FOXBORO -- Matt Patricia doesn’t necessarily look the part of NFL head coach. The ill-fitting clothes, the baseball hat, often backwards, and the unruly beard that one player described as “absolutely disgusting.” But the Patriots defensive coordinator is in high demand. Detroit, the Giants and Arizona have already put in requests to interview him for their head coach vacancies. It is no longer a matter of if, but rather when Matty P will be running his own program.
Patricia isn’t the first from Bill Belichick’s coaching tree to be presented with the opportunity. He’s only the latest in a line that -- at least in New England -- goes back to Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. Those two were unable to build winning cultures in various stops. The same goes for Josh McDaniels, who was unceremoniously blown out of Denver before his second season had ended and is now back in the Belichick nest. Bill O’Brien helped saved a damaged Penn State program before quickly moving on to the Houston Texans. Despite playoff trips, O’Brien has been on and off the hot seat for the better part of the last two years.
So why will Patricia succeed when so many other great minds have failed to become the next Belichick? To players past and present, it begins with a personal connection.
“Matty P is a guy who cares about his players,” said Duron Harmon. “You see it in the way he coaches. You see it on the sidelines -- how much energy and passion he shows. That’s him every day. In the meetings, on the practice field, in the cafeteria. You can just see he’s a very passionate person and when you see somebody who puts so much into what we do here to have us prepared, how long he stays here, how much he puts in -- how much of himself he puts in when it comes to dealing with us -- you can’t do nothing but appreciate that and you try to replicate it and get it back to him to let him know how much we care about him as well.”
“He’s just himself,” Devin McCourty told me. “When he’s mad, he comes into the meeting and is pissed. There’s times we’re in there and we’re like, ‘Here he goes again,’ but I think that enables guys to have a relationship with him because you understand that he’s not trying to play a mind game. He’s just being himself. He’s giving you his raw emotions. He’s giving you everything he has of himself.”
“He’s a great man,” said Dont’a Hightower. “It’s that simple. He cares about us. We care about him. And don’t let me hear you say a bad word about him. We can do that, but not you. Because we know him, we know what he’s all about.”
It’s those personal connections that are what led Patricia out of the engineering field and back into football over a decade ago.
“One of the things I just really missed about the game of football, and when you're involved in the game itself, is that camaraderie, that ability to be around the team atmosphere and the guys that you played with,” said Patricia a few weeks back. “Then when you make that transition to coaching I really found more enjoyment out of watching individuals achieve their goals and succeed. I actually found more enjoyment out of that than I did playing.”
Former Patriot Rob Ninkovich counts Patricia as a friend. He thinks the 43-year old former rocket scientist puts his intelligence to work by taking a deep dive on the players he’ll be coaching. That helps him formulate a plan, an approach that works far more than it fails.
“I think he has a great ability to understand and get the best out of each player based on where is this guy from, what’s his background,” said Ninkovich. “Maybe this guy you can’t push this guy this way but maybe you can say something insulting to and he’ll go out there and play hard and play lights out. He understands each guy is different, understand how to like to relate to each guy because they’re all from different backgrounds, they’re all from different upbringings.”
When it came to Ninkovich, Patricia took the direct approach.
“He’d give me the eyes,” recalled Ninkovich. “You know that look? Let’s go. Do better. Better. Better. More. More. More. That pushes you to a different level.”
It also creates some tension. When Patricia became the linebacker coach in 2006, he was coaching up the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Junior Seau. They gave Patricia the business all day every day. When the group transitioned to a younger, more inexperienced crew, the former MIT student didn’t have to constantly fight to maintain the atmosphere he wanted, although it wasn’t always conflict-free.
“Honestly, he pissed me off a lot,” recalled Ninkovich. “We had our moments where we yelled at each other, where he kicked me out of meetings before.”
He’s a great man. It’s that simple. He cares about us. We care about him. And don’t let me hear you say a bad word about him. We can do that, but not you. Because we know him, we know what he’s all about.
-- Dont'a Hightower
But when Ninkovich retired this summer, his eyes welled up and his voice cracked with emotion while talking about his relationship with Patricia. And that bearded coach, seated on the floor of the media workroom, had tears in his eyes as well.
“I think I've always taken that approach in my coaching career and obviously we coach at a very competitive high production level, but to me it's still about the personal relationship,” said Patricia. “It's still about getting to know them as individuals and caring about them as people first and foremost and their families and really honestly whatever I can do to help them from the standpoint of to be successful, whether it's on or off the field, is probably my number one priority. That's just kind of me in general, I think.”
That’s one of the many reasons why this won’t be an easy decision for Patricia. He is intensely loyal to his players. Even more so to Belichick. The Pats head coach isn’t just a mentor, but someone Patricia considers a friend. He absorbs Belichick’s words like a sponge does water and has heeded his advice on the future --on what’s important, what’s needed to succeed. That means a stable ownership, a GM that shares your same vision, a roster that has has both building blocks and flexibility.
There is also a family element involved. Patricia’s wife is from Massachusetts. Her entire family is rooted here. With three young children, they are an important asset, both with care and as a critical part of the close-knit clan’s lifeblood. Those 18- to 20-hour days that Patricia routinely submits don’t happen without help.
There is no moving the in-laws to parts unknown. It’s why the Giants job might be more attractive than parts of it look on paper. That’s a short flight, or train ride, or -- if push comes to shove -- grabbing the keys and motoring down the Merritt Parkway. The Lions gig isn’t that. The Cardinals opening might as well be on Mars.
“Family is important to him. It should be,” said Ninkovich. “Trust me, when he makes the move, every pro and con will be weighed, analyzed and factored in to the decision.”
That’s the thoroughness that has come to define Patricia as both a man and as a coach. The attention to detail is very Belichick-esque. That will no doubt be a benefit when Patricia goes out on his own. But being Belichick-esque aided in the demise of Weis and McDaniels as head coaches. They were criticized for being power hungry, for being arrogant. Just because you were part of Super Bowl-winning teams doesn’t mean you can flash the rings to recruits, as Weis did, or be unbending, as McDaniels was in Denver. Will Patricia be his own man? Yes, but you’ll see some of his mentor mixed in.
“Of course he’s like Bill,” said Trey Flowers. “How many years they been together? But he’s still his own man. Anyone who’s around him can tell you that.”
“He’s gonna have some Bill in him,” said McCourty. “I mean there’s people . . . I sit there and answer questions and people say, 'He gives a Bill Belichick answer.' So it’s going to be worse for [Patricia] because he’s been here for I don’t know how many years. Been here for squad meetings, position meetings, staff meetings, but I think definitely there’s enough Matty P to be there. He doesn’t -- I don’t think he needs to be someone else, personality-wise. I think he’s going to be himself when he decides to take advantage of that opportunity and get out there. I won’t see that as a problem.”
“Awww yeah, he’s his own guy,” smiled Harmon. “He’s not out here trying to act like Bill. Matt is Matt and he brings that same attitude, same workman-like mentality each and every day. That’s why I think he’s going to be successful at whatever he does, whether it’s being a defensive coordinator here or a head coach in the future. Him being the same, him being consistent is what allows us to play for him, play the way we play for him and want to play well for him. But also what makes it easy for us to go out there and lay it on the line of him.”
It’s hard to guarantee success in this league. How many coaches have tried and failed? How many coaches get one or two years max before being jettisoned for the next up-and-comer? Patricia will eventually be like the rest -- hired to be fired but right now, the bearded assistant appears poised to give it a try, to make the calculated leap and carve out his own path in his own way. To hear those around him talk -- those that know him well -- he might accomplish what others from the Belichick tree have failed to do: Win over his players and win games consistently.