Detroit Lions Head Coach Matt Patricia: The NFL’s Rocket Scientist


Matt Patricia may be the smartest man in any room. The Detroit Lions have bet that the aeronautical engineer can get them to the next level.


Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia clearly had good parents. “I still have a Millennium Falcon up in my room at my parent’s house,” he told Kyle Meinke of mlive.com. Of course, he ended up as the head coach for the NFL’s equivalent of the Rebel Alliance. Everyone loves the plucky underdog with the “us against the universe” mentality.

The New York media were dismissive of Matt Patricia’s decision to go to Detroit over the big apple. It was, however, the only move that ever made sense if you understand the man. Matt Patricia is not a “bright lights, big city” person by nature. He is a kid from Sherrill, New York: “The Silver City.” He comes from a community of about 3700 people.

He was a bright kid, who loved football. When the time came to choose a college, he made his way to Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Same state, but a two-hour drive from home down I-90. He was still nowhere near New York City. He was nearly as close to Montreal or Boston as Met-Life Stadium.

Matt Patricia’s Life Before Coaching

Aeronautical engineering students are smarter than most. They are studying how to turn a 175,000 lb hunk of metal, people, and explosive materials into a graceful and amazing method of connecting the world in a way that was inconceivable 150 years ago.

That does not fit the stereotype of an offensive lineman. “Scissors,” as Patricia became known to his teammates was a short and small player who was willing to do what was required to win. Cut blocks, the technique that earned Patricia his nickname, are a method for smaller players of evening the playing field with the big boys in the middle of a line battle. Patricia spent two years using the assets he had to get the job done. That would serve him well in the future.

After his playing career ended, he took a spot as a graduate assistant and started working on his MBA. He decided to get a job one year later. If you look at which college degrees lead to a six-figure income most rapidly, engineering tops most lists. Patricia had a very nice life in upstate New York set up. A six-figure income and a job with a prestigious firm, Westinghouse Electric Company, were in his grasp. But rather than nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier maintenance Matt Patricia wanted something more rewarding. He was looking for something more than a paycheck. Patricia chose football. That’s a terrible bet. Patricia has never been one to play the odds.

Matt Patricia’s Coaching Baby Steps

Patricia made two more stops before reaching the NFL. He spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons at Amherst college coaching the defensive line. Word of his intellect and ability moved up the food chain.

Matt Patricia then moved to Syracuse University as an offensive graduate assistant. He even tutored other coaches’ kids in math when they were having trouble. Three years later bigger fish called. He interviewed with the Patriots in 2004. They passed on him initially because he wanted to check with his wife.

Rather than just accept that, Patricia called in help, in the form of former Patriots Director of Operations Nick Carparelli, who Patricia had met at Syracuse. After some convincing, Carparelli was reportedly told that if Patricia didn’t work out Belichick was going to kill him, Patricia got the gig working under Bill Belichick. Way under him.

Matt Patricia Joins the Rebel Alliance

Working under Coach Belichick is not easy. It is not fun. It is “The 20/20 deal,” according to Brian Daboll, former Patriots coach and current Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator. “20 hours a day for 20 grand a year.”

Coaching assistants get no recognition, that goes to Belichick and the coordinators. The assistants spend all of their time away from their families. Not everyone survives the grind with their will to continue attached.

These coaches track things like:

  • the direction a quarterback turns his head on passing plays vs running plays before the snap
  • how far from the tight end the slot receiver is on different play types.
  • diagramming every play from every game an opponent has played looking for tendencies. Each diagram takes 20 minutes to produce once you have the hang of Belichick’s system, and there will be 50-70 plays in each game.

Belichick has said that he looks for people who can do work like this, but will eventually move on to bigger and better things, whether with him or somewhere else.

Josh McDaniels was a plastic salesman, Bill O’Brien was an offensive coordinator for an 0-12 Duke squad, Eric Mangini was a ball boy and PR assistant. Belichick wants to collect the smartest men from a variety of other rooms and get all of them to provide their input. He then grinds them until they are the sharpest football minds on earth.

Patricia spent a year as an unassigned offensive assistant, and another as the assistant offensive line coach after the departure of current Lions offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. Patricia got the linebackers coach gig in 2006, the safeties coach job in 2011, and in 2012, the defensive coordinator position for the Patriots. He had already been making the defensive calls since 2010, but he wasn’t one to insist on the title. He just wanted to do his job.

During Patricia’s six years as the Patriots defensive play-caller, the team appeared in four Super Bowls. During his sixteen seasons on the coaching staff, the team appeared in eight.

Matt Patricia Chose The Detroit Lions

That level of success brought teams calling. One of those teams was the Detroit Lions. The team was now being run by Bob Quinn, a former Patriots front office executive that came on board in New England around the same time as Patricia. The two had a history together, having scouted games and performed the arduous task of preparing reports for Belichick.

The glitz and glamor of New York are great for the people that choose to live there. It isn’t for everyone though. The kid from small-town upstate New York made the decision to go to Detroit, Michigan. He joined what he has referred to as a “family atmosphere.”

He has set an intense pace for his players during the offseason. That is something journalists have bridled against but players have embraced. “Scissors” and “Bob from Norwood” are creating something in Detroit that has never been here. Being the perpetual underdog is never easy, even for a family.

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He is also known as /u/a5hcrack on reddit, and can be found on twitter @a5hcrack