The Beard has landed.
Matt Patricia arrived in Detroit on Wednesday to take over the Lions after spending weeks as the worst-kept hiring secret in the NFL. At first blush, the former Patriots defensive coordinator — fresh off Sunday’s Super Bowl — seemed intelligent, affable, polite and energized.
He also was much less hairy, having shaved down the trademark beard that was somewhere between “Game of Thrones” and a Hasidic rabbi. He looked so trimmed and businesslike in his black suit and diagonally striped tie Wednesday afternoon, that many in the news conference didn’t immediately recognize him.
But one man did. Bob Quinn, the GM who hired him. For 12 years, Quinn and Patricia worked together under Bill Belichick in New England. Part of that time, they were all but roommates while out scouting college players on the road, riding in rental cars, checking into hotels, searching for, as Quinn later put it to me, “a place to eat after you land at the airport at 11 p.m.”
That kind of work can bond men together. And from those early days of talking football late at night over pizza, to winning Super Bowls with the Patriots, to both men departing the Belichick Farm for the same Honolulu Blue pasture — well, that connection is prominent.
Let’s be honest. The Lions might have hired Patricia if Bob Quinn wasn’t the GM, but it was a lot more certain because he was.
“We worked a lot of long hours and spent a lot of time together,” Patricia, 43, said of his early years with Quinn. “Obviously, it’s ironic how it all works out.”
New England West?
Ironic. Hopefully iconic. But either way, this will be their blessing and their curse. Like it or not, the Lions will now be viewed as “New England West.” Other Belichick protégés have left to become head coaches in the NFL, but few have been hired by a fellow Belichick protégé. It’s as if the sweat-shirted Patriots coach had been cloned in two — the front office part and the coaching part — then blended in a petri dish.
We’ll see what grows up.
“They are the gold standard,” Quinn admitted of the Patriots, “and that’s ultimately what we wanna get to. Listen, if we do half of what (the Patriots) do, we’ll be very successful.
“But Matt’s gonna do the things he really believes in – and maybe a little different than what they did. And I’ve done things in personnel and football operations that are different.”
Patricia does come with good credentials — running a top-tier New England defense for years, even though his Super Bowl showing was kind of unnerving, surrendering more than 500 yards and 41 points to the Eagles. (“The way the way it turned out,” he admitted, “obviously, I’m not real happy. I wish it went in a different direction.)
But that was his old life. This is his new. And it’s a reunion with a former colleague and great admirer (Quinn said he had Patricia atop his list of potential head coaches for several years.)
One thing is for sure. This is Quinn’s team now. He has been picking the players for two years, but he inherited the previous coach, Jim Caldwell. Quinn is too diplomatic to say whether he really wanted to keep Caldwell or whether Martha Ford’s fondness for the man was a deciding factor.
But his eyes lit up when I asked whether he felt differently now, with the new coach a hand-picked choice.
“Absolutely, it does absolutely feel different, just because there’s gonna be players —when we try to put this team together — and we’re not talking about first or second round guys, we’re talking mid- to late-draft picks to mid-tier free agents — where (Patricia and he) are gonna be able to say, “All right, this guy reminds me of that guy back in ’06 … remember him?’ And we have this vault of players that we’re gonna be able to point back to.
“It’s shared experience.”
He didn’t have that with Caldwell. Heck, Caldwell was 21 years older than Quinn. They didn’t share much of any experience.
That changes with Patricia, who is almost like a former frat brother.
Meanwhile, for Lions fans, the “shared experience” is 11 head coaches in the last 30 years. And the long-suffering crowd wonders whether the New England will rub off on Detroit, or the Detroit will rub off on the New England?
Sorry. Can’t answer that yet.
A rocket scientist
I can tell you that Patricia is different. He comes with incredible references, gushing reviews, and tossed hosannas to his intelligence. And let’s face it, the man went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and literally studied rocket science. When someone asked him when he knew he wanted to be a coach, he went all the way back to his electric football set, saying he liked to diagram the plays.
“In high school, what I really wanted to do was fly,” explaining why he chose RPI for college. “I just loved planes. I wanted to be a pilot. I was of that era of ‘Top Gun.’ I’m wanted to be Maverick.”
We can only hope he’ll be a Maverick with the Lions. Patricia admitted he needs to get up to speed on everything about this team (remember, he’s been a little busy until Sunday around 10:30 pm.). He has already spoken with Matthew Stafford. But he’ll discover, when he really dives in, that the Lions cupboard is more bare than the Patriots’.
Still, building this team — with Quinn on his hip — is part of what this reunion experiment is all about.
“We’re gonna draft the players that we both want,” Quinn said. “We’re gonna sign players that we both want. We’ll develop the players we both want. And those decisions are never gonna be one-sided.”
So this is a two-headed experiment now, with hopes that the results are even greater than the sum of the parts. Patricia will move his wife and three children here promptly, and begin life as a head coach. When the season starts, the unshaven facial hair will start with it.
“People don’t understand,” Patricia said. “If it gets out of control at the end, that’s a good sign. If it’s that long, that means we’re still playing, which is OK.”
In that case, the Beard has landed. Long may it grow.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.