On clean-out day at the end of the 2018 season, there was a tangible sense of relief in the Lions locker room. It had been a long and difficult transition under first-time head coach Matt Patricia's Patriot-like culture. Over the last week, with the end in sight, players who were no longer under contract were loud about their intentions to get the hell out of there. "There was a lot of, 'You all have fun, because I am gone!'" says former Lions running back Zach Zenner. "People talking about how there was no way they were going to re-sign back in Detroit."
Then-safety Glover Quin says players blasted music that entire week, turning the locker room into a "funhouse" because "guys were over it, really. They were over the season, they were over everything."
One player's agent had sent him champagne for a Christmas gift, and he had kept it in his locker, waiting for the right moment to uncork the celebration. Saying goodbye to Patricia, at least until OTAs, seemed like just the reason to party. Before the Lions' last team meeting, mid-morning, a group of 10 to 15 players took orange juice from the cafeteria and mixed it with the champagne to make mimosas.
They chilled and sipped out of Solo cups, finally relaxing after a season of long practices, tough conditioning and routinely getting cussed at by their head coach, who had a long list of rules that a former player described as taking the fun out of the game. "It was a free-for-all," he says. The stifling Patriot Way experience had been a culture shock many veteran players were elated to be done with.
"Didn't nobody care at that point," says a former offensive player. "Everybody was glad to be out of the building and done."
Since that locker room mimosa party, Patricia has made a genuine effort to relate to his players better and evolve his coaching style in light of all that went wrong his rookie year. But it doesn't seem to be making any difference on the field.
Two years after going 6-10, Detroit is 3-5, and Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn are in a precarious spot. The Lions are 12-27-1 under Patricia. They have lost nine straight division games. They have blown double-digit leads in eight of those 27 losses (including three in 2020).
The hard way is the right way, Patricia tells his players frequently. If the Lions don't make the postseason, the New England guys running things in Detroit will find out that the hard way might be exactly that—the hard way. And we'll see again how difficult it is for the Patriot Way to work anywhere but in Foxborough.
Quinn spent 15 years in New England and had never worked for another NFL franchise before he was hired in 2016 as Detroit's general manager. From the start, he had his eye on Patricia. Two years later, Patricia got the Lions' top job, after six seasons as the Patriots' defensive coordinator. It seemed like a smart hire. Patricia came billed as the brilliant and nerdy coach with the aeronautical engineering degree. The rocket scientist with the trademark pencil behind his ear had won two Super Bowls and lost a third in the coordinator role.
And it seemed like a good situation for Patricia: He was taking over a Lions team coming off a nine-win season, with a top-10 quarterback in Matt Stafford.
But Patricia's teams have struggled, largely because of the unit he built his livelihood on. In 2019, the Lions allowed 400.4 yards per game, second-worst in the league. They had the league's worst passing defense.
This season, it's bad again. The Lions have allowed 30 points in four games, and this past Sunday against Minnesota—a two-win team with an offense built around running back Dalvin Cook—Detroit allowed 275 rushing yards, 206 to Cook. On Cook's 70-yard touchdown run, the Lions had just 10 players on defense, a miscommunication that has become common in Patricia's tenure (it happened twice the previous week against the Colts).
Last December, Lions ownership announced that Quinn and Patricia would be retained for at least one more season, with a clear message that 2020 would be playoffs or bust.
"We expect to be a playoff contender," Martha Ford told Lions.com. "That means playing meaningful games in December."
December is coming quickly, and Detroit is tied for last in the NFC North. Any playoff hopes are a moon shot. Still left on the schedule are four teams who have winning records: Chicago, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
Patricia and Quinn have tried to make their New England ways work in Detroit, but one coach who has experience coaching in the Patriot Way culture says the system can be grating on players and coaches, especially if there aren't results.
"Listen, we all want to replicate the Patriots' success, but the track record of guys that come out and seem to try to replicate it is tough among front office and coaches," says another source, who has interviewed coaching candidates coming from New England, including Patricia. "Authoritarian, very hierarchical organizations, whether they are in football or otherwise, that's what you get: You don't get people to develop their own way."
The discontent that led to that mimosa party was based as much as anything on Patricia's communication style. A recent quote from Patricia showed how little progress the Lions and he have made since that 2018 season.
