Matt Patricia has heard from dozens of people reaching out with advice since he became a first-time head coach with the Detroit Lions in February. But one call stands out to him: the person on the other end of the line knew exactly what Patricia has been going through.
“Mike Vrabel reached out, and it felt just like home,” Patricia said recently in the hallways of the Lions’ training facility. “It was all about, ‘Hey, what are you doing about this? Or think about this?’ And just to have that reassurance, that was huge for me, because it’s so different than what we had been used to for a long time.”
Vrabel, the new head coach in Tennessee, said he was just checking up on an old friend. Patricia was Vrabel’s position coach in New England from 2006-08.
“You notice with this job, it gets lonelier as the head coach,” Vrabel said after a recent Titans training camp practice.
Patricia and Vrabel are wading out into the world on their own now, the latest branches to sprout from the Bill Belichick coaching tree.
And Patricia, who turns 44 next month, and Vrabel, who just turned 43, face a difficult balance as they set out to establish their programs and themselves as first-time head coaches.
How much do they try to emulate Belichick, and how much do they try to do things their own way?
There’s no question that one of the reasons the Lions hired Patricia, and the Titans hired Vrabel, was to hopefully re-create some of that Patriots magic. They are also both paired with GMs from the New England tree, Detroit’s Bob Quinn and Tennessee’s Jon Robinson.
The Patriots connections came up right away in each of their introductory news conferences.
“There’s only one Bill Belichick. I’m Matt Patricia,” the Lions coach said.
“I learned so much from Bill, but I’m not Bill,” Vrabel said.
Trying to be like Belichick hasn’t worked out so well for other coaches in the past, such as Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, and Romeo Crennel.
Then again, there are worse coaches to look up to than Belichick, winner of five Super Bowls with the Patriots and architect of a dynasty now going on 18 years.
But Patricia and Vrabel hope to apply the teachings of Belichick but carve their own paths.
“I’m not trying to necessarily just embrace doing things the way they do them,” Vrabel said of the Patriots. “I’m trying to embrace what I’ve learned from the course of a 25-year football career.”
“Obviously I learned a tremendous amount from Coach Belichick. He was an unbelievable mentor, teacher, friend, all of it,” said Patricia, who spent 14 seasons working his way up the ladder with the Patriots. “There are certainly principles and things you believe in as a coach that you’ll always carry with you no matter what. But this is just different. We’re starting in a different spot, and we’re building from there.”
Patricia: ‘High-demanding guy’
When it comes to the NFL, the Belichick Way is all Patricia knows. He entered the league with the Patriots in 2004 as an offensive assistant, worked his way to defensive coordinator in 2012, and helped the Patriots reach six Super Bowls, winning three.
And the Patriots’ influence is easy to see at Lions headquarters. Patricia takes a hands-on approach at practice, hitting players with blocking pads and teaching specific technique to pass rushers and cornerbacks, like we see Belichick do during OTAs and training camp. During games, Patricia will sometimes turn his back to the action on the field so he can talk to one of his defensive units on the bench. That’s a Belichick staple.
“That’s something that’s different for me, especially coming from the head coach,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said.
You see the Patriots influence on Patricia’s staff — he has former Patriots employee Kevin Anderson as his chief of staff/head coach administration, a position that Belichick created in New England for longtime confidant Berj Najarian.
You see it in the cat-and-mouse games Patricia plays with local reporters, and how he holds news conferences before practice, so he doesn’t have to answer questions about injuries that happen that day.
You see it in the tone of practices, with the Lions going for 2½ hours every day, compared with just 1 hour, 45 minutes under former coach Jim Caldwell. Patricia didn’t plaster “Do Your Job” signs throughout the Lions’ facility, but he is certainly trying to raise the level of expectations for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since January 1992.
“He’s a high-demanding guy,” Lawson said. “Even if you think you’re doing good, you’re probably not doing good. He keeps you accountable every day.”
And you see it on the roster. The Lions signed LeGarrette Blount, Ricky Jean-Francois, Matt Cassel, and Jonathan Freeny this offseason to help Patricia establish his program and set the tone in the locker room. Safety Tavon Wilson is also a key piece of the defense.
“It’s a familiar scene for me obviously because of Matty P’s background and my background with the Patriots,” Blount said. “I think this is a little bit new with a lot of guys, but guys are starting to get on board.”
But Patricia isn’t trying to be a Belichick clone, either. As Blount put it, “He has his own flavor.”
Yes, Patricia spent 14 seasons with the Patriots. But he also spent three years at RPI, two years at Amherst, and three years at Syracuse. Patricia credits former Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni, now Patricia’s defensive coordinator, as one of his biggest influences and most important sounding boards. He credits E.J. Mills, his head coach at Amherst, as someone who has helped tremendously with his transition this summer.
Patricia has leaned on his friends in the military for advice on leadership and team-building. He has leaned on his father, who was a teacher and a wrestling coach.
He remembers what he learned from coaching great players such as Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau, and Vrabel.
“Those are the guys that I learned from the most,” Patricia said. “These guys are such great players, the one thing they respect is just being who you are. And I think that’s the beauty of Bill — he is who he is, and everybody respects that.”
Patricia also gets advice from plenty of former Patriots coaches.
“Romeo [Crennel] is unbelievable,” Patricia said. “Charlie [Weis] checks in on me every week, he’ll text or call. He’s just really awesome. Even Scott O’Brien, Brad Seely, Billy O’Brien has reached out. Some awesome guys.”
But when it comes to player-coach relations, Patricia seems to be trying to set himself apart from Belichick, who is known to be cold and business-only with his players. Tom Brady’s father once said that Belichick and Brady have never been out for lunch or dinner in all their years together.
Patricia is more than 20 years younger than Belichick — a little closer in age to his players, and less removed from his playing days.
Patricia seems determined to better connect with his players. He knows that McDaniels has admitted that his head coaching tenure in Denver ended poorly because he tried to be like Belichick, but without the Super Bowl rings as credibility.
“I’ve just got to make sure that I’m always who I am in front of [the players], because otherwise they just see right through it,” Patricia said. “Trying to make them understand that as hard as I am about stuff, I care about them as individuals, and that’s the reason I left engineering to get back into coaching. I’ve got to make sure that comes through.”
That’s why he needs familiar faces such as Blount, Jean-Francois, and Cassel in his locker room.
“I think it definitely helps with those guys. They know me on the personal level, and they know how much I do care, and it helps with the message,” Patricia said. “It’s good to see those kind of familiar faces around here, and that family atmosphere.”
Vrabel: learning from everywhere
As for Vrabel, he has had more varied experience. While he played for Belichick for eight years, he also played for Bill Cowher and Todd Haley, and coached under Urban Meyer and O’Brien, who “really got me ready for this opportunity today.”
Vrabel has too many people to credit for his success, in addition to Belichick: Rob Ryan, Eric Mangini, Larry Izzo, Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Malloy, Brady, Richard Seymour, Bruschi, and McGinest. He also credits his father, a former high school basketball coach, and John Mitchell, his defensive line coach in Pittsburgh.
“Basically a doctorate degree of coaching with the people I’ve been around,” he said.
But the Patriots connections are glaring in Tennessee. The defensive coordinator is Dean Pees, who coached for the Patriots from 2004-09. Robinson, the GM, worked in the scouting department/front office from 2002-13. The Titans signed Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, and Dion Lewis over the last two years.
“My background is steeped in New England,” Robinson said. “I was there for 12, 13 years. Philosophically, that’s how I grew up.”
But Robinson knows the folly in simply trying to recreate Foxborough.
“You don’t replicate it. It’s a unique environment,” Robinson said. “I loved my time there, but you have to be you. I try to take all the things I learned from there, and my time in Tampa, and be my personality. Don’t try to be Coach Belichick’s personality, or Nick Caserio’s personality. Because you’re kind of faking the funk, if you will.
“I’m trying to build what New England has built over the last 15 years, but in your own personality, if that makes sense.”
Vrabel said the Titans have a lot of crossover with the Patriots because they are looking for the same qualities out of players and coaches.
“I don’t want this to sound indifferent, but Dean was in Baltimore for eight years,” Vrabel said. “Malcolm was a player we would have targeted had he been with a lot of different organizations. Logan is a smart, instinctive football player. He learned a lot of that at New England, but I’m sure he learned a lot of that from Rutgers, too.”
Vrabel definitely gets involved in practice, like Patricia and Belichick. Vrabel still looks close to his playing size of 6 feet 4 inches, 260 pounds, and rumor has it that he even knocked a linebacker on his behind during practice. Vrabel denied it, but joked that, “I tell them the goal is to hit me as hard as they hit the other guys.”
But Vrabel is no Belichick clone when it comes to running his program, especially when it comes to accommodating the media. Vrabel allows reporters to watch camp practices from the sidelines, and even to intermingle with the team. He holds his news conference after practice, and then does a second availability off to the side just for the print reporters.
And the way Vrabel handled a serious knee injury to defensive back Johnathan Cyprien was noticeable. Vrabel stopped everything and had his players acknowledge and support their injured teammate. Belichick certainly cares about the well-being of his players, but stopping practice for an extended period over an injury would run counter to his “next man up” philosophy.
Vrabel, who played 14 NFL seasons, said he just wanted to do right by Cyprien.
“He’s always treated the team with utmost respect since I’ve been here,” Vrabel said. “He’s worked hard, so I wanted to make sure that we respected him and his situation.”
And Vrabel said he’s not going to make a point out of inviting former Patriots such as McGinest and Bruschi to speak with his players.
“I don’t want to shove that down their throat,” Vrabel said. “I don’t want to make it sound like, ‘Hey, this is the only way to do it.’ ”
Robinson said he sees in Vrabel a coach that is smart enough to draw from some of his experiences with Belichick, but not to take it too far.
“He’s got a great personality, likes to have fun, crank the music up out here, busts chops in the meeting rooms,” Robinson said. “And he’s smart enough that he knows he’s not going to replicate [Belichick]. He’s going to be Mike Vrabel, and coach the football team the way he wants to coach it.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin