Tomase: Matt Patricia a reminder of why Belichick's coaching tree ends up twisted, gnarled, and ugly

John Tomase
September 12, 2018 - 1:22 pm
Matt Patricia

Tim Fuller/USA Today Sports

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Here's what Bill Belichick's disciples never seem to get right when they attempt to grow beyond the shadow of his coaching tree: the Patriots Way only works for the Patriots.

From Charlie Weiss to Eric Mangini to Josh McDaniels and perhaps now Matt Patricia, the same insults followed each of Belichick's former coaches on the road to failure: aloof, arrogant, overbearing, controlling, inflexible.

Patricia is just the latest, with veterans in Detroit already grumbling about his brutal practices and draconian social media policies in the wake of Monday night's embarrassing 48-17 loss to the Jets at home.

But he's by no means the first. Weiss went to Notre Dame and immediately burned bridges. Alumni like Bob Kuechenberg hated him for marginalizing them. Players tuned him out for bragging about his Xs-and-Os prowess. Notre Dame foolishly rewarded him with a 10-year extension just seven games into his debut season; by year three, the Irish were 3-9. He was fired halfway through his deal with a record of 35-27 and one bowl win (the Hawaii Bowl, for those keeping score). The Irish paid him nearly $20 million after blasting him out the airlock.

Weiss then went to Kansas and lost 22 of 28 games before being fired in 2014.

McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan in Denver in 2009 and immediately ruffled feathers by exploring a trade of Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler. Word reached Cutler and permanently poisoned their relationship. McDaniels shipped him to the Bears for journeyman Kyle Orton.

That said, McDaniels still went 6-0 -- beating Belichick and the Patriots -- to open his rookie campaign at age 33. He went 5-17 thereafter, however, before being fired 12 games into 2010. The Broncos gave him too much power and McDaniels squandered it. He clashed with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and fired him. Players decried the joyless atmosphere. He misfired on some notable draft picks, chiefly quarterback Tim Tebow in the first round.

"Josh was that type of guy that to me, made football tougher than it had to be," linebacker D.J. Williams told Denver.com. "It's already so tough. And what I didn't like about him was our fun was scripted. So it's not really fun, it's not really enjoyable. It's like, 'Hey, look at us right now, we're enjoying ourselves, and we got ten minutes free time.'"

Then there's Mangini. He took New York by storm, earning a cameo on The Sopranos as "Mangenius." But it didn't last. From 10-6 with a victory over the Patriots in 2006 to 4-12 a year later, Mangini was fired after missing the playoffs following an 8-3 start in 2008.

Jets players balked at long practices and being forced outside on cold, miserable days. They felt stifled by Mangini's micromanagement and found it difficult to thrive in a tense, gloomy atmosphere.

"Even though we were winning, it was dreadful at times," tight end Chris Baker told the New York Times after Mangini's ouster. "That first year he was here took some years off your life."

If Mangini learned a lesson, it wasn't apparent in Cleveland, where he went 10-22, dropping his lifetime coaching record to 33-47. It's doubtful he'll get a third shot.

While Weis will never be considered remotely cuddly, Mangini and McDaniels were young and personable when hired. Neither is misanthropic, particularly McDaniels, who will almost certainly do a better job the second time around (assuming anyone wants to hire him after the stunt he pulled on Indy last February). They could've taken the route of Rams wunderkind Sean McVay, who has inspired with limitless energy and enthusiasm.

Instead they tried to make themselves Belichick, whose hoody-shrouded glare masks a more sarcastic private persona. Such an approach was inevitably doomed to failure. Even Belichick had to earn the right to bark, "Do your job." His motivational technique works because even if players hate it, it feels genuine.

The same can't be said for most of his tree. Broncos players didn't feel moved to play hard for McDaniels when times got tough. The Jets folded on Mangini in 2010. Weis left Notre Dame with a reputation for condescension.

(These criticisms don't necessarily apply to Romeo Crennel, though his 28-55 record is the worst of Belichick's assistants. Nor do they stick to Texans head man Bill O'Brien, a decent communicator who nonetheless failed to take ownership of his monumental screwup before the half on Sunday, when he failed to call timeout to give officials time to review a borderline Rob Gronkowski catch.)

Now we hear Patricia facing similar dissatisfaction. Some of that undoubtedly traces to the Lions being a loser organization with just one playoff win since the AFL-NFL merger. But part of it could be his approach.

As he stood on the sidelines with his arms folded and Monday's game imploding all around him, Patricia looked like a man on an island. Most of Belichick's disciples end up in that exact position, and that's a problem, because here's the thing about islands: there's only so much room for trees to grow.

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