After a 35-29 loss to the Saints in Week 4, Patricia was asked to defend his position as Lions head coach. "Certainly, I think when I came to Detroit, there was a lot of work to do," he said.
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky, who backed up Stafford for three of previous coach Jim Caldwell's four seasons in Detroit, took serious issue with Patricia's characterization.
"To come in and say you had a lot of work to do is completely false," Orlovsky said in a radio appearance. "It's a bunch of trash. Because that wasn't the case in Detroit. We were a good football team. Matthew Stafford was playing as good as he has in his career. That was because of Coach Caldwell. And we were an organization that was ascending."
"We really weren't that bad!" says Zenner, who played for Caldwell and Patricia. "We had a good thing going. We had … made the playoffs [in 2016]. It wasn't like he was starting from scratch."
Patricia had another favorite saying in regular rotation over his first two seasons: I'm on a crusade to eliminate bad football. By bad football, he meant penalties, missed assignments and poor fundamentals. The former offensive player says even though Patricia wasn't specifically referencing what the Lions had been doing before as "bad football," some players interpreted it that way.
"It was like everything in Detroit, what we were doing, how things work, everything was just not good, was wrong, was bad," says the now-retired Quin, who in 2018 was in his 10th NFL season, and his sixth in Detroit. "We felt like we had started changing the culture and changing the way that Detroit was viewed. And then for you to come in and just be like, 'I am going to tear everything down'—I don't know if we need it to be all torn down, we just need you to get us over the hump."
"We have a long way to go; gosh, I don't know how many times I heard that," Zenner says. "It would stem from the idea that it is not the Patriot Way, so it is the wrong way."
That Patriot Way is a structure defined by physical practices and post-practice conditioning that former Lions and Patriots player Ricky Jean Francois referred to as "gruesome." Head coaches rule more like dictators than democratic leaders, and they have a tendency to call out players in full-team settings, putting guys on the spot to quiz them or identify unwanted behavior. Players are expected to fall in line, and any resistance or too much self-expression is not tolerated.
Bleacher Report spoke to seven players who spent time on the Lions in 2018, and they all agreed that Patricia's attempts to bring this culture to Detroit were unsuccessful that first year. The result was that not enough players bought in, and because of that, they couldn't achieve the on-field success needed to encourage the buy-in. The Lions' struggle under Patricia encapsulates the Catch-22 that can come when the Patriot Way is launched in a new town. Through a Lions spokesperson, Matt Patricia declined to comment for this story.
Patricia had big shoes to fill because Lions players loved Caldwell until the end. He was more of the player's-coach type, who treated his players like teammates and made them feel appreciated.
So when Patricia replaced that welcoming environment with a more physically demanding and micromanaged structure, the transition was tough.
Quin says the trouble that first season stemmed from one major difference: Players didn't like the way Patricia talked to them, particularly in group settings.
"When you aren't getting talked to in a respectful way, then every decision that happens, you start to feel like, 'Coach don't care about us, Coach don't respect us,'" Quin says. "Going outside and practicing in the cold, it is what it is. But when you felt like the coach don't respect you, now it feels like a punishment that we got to go outside in the snow, right?"
Several former players likened it to a college coach yelling at college kids. Former players described his style in year one as demeaning. The former offensive player remembers a routine event: He and his teammates would be waiting for a meeting to start and talking amongst themselves when Patricia would walk in—typically late—and yell, All right, everybody shut the f--k up!
"And everybody would kind of look at each other like, 'hold on,' like 'huh'?" the player says. "At first, it caught everybody off-guard, but after a while, you understand that he doesn't mean it in a disrespectful way. It's just his personality"
"When you are cursing me like I am a little boy—hold on bro, you don't have to talk to me like that to get your point across," Quin says. "We are partners, we are working together. ... When you are dealing with grown men, we are going to talk to each other like men. Don't talk to me like you own me."
One player who attended Lions rookie minicamp in 2018 says he was relieved to get cut and start fresh with a different NFL team. He attended two other rookie camps and had positive experiences with those head coaches, but after three days in Detroit, he found himself feeling like he didn't want to play football anymore.
"[Patricia] just spoke in cuss words," the player says. "Instead of calling somebody by their name, he would call them a name. ... It just wasn't uplifting and encouraging for a 22-year-old guy trying to succeed in a really hard business."
Jean Francois, the one-time Patriot who was a defensive tackle for the 2018 Lions, says Patricia is a really smart coach, "a brainiac," and a lot of players took his words too personally.
"I don't care what Matty P says," Jean Francois says. "He can fuss at you, yell at you, do all he want. Ignore him. He's okay. That's just the way Matty P is. That's just the way the little short guy with the thick beard is. It's okay. He loves you."
Another adjustment for Detroit players was that Patricia's practices were longer and everyone was expected to condition after practice, barring injury. Going into his second season in Detroit, Patricia had an artificial hill installed at the facility just for this conditioning, another New England staple.
Patricia's revamp also included replacing Detroit's outdoor grass fields, which had been in bad condition. And he updated Detroit's facilities with recovery technology he used in New England: cryotherapy, saltwater float tanks and red-light therapy.
Players worked longer and harder in practice, and on top of that, they were required to run striders or hill sprints afterward in the conditioning period. If a mistake was made in practice, Patricia would make players run laps.
"It actually probably hurt guys more than it helped them," says the former offensive player. "It would come to game time, and people felt like their legs were gone because they got drove into the ground all week."
Compounding the conditioning work, former players say Patricia had a different view toward veteran rest, a common practice for experienced players in the NFL. Patricia has allowed veteran rest days in Detroit, but sparingly. Ex-players say starters are expected to take every rep in practice, a stark contrast from Caldwell and most other head coaches who aren't close descendants of the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick coaching tree.
Former Packers and current Bengals defensive tackle Mike Daniels signed with the Lions in July 2019. He was banged up, with a ruptured plantar fascia on one foot. During the season, he sprained the Lisfranc on his other foot. He says both the Packers and Bengals regularly gave veterans rest days or rest periods in practice, but Detroit was different. Daniels was in his eighth season, but he says, "You definitely were going to practice, that was a must. It was mandatory; I'll put it to you like that."
"If you have been around for a while, you need that body recovery," Daniels says. "The young guys take the brunt of the work, they got to learn, and that's what you see at most other NFL teams. ... Sprain your Lisfranc and play in the NFL with one of those. That's not very easy, and then practicing and getting all the reps and all the scout-team reps."
The former offensive player says that every time a new player joined the team, they'd ask the same question after their first practice: "Y'all do this every day?"
"One thing you would always hear is, it ain't like this everywhere else."
According to a team spokesperson, Patricia closely monitors load management with GPS tracking, heart monitors and pre- and post-practice weigh-ins. Patricia allows players a reduced workload when the data shows they need that.
Off the field in that first season, Patricia made a habit of calling players out in team meetings to make a point. Zenner says he singled out running back Tion Green for simply liking a post on social media, to teach players that he wanted them to be careful on social media. Zenner didn't touch any of his social media accounts for the next year-and-half that he played for Patricia.
Two former players say that along with pressuring against social media, Patricia didn't allow the common practice of swapping jerseys with opponents after games; he didn't allow players to wear jewelry on the field because it is a safety hazard; and he didn't allow speakers in the locker room to play music on game day.
"I am walking in on game day, and it's like, 'Are we about to play a football game or are we going to church?'" one former player says. "You can't take certain things out the game, it's not going to work for you as a coach. You are not even letting your players listen to music before the game and get hyped up together. That's something within the sport that it's like, 'Why are you trying to take this way from us?' We can literally hear the music across the way; the locker rooms aren't that far. So we are hearing the music from the other team, and we are just sitting in a quiet room about to play an NFL game."
(Music is now OK, but jersey swaps and jewelry still are no-nos.)
Players also had to have their shirts tucked in underneath their jerseys; they had to wear the "fat pads" for safety, instead of the slimmer thigh and knee pads many players prefer; and the player says Patricia would get mad if they talked to their friends on the opposing team before the game.
"Just little dumb stuff that really shouldn't matter," he says. "But it does matter when you are a new coach and you are trying to implement a system that guys aren't familiar with."
