Who is Matt Patricia? The new coach of the Detroit Lions looks like a character from Duck Dynasty. He looks like Yukon Cornelius. He looks like a guy who wants to break things with brute force.
But looks can be deceiving.
Actually, despite his thick, bushy beard, Patricia has a soft voice, almost high and pipsqueak-like. In spite of his tough exterior, Patricia is a geek who loves to talk about schemes and game theory. And actually, he’s literally a rocket scientist.
The 43-year old Patricia will take over the Lions head coaching job this week, fresh off another Super experience in the Biggest Game On Earth on Sunday. The Patriots loss in Super Bowl 52 doesn’t tarnish the fact that Patricia has three Super Bowl rings to put on his meaty fingers. But don’t bet on him wearing them in his new role as top cat in Detroit. His focus is on the future.
But first a little about the past and this man we’ll call “Matt Patty.” (Hey, even if no one else does)
Patricia graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering from a place called Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). His favorite class was about the theory of flight. He played on the offensive line for RPI and then took a job for a few years in aviation. But football beckoned in the form of a coaching job, and within a few years he was on the staff at Syracuse. Flip of the calendar, flip of the calendar, and Patricia applied for a job as a “coaching assistant” with the New England Patriots. He recounted in a Sports Illustrated article that the interview with head coach Bill Belichik was the toughest of his life. He was hired for the role, which in the Patriots’ system is essentially a gopher. Long hours and no glory, but lots of opportunity to learn from the best in the game. By 2006, just three years into his tenure with New England, Patricia was promoted to linebackers’ coach. Flip of the calendar, flip of the calendar, and by 2012 he’s calling the defense and serving as defensive coordinator under Belichik. The dynamics of flying and air pressure were no longer on his mind, now it was blitzes and cover reads. The Super Bowls became a regular thing.
With New England, Patricia soaked up everything at the feet of Belichik. The greatest football coach in history is demanding and abrasive, but he’s also a great teacher and he favors loyalty. Patricia spent 14 years—longer than almost anyone not named Brady—working for that man. Through hard work and smarts and a pencil he keeps tucked behind his ear, Patricia inched his way from low-level grunt to high-profile coordinator of Belichik’s favorite unit. In his six years as the DC for New England, Patricia’s defensive unit was in the top ten in fewest points allowed every season, finishing first once. That must have made even Sour Bill smile.
Patricia interviewed with the Cleveland Browns before the 2016 season, but declined their offer as head coach. He returned to Belichik, Brady, and Patriots and won two more Super Bowls. So we know he makes good choices.
The choice to leave now and head to Motown to take over a franchise that’s never even been to a Super Bowl, who hasn’t won a playoff game in 27 years, is also a good one. This team is good, better than they’ve shown. Patricia isn’t a savior, but he’s just what this team needs: a demanding, tough, smart, winner.
When’s the last time you though of the Detroit Lions organization as being “demanding”? When is the last time you remember the Lions having a coach who was “tough.” How smart have the Lions been in the last two decades? And well, the “winner” part—you get the point.
The Detroit Lions have had low expectations for a long time. Make the playoffs, host a playoff game, win a playoff game. Those are nice goals, but Patricia comes from a place where success is measured in titles. Division titles, conference titles, and Super Bowls.
Patricia is taking over a team with one of the three best quarterbacks in football. A team with solid wide receivers and an emerging offensive line. He’s got a defense filled with good, young, hungry players. The special teams is solid. This is a team that should have been able to win the NFC North last year in their sleep. But they didn’t. That’s because the people in charge on the sidelines weren’t demanding enough, weren’t tough enough, and certainly weren’t smart enough. That’s why they didn’t win enough.
The Super Bowl is over, the Lions have their man. The time to win is now.