Stern Patricia Striving To Form Stronger Relationships With Players In 2019

It starts with something as simple as smiling more.

Will Burchfield
March 26, 2019 - 3:42 pm

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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Matt Patricia spoke to reporters for almost an hour Tuesday morning at the NFL owner's meetings in Phoenix, and was as relaxed and reflective as he's been during his time in Detroit. His first season as head coach didn't go as planned, from the early reports of locker room unrest to the team's eventual 6-10 finish. 

Patricia brought a heavy-handed style with him from New England to Detroit. It was a major change from the culture under Jim Caldwell, and it rubbed some veterans the wrong way at first. 

Evaluating himself Tuesday, Patricia acknowledged he needs to be more personable with his players moving forward -- a trait, ironically, that was a trademark of his with the Patriots

"For myself, I think it’s always hard initially," Patricia said. "You guys know that I have parents who are teachers, and a lot of teachers say, 'First year, you don’t smile until Thanksgiving.' So you don’t let them see a smile. Probably didn’t do enough of that last year. I just think there's a lot coming at you."

Most of Patricia's interactions with his team last season came in large meetings, he said. The defense saw more of him than the offense. This year he intends to engage his players in more casual settings to help build stronger, more meaningful relationships.

"It’s just different," he said. "When you go up and you're in front of a room, in front of 90 guys, 120 guys, and you’re trying to command the room or you’re trying to teach and present, that’s going to have one sort of perception. But just everyday interactions in the hallways, in the meeting rooms, things like that, you just want more of that time.

"I would say what’s been different for me from where I was previously was, we kind of have an upstairs-downstairs setup (in the building here). That’s kind of foreign to me. We used to be all in one space (in New England), which is great because then you just happen to have those kind of casual bump-ins, where now there’s just not as much. So I have to a better job of that." 

As minor as the structure of the team headquarters may seem, Patricia said, "it definitely (makes a difference), just in traffic patterns, how people move through the building. Things like that you’re always trying to evaluate."

Another adjustment for Patricia was learning to manage his time as a head coach after spending the prior six seasons as a defensive coordinator. Quite simply, there's much less of it. 

"I don’t know if it was necessarily a blind spot or just the reality of how much time goes into everything," he said. "I’ve had a lot of coaching friends and even guys on my staff (say) that for a head coach, some of the most difficult conversations or things that can kind of throw you off are, 'Hey, Coach, you got a minute?' And it’s like, 'Yes, but is this really a minute? Because if it’s 20 minutes I’m in trouble.'

"It’s just those kind of situations you're trying to evaluate. Everybody has something they want to say and something that’s really important as far as that's concerned, and you want to answer everybody’s questions. Trying to balance that is a little bit difficult at times."

In addition to pushback against Patricia's stern, all-business approach, there were murmurs of frustration last season with his inconsistent schedule. Meetings didn't always start on time. They often ran late. Meanwhile, punctuality and attention to detail were two things Patricia demanded out of his players.

He learned as the season went on how run a smoother day-to-day operaton. 

"Something I feel comfortable with that I kind of started the foundation for last year was just the format of how we do things, because I know that’s always a little bit different," Patricia said. "Look, there’s 32 coaches in this room, everyone’s got their own style. And that’s okay because they all work once everybody kind of gets on board.

"For me, it was just all about scheduling and rhythm. Everybody likes to be in rhythm, everybody likes to have a schedule that’s concrete, so trying to just establish that was really good. And then on top of that, being able to kind of flex it and change it because that’s what the week is for us. Each week is different, so it’s trying to establish that underlying consistency with the ability to adjust, whether it’s schedule, practice time, travel, whatever it is."

At this point Patricia was interrupted by Bill Belichick, who stopped by his former pupil's table to say hello. The two remain very close. Patricia was criticized last season for trying to be too much like Belichick, especially in terms of his demanding style and rigorous practices. It's one thing to set extreme expectations as a six-time Super Bowl champ. It's quite another to do so as a first-year head coach. 

But Patricia knows the culture he wants to instill. He and Bob Quinn have continued to overhaul the Lions roster with players with Patriots ties. And to Patricia's credit, the Lions looked like a much more cohesive group in the second half of last season than the first. He believes that will carry over into 2019. 

"I just think they’ll be a lot more familiarity with me, and me with them, just from a standpoint of maybe everything won’t be such a shock," he said.

As for the team's level of buy-in moving forward, Patricia said it's "always a tricky conversation."

"Everybody buys in when you win, so it's easy, but do you know if they are really buying in or are they just kind of riding the train of winning? I think this is where we find out, more so than buy-in, it’s about, okay, who are the guys that want to work hard?" he said. "Who are the guys that want to do it the right way? Who are the guys that are trying to help us build longstanding success? Who are the guys that want to study the game and work hard at it? ...

"It's really about that more than the buy-in factor. It’s about just the right types of guys that you put together as a team. It doesn’t mean that anybody is not a good player or a bad person, it’s just how you put your team together to build the best team. Because as we all know, it’s the best team that wins, it’s not necessarily the most talented team."

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