This former player emphasized that Patricia is "a genius" and the smartest coach he's ever had, but the militaristic rules actually made it hard for some players to want to go to war for him. And he said that certain rules, like the music and jewelry bans, made it especially hard to relate to the coach.
The player remembers the week preparing to play Carolina. He says Patricia played a video of Cam Newton dancing on the field and showed it to players, with the hopes of getting them riled up by his showboating. Instead, many players reacted positively, with then-safety Quandre Diggs shouting, 'No, we like that, Coach! Keep that running!'
"Lo and behold, we're watching the video like, that's lit!" the player says. "You are showing us what we like. Cam dancing, that's cool to us. But you don't see it as that."
And there was an infamous incident that former Lions cornerback Darius Slay detailed to the Detroit Free Press in March after he was traded to Philadelphia. During training camp in 2018, Patricia called out Slay in a full team meeting for posting a photo of himself lined up against an opposing receiver, telling him to "Stop sucking this man's private."
"So I'm like, 'Whoa.' I'm like, 'Hold up,'" Slay told the paper. "Where I'm from, that don't fly. ... I wouldn't say to him to stop you know what to Bill Belichick. I wouldn't do that. That's just not me as a man. That's disrespectful to me, and so from there on, it was done with."
Slay wouldn't comment for this story, but Zenner says the sentiment of Slay's post was, good work against one of the greats. Zenner interpreted Patricia's comment as a joke, but it clearly didn't land.
Players who were in the meeting say Patricia was trying to make it clear that he wanted his players to treat the opponent like the enemy. Slay was an All-Pro, and one former offensive player says Patricia used him as an example that no matter how big you are on this team, he will still correct you. Another Belichickian tactic: The Patriots coach was known for being just as hard on Tom Brady as he was on everyone else.
The Patriot Way isn't for everybody, especially when the results aren't coming. One agent says that after one phone conversation with Patricia, his veteran free-agent client decided to sign with another team. He knew he wasn’t interested in that style of coaching.
With those already on his team, Patricia, players say, is a kind, good listener one-on-one, but his harshness in group settings seems to have taken far more of a toll than it has extracted in-game excellence, costing him some key players.
Slay's relationship with Patricia never recovered. He was traded. So was Diggs, an outspoken personality who wasn't afraid to challenge Patricia. One Lions source says Diggs was turning the locker room against Patricia, which played into the team's decision to deal him to the Seahawks last season. Quin says there's no question that Diggs was traded because his personality didn't mesh. (Through his marketing agent, Diggs declined to talk for this story.)
"Everybody that had some kind of ties to the last regime, some kind of leadership role, every last one of those guys are gone except for Matt Stafford," Quin says.
'There were guys that weren't used to that more blue-collar, hard-work type of style, and so they had something to say about it and they didn't want to conform to that," says the former offensive player. "Those were the type of guys he was getting out of the building, and trading them or releasing them and then bringing guys that were used to hard work."
Quin was released after 2018 with one year left on his contract, and he considers himself one of those players who was purged at least partly because he was a veteran voice that Patricia and Quinn couldn't control.
Jean Francois couldn't understand those players who were resistant to the coaching. Granted, it wasn't new to him, and it had worked for him: He came to Detroit after playing the 2017 season in Patricia's defense in New England, which he calls the best experience of his 10-year, six-team career. He'd just won an AFC championship and played in Super Bowl LII.
"A lot of guys there couldn't adjust to the New England culture," he says. "Everybody was still used to the Detroit Lion culture. ... Guys were just so laid-back, they were used to just chill. They didn't have the urgency, they didn't have the urge to get on the football field and go after people."
Jean Francois remembers teammates complaining about practicing too long and studying too hard. He tried to get his fellow defensive linemen to stay and put in extra work after practice, something that was foreign to his teammates.
He noticed that some assistant coaches were also unprepared for the New England type of workload.
"If the coaches are off, the players aren't too far from you," Jean Francois says. "It was a different requirement."
Fourteen coaches have turned over on Patricia's staff in his time in Detroit. Nine were fired or not extended, and the rest stepped away from football or left for other teams.
If you ask Jean Francois, the Lions' main problem in 2018 was that not every player was sold on the Detroit Patriot Way. He hasn't played there since that season, but he thinks that remains the reason for the Lions' inconsistency.
"I just don't believe everybody bought in yet," Jean Francois says. "I just don't believe people are staying in the facility long enough. ... When you buy in, you lock in. It's a guarantee."
"Buying in, what does that really mean?" Quin asked when told about Jean Francois' theory. "Every time we had practice, we were out there practicing and we were practicing hard. ... Obviously guys are going to gripe and complain, I am not going to sit here saying I didn't gripe and complain. Because some things you are just like, 'Man, what are we doing this for?' But at the end of the day, we did it."
Another gripe: Some players felt they played too much man coverage, to the point where is predictable for an offense. Quin says he brought complaints like those directly to Patricia, and he met with him individually two or three times that season to air the grievances of the defense.
"It's all the hard work and not the rings," Zenner says. "You go to [New England] to win a ring, and you work hard and you earn it or you go deep in the playoffs. And you go to Detroit, you do that same thing, but you just lose. People don't want to lose, and people especially don't want to work way harder than everyone else to have a worse record than people who work half as hard."
If Jean Francois is right, and the buy-in is the problem in Detroit, it raises a dilemma. A real chicken-or-the-egg paradox. How can a team expect players to buy in without the winning results? And how can that team win without total buy-in?
Two current Lions players, left tackle Taylor Decker and kicker Matt Prater, say everyone has now bought in and there's a real difference in the team cohesion this season, but Patricia and Quinn might be gone before those results ever materialize on the field.
Houston's Bill O'Brien is the most recent example of the Patriot Way gone awry. The Texans head coach and general manager (a similar role as Belichick holds in New England) was fired after going 0-4 to start this season. He had a reputation for trading away talented players who disagreed with him, and he upheld an environment that one Texans player said suppressed player voices and made assistant coaches afraid to make corrections because O'Brien expected perfection.
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores may be a current exception to the trend of New England coaches trying to be Belichick elsewhere. One agent who represents players on the Lions and the Dolphins says he has had more than one Lions player who wanted out of Detroit, but none of his players in Miami have felt that way. (Though others have: Minkah Fitzpatrick requested a trade and was dealt to the Steelers after two games with Flores.)
The agent chalks up the Miami-Detroit split partly to the location, and partly to the style of the head coach. The agent says Flores coaches his players hard in the similar Patriot Way culture, but that the guys respect him and have bought in to that regimen. Miami has brought in former Patriot players in the same way as Detroit has, but it is 5-3 and second in the AFC East. The Dolphins started off 0-7 in 2019, Flores' first season, but they rebounded to finish 5-11, outperforming during a clear rebuilding period.
One NFL coach who has played both Patricia's Lions and Flores' Dolphins says "the energy, spirit, belief is much different" between the two teams.
"Look, they may not have the talent yet, but it's coming," Jean Francois said about the Dolphins earlier this season, before rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made his debut. "You see what it looks like when people buy into the system. Every time one of these New England coaches goes somewhere, a lot of guys go against it. And what they don't understand is you're defeating the purpose."
Giants head coach Joe Judge is also installing what looks to be a similar Patriot Way style in his first season in New York after eight seasons in New England. He faced criticism for making players run laps as punishment during training camp, and last week, he benched Golden Tate (who Detroit traded to Philadelphia in Patricia's first season) for yelling into the Monday Night Football cameras that he wanted the ball more. But so far, Judge's team appears unified under his leadership. They've been competitive, despite only two victories.
"There is a sort of skepticism when people interview people coming out of New England," the source who has interviewed Patriots coaches, including Patricia, says. "Some of the New England ways have been so draconian. ... The league does look at those experiences and say, 'Are these guys trying to replicate a really, really difficult model to replicate?' It is certainly a focus when you talk to those prospects."
The source, who did not end up hiring Patricia, was satisfied from Patricia's interview that he would bring his own ideas and be an independent thinker.
But from the sources who have been inside, much of his style in Detroit has looked very much like that Patriot Way.
"I understand the Detroit Lions sign and symbol up there and all, but you have to remember, you have a [New England] coach sitting in this building that is just trying to get the best out of you," says Jean Francois.
During the offseason program of his second season with the Lions, Patricia took each position group out to dinner and footed the bill. The dinner dates were an effort to get to know every one of his players better, and also let them know that he wanted to be better as their head coach. One former Lions defensive player said Patricia apologized for how things went the previous season and vowed to be better.
Prater shared his dinner with Patricia with the rest of the specialists and quarterbacks. He said it was a rare moment where Patricia was relaxed and loose, and the night went a long way to improve relationships.
"A big part of it was trust," Prater says. "If you don't really know someone, it is hard to trust them, and I think getting to know everybody in and out of the building, that helps with the team chemistry."
Prater played in Denver when Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was hired as head coach, and he says he sees a lot of similarities in the way McDaniels ran the Broncos and how Patricia runs the Lions, particularly in game-week preparation and practice style. McDaniels was fired before he finished even two seasons in Denver.
Decker, a team captain who was drafted by Detroit in 2016, says Patricia's efforts have made a noticeable difference since his first season.
"He has done a really good job of evolving those relationships with players," Decker says. "He is taking a lot of input and allowing us to take ownership more and more and more.
"We still condition after practice, and we still practice hard. But that's our normal; that's what we are used to now."
Decker and Prater, who both spoke to Bleacher Report after Week 7, when the Lions had won two straight games, say Patricia has also grown in the way he speaks to players and makes corrections. He isn't as much that screaming and swearing college coach he was in 2018 who Quin felt didn't respect his players.
"It could be aggressive, but it's just his coaching style," Prater says. "He has definitely changed. I haven't seen anything like that in a long time. He is demanding, but I don't think it is too much."
"He is going to tell the hard truth 100 percent, and he is not going to sugarcoat things," Decker says. "We are all big boys and can hear the truth.
"Do I think he has done a much better job of how he relays the information from year one to now? 100 percent. I think that is a testament to having conversations with players and asking, 'What is your input?'"
Zenner was released during the preseason in 2019, but he says he noticed Patricia was more comfortable in his role that season.
"The thing I loved about him, he was always making adjustments," Zenner says. "His second year was a lot different. He was a lot more relaxed and more comfortable in his surroundings. It didn't seem as unyielding as the previous year."
In 2019, Detroit finished 3-12-1 after a slew of injuries in the second half of the season contributed to a nine-game losing streak. Stafford missed the last eight games with a back injury, and at one point, the Lions were forced to play their third-string quarterback and third-string running back.
Decker says he didn't lose faith in the team because the Lions managed to remain competitive despite the key injuries. (Of the nine straight losses, seven were by single digits.)
This offseason, the Lions acquired three players with experience in Patricia's defense in New England. Safety Duron Harmon, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins joined a team that already had several other former Patriot players.
Decker and Prater each said the coronavirus pandemic and the social justice movement this offseason allowed for a deeper level of conversation and bonding among Patricia and his players.
"Coach took the time to say, 'I want to hear what is important to you guys as people,'" Decker says. "I want to hear if you want to tell your story or if you have had an interaction you want to talk about. ... We were on Zoom meetings and I hadn't seen anybody on the team for eight months, but I felt like we were really growing together."
As a result of these conversations, the Lions were the first NFL team to cancel practice in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August, part of a movement in professional sports that included at least nine other NFL teams also canceling practices.
Decker believes the Lions will succeed with Patricia as their coach. He spoke to Bleacher Report the week after the Lions beat the Falcons on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive at Atlanta in the last minute of the game, and he says they were able to win that game because Patricia has the team practice all kinds of different game scenarios.
"I believe this is going to work in the locker room," he says. "I have a pretty good pulse, because I have been here for five years and I know everybody on the team. I know everybody in the building."
The two-game win streak against the Jaguars and Falcons, two teams at the bottom of their respective divisions, might have been a mirage Detroit has since lost two in a row by double digits.
The ex-Lions defensive player said that another ex-Lion, after playing Detroit, told him he "felt bad for the guys ... they need help."
"Going in, I thought this year would be a great year," the former offensive player says. "I thought [the Lions] would be winning. I thought this was going to be a big turnaround. It is still looking rough, so I am not exactly sure what the problem is this year."
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.