quarter of a 48-17 loss to the New York Jets. Last week brought a loss at San Francisco. Now everything gets serious, including a national broadcast television audience for the vaunted Pats.
Belichick says he isn’t in the analytics business and can’t explain why his former assistants haven’t thrived outside of Foxborough. Maybe Patricia and the others should hire him to give it a try.
Otherwise one of football’s great mysteries might keep rolling along.
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