On Thursday, our own Andrew Kato published a wonderful piece on what it actually means to be a head coach. Based on the testimony of some of the best in the history in the NFL, coaching successfully isn’t about installing your best system or having the greatest football mind, but rather connecting with your players and staff successfully and being able to teach effectively.
While I read Andrew’s article, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Detroit Lions made a mistake letting Jim Caldwell go. Most of the things we criticized him for—failing to get the running game going, being too timid on the sidelines—were either things outside his jurisdiction or qualities irrelevant to success.
But the things that those coaches pointed out as necessary for success—organization, communication and preparation—seemed to be Caldwell’s forte. Jim Caldwell built a culture of poise, preparation and lack of panic. Think back to 2016 in Minnesota. The Detroit Lions faced impossible odds. Down three, 23 seconds on the clock, starting on their own 25-yard line with no timeouts.
Yet the team’s confidence never seemed to waver, and it was because their coach was keen on preparation. He would put them in high-stress situations in practice so that they could be stress-free on gameday. Per ESPN’s Michael Rothstein:
“Players have said throughout the season that the scenarios Caldwell throws out there have been more difficult than the ones they’ve encountered in similar situations on Sundays. Yes, the crowd is involved and the heart rate is faster because of the stakes involved, but it is the experience from those drills that has kept the Lions calm.”
So the Lions stared down the barrel of an impossible situation, dialed up a play they had added earlier in the week, and easily moved the team in a position to tie the game, which they did. Golden Tate would buttflip his way to victory a few minutes into overtime.
Jim Caldwell built a culture of calm and composure. His flat affect may have irked fans that wanted passion and fire on the sidelines, but there’s little doubt the team benefitted from his serenity.
But that all could be changing. The Lions’ two top candidates to replace Caldwell are Patriot defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel—two fiery personalities that can be seen ripping into their players every week on the sidelines.
Here’s how Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty described Patricia earlier this week (courtesy of Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit):
Q: Is there an example that comes to mind in regards to Matt Patricia’s passion and intensity?
DM: There’s a lot of examples. They usually have a lot of curse words and yelling at us. But, I just think that the thing to me about Matty P. is his consistency with his energy and passion. Matty P. never really kind of rolls with whatever’s going on, whether it’s like over the last however many weeks when we’ve been playing good and all that. Like we can come in from a game and Matty P. comes in there Monday and he’s pissed about the Atlanta game when they scored on the two minute drive – I think it was that game – towards the end of the game where, at one point in the game, they scored in two-minute drive. And, like everyone was so happy. We gave up just seven points that game, right? Yeah, and everyone was so happy – ‘Yeah, we played Atlanta well and gave up seven points.’ And Matty P. was pissed, and that’s what we watched the next day. We came in here and we watched that drive on how we didn’t have to give up those points. To me, that’s him. You’re not going to get him to lower his standards. He expects the best out of the first group we put on the field, the last group, in training camp, in the spring. You know, we got cursed out in the spring for giving up touchdowns in seven-on-seven red area where the ball started at the 7-yard line. Matty P. came in there and he ripped us. So, I think, obviously as players, sometimes you get mad at that, but if you’re wise enough to realize that that’s what helps you become a better individual player and collectively a better defense.
And take this example of Vrabel’s style as reported by Sports Illustrated:
Without much ceremony, Vrabel launched into yelling fits directed at McKinney. Punch harder! Run faster! Run harder! “He was really hard on me. It was very intense,” McKinney says. “Everything I did, he was yelling at me, the whole time. I’m like, Oh my god. I just knew the Texans weren’t gonna pick me. I called my momma and told her I felt like I was just in a boxing ring.”
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you one coaching style is better than the other. There are plenty of examples of successful coaches from both ends of the spectrum. And every single player responds differently to motivation. The key is finding a way to communicate successfully with each individual. To some, being cussed out is exactly what they need for that extra fire. For others, it’s immature and downright disrespectful.
But there is no doubt that both of these candidates are far from anything that Caldwell offered, and that could cause some immediate issues in the locker room from players that have grown accustomed to Caldwell’s overly personable management style.
Maybe that’s exactly what Bob Quinn is looking for. Maybe Quinn believes that Caldwell’s approach could only get this team so far, and that the entire locker room needs a little more fire in their collective belly. Maybe he thinks that with a little more pep in their step, they gain that extra inch against the Falcons or they come out firing in Cincinnati.
But it is going to be a tough transition for the players. As noted in Kato’s article, you don’t get the players to buy into your system through yelling and screaming and subservience, but through results. So if a coach like Vrabel or Patricia comes in spitting fire at his players, he better bring the results with him, or things could get ugly quickly.