As Matt Patricia started making the rounds again this January, interviewing with teams who have open head coaching positions, I was reminded of something Brandon Spikes told me about Patricia in the fall of 2016, when I was reporting a long feature on him. “I always refer to Bill as a genius. I see that with Patricia, too,” Spikes said. “That’s his little protégé. He’s next in line. If Bill were to ever call it quits—who knows when that’s going to be—Patricia would be the perfect guy to step in.” His little protégé. That stuck with me.
Maybe other than Josh McDaniels, no other Patriots assistant coach can wear that moniker as well as Patricia. He left a career in engineering in 2004 to join Belichick’s staff as a coaching assistant, and he worked hard enough to rise through the ranks to become Belichick’s defensive coordinator. He’s spent the last 14 years at Belichick’s side, learning the ins and outs of coaching, scouting and film work, staying so late he often slept at the office, going so far as to change the clock in Belichick’s car during Daylight Savings Time.
The owner who hires Patricia—he has interviewed with the Lions and Giants so far—will want him to recreate the Patriots’ success with his own franchise. Belichick’s former assistants haven’t had a lot of success doing that before, but, in this case I think Patricia is different, because he seems strong-willed enough to take Belichick’s methods and apply them in his own way. The way Spikes described it to me, Patricia wasn’t afraid to stand up to Belichick when he had conviction in something.
One of their disagreements was over Spikes himself.
The Patriots took Spikes in the second round, No. 62 over all, in the 2010 draft, and it was Patricia’s job, as the linebackers coach at the time, to get him ready to play immediately. The issue was, Spikes didn’t have a lot of experience playing in a 3-4, and he made a lot of rookie mistakes in practice. Belichick would be on him constantly, and Spikes would question himself—whether he was ready to play right away. “[Patricia] would go to bat for me,” Spikes says. He would tell Belichick, We need him out there. He can get it done.
Then Patricia told Spikes to come in early, so they could work together. Patricia taught Spikes how to study film and the value of work ethic, how he needed to work through the weekend, so to speak. Spikes wasn’t the fastest linebacker, and Patricia helped him find advantages schematically, so he could be a step closer to make the plays he needed to make. In turn, Spikes felt almost indebted to Patricia, for how he helped him. He had seen Patricia sleeping at the office, trying to show Belichick he was committed. “The players know the work he’s putting in,” Spikes says. “He’s all in, man. He won’t stop until you get it. My whole thing was, I didn’t want to let him down. I knew how much time he had invested in it.”
Spikes ended up starting eight games for the Pats his rookie year, before the NFL suspended him for the final four games for testing positive for a banned substance. (It was reportedly related to Spikes’s ADHD medication.) Some coaches might’ve felt betrayed at that point, having invested so much time in a player only to have him get suspended.
Not Patricia. The two of them stayed close through the rest of Spikes’ time in New England, even as Patricia moved on to become the safeties coach and then oversee the entire defense. In a four-year stretch, Spikes started 39 of the Patriots’ 64 regular-season games and finished second on the team in total tackles in 2012 and third in 2013. He also started five postseason games, