BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Casting the popular “Fear the Beard’’ slogan in an entirely new light, there are those who question Matt Patricia’s readiness to become an NFL head coach, as he is widely expected to do in Detroit after coordinating the Patriots defense for one final game in Sunday’s Super Bowl LII.
Rodney Harrison is not among them. As the ex-Patriots safety turned NBC analyst made eminently clear here this week, in a media availability session to promote the network’s Super Bowl telecast.
“I love Matt Patricia,’’ Harrison said Tuesday in the Super Bowl media center at the Mall of America. “I’ve been around for a long time, and people always ask me about his personality — is he the right guy for a head-coaching job? And I say, ‘You’re damn right he is.’ You know why? Because he’s smart, he understands players, he knows how to communicate. And if that doesn’t equate to him getting a head-coaching job somewhere because of what the public perception is, it’s wrong, because the players love him.”
Harrison and Patricia’s tenures in New England overlapped by five seasons (2004-2008), and while he was never directly coached by Patricia, Harrison said the strongest bullet point on the resume of the next Lions coach was his ability to stop the bleeding for the Patriots defense early this season. New England surrendered a league-worst 32 points per games in the first four games, but an NFL-best 14 points per game over the final 12. Good coaching is knowing how to fix problems on the fly.
“Look at the adjustment that he made (after) the first quarter of the season,” Harrison said. “The first four games of the season, they played like crap, (but he) made some adjustments and they end up becoming one of the best defenses in the league. That should tell you about Matt Patricia and what he’s capable of doing.’’
Harrison was on hand the last time New England and Philadelphia met in the Super Bowl as well, 13 years ago in Jacksonville. And as a Patriots player at that point, with the impending departures of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for head coaching jobs as a pre-game story line, Harrison believes the Patriots are distinctly qualified to compartmentalize that sub-plot this week and render it a non-distraction. In addition to Patricia’s anticipated departure, the symmetry of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s expected hiring by Indianapolis next week gives this Super Bowl a back-to-the-future vibe.
“I don’t think (the players are) paying much attention to it, because they’re focused on this one game,” Harrison said. “The Patriots have that unique ability to do that — the players, the coaches. Because you never hear (Bill) Belichick talking about the next opponent, and I think that carries throughout the locker room.’’
As many have observed over the years, the relative lack of head coaching success of Crennel and Weis as early members of the Belichick coaching tree came in part because they tried too hard to be Belichick clones in their new gigs, without the essential attribute of actually being Bill. Patricia isn’t likely to make that same mistake, Harrison predicted.
“He’s going to be fine,” Harrison said. “I think he’s going to bring an element to that defense that they haven’t had. And that’s nothing against (ex-Lions defensive coordinator) Teryl Austin or anything like that. But the guy’s learned from the very best and as long as Matt keeps his personality. You can’t go in there trying to be Bill Belichick. A lot of coaches try to do that, and you’re going to fail because there’s only one Bill Belichcik. You have to be yourself and that’s the only advice I will give him.’’
Harrison also had a strong endorsement of new Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, his former Patriots teammate and fellow defender for six seasons, calling him “brilliant.’’
“We had a lot of smart guys on our team, but Mike was probably considered the smartest guy on our defense,’’ Harrison said. “Mike is a natural leader, and as a player he is going to tell it like it is, and he’s not going to hold back.”
Always quotable and rarely mincing his words, Harrison held court on any number of Patriots-related and NFL hot-button topics, including:
- The belief of opposing fans and some in the media that New England consistently gets the benefit of key penalty calls in big games:
“That’s dumb. Everyone hates us. I mean, everywhere I go, I’m serious, everyone hates us. Everywhere I go, people hate us. When you’re a Patriot, you’re just the enemy of everyone else. It’s the Patriots, and it’s everyone else. Because everyone is trying to be like the Patriots.’’
- On how much longer he thinks Belichick, 65, will continue to coach in New England:
“You know I asked him that question at the beginning of the year and he just said, ‘I’m feeling pretty good. My thing was maybe he’s staying there to firmly entrench his kids, his boys (Patriots assistant coaches Stephen and Brian) in that organization. Once his sons get firmly entrenched in that organization, maybe he walks away in a few years.’’
- On the significance of the ESPN expose early this month that detailed growing tension between the major figures within the Patriots dynasty:
“They should have written a story about me and my wife, because we have strife sometimes. Sometimes she won’t talk to me for a couple days. It happens when you’re in a long-term relationship. That’s a relationship. That’s a partnership. The thing that I see with those guys is they respect one another. And Belichick knows how to push Tom Brady more so than anybody. It’s a healthy, respectful relationship. Do I [always] agree with my wife? No, but it happens and you learn how to work through it.”
- Given his reputation as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL during the course of his 15-year career, Harrison was asked his view of Jacksonville safety Barry Church leveling Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the AFC title game, which forced Gronkowski from the game and landed him in the league’s concussion protocol:
“Barry made a conscious effort to lead with his shoulder, and at the last minute, a couple inches here, a couple inches there, it’s helmet to helmet. But I do believe they need to look at intent. And I believe his intention was to hit with (his shoulder). So I didn’t really like the call.’’
- On the relative no-name, unsung status of the Patriots defense compared to Harrison’s era in New England:
“Kyle Van Noy is a solid player. I wouldn’t say he’s a great player. I don’t see a lot of great players on the Patriots’ defense, and that’s what makes this whole situation even more unique. I was at the AFC Championship Game, and I’m looking at halftime, and I’m like, how the heck does this team even make it to the AFC championship? Because you just don’t see the team speed, you don’t see the ability of them to create turnovers. I just don’t see it. And maybe because I compare them to my old defenses that I played on. But this is a different age, and I think Van Noy has been a good, solid player for them.
“I do believe that Philadelphia can score, and score a lot of points. Once again, I look at this defense, and there’s really nothing about this defense that really scares me. There’s nothing that really scares me personally, but I know that they don’t have big names or great players, but they have guys that work well together.”
- His game plan advice for Patricia against Philadelphia on Sunday:
“If I’m Matt Patricia, I keep the game-plan simple: I play a lot of man-to-man coverage, I make sure those corners press them, play inside technique, and force (Nick) Foles to beat them down the field.’’
- On if Dez Bryant is still a No. 1 receiver in Dallas, with a contract that calls for $12.5 million in salary in 2018:
“How much? He’ll be gone. They ain’t gonna pay nobody no $12.5 million. But you know what? Just because they don’t want him doesn’t mean other teams won’t go out and pay him. I don’t know what they’re going to pay because there’s some dumb owners and general managers. But Dez can still play. Is he a number one? No, he’s not a No. 1 receiver. But Dez can still play.’’
- On the controversial Hall of Fame candidacy of receiver Terrell Owens:
“Terrell Owens is another guy that deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I played against Jerry Rice, I played against Randy Moss, and you talk about maybe the third-best wide receiver that I’ve ever faced, I would say it’s T.O. He was such a threat, and Marvin Harrison’s probably the fourth one.
But Terrell Owens deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and that’s my disappointment with the Hall of Fame. Was he a jerk at times? Of course he was. But it doesn’t take away his impact on the field and what he did. He had defensive backs literally shaking in their boots because he was such a great player.’’
- On if ex-Patriots cornerback Ty Law deserves Hall of Fame enshrinement as well:
“Ty Law was a bad boy, man. And I believe Ty is definitely a Hall of Famer, with the big plays that he made in the critical moments.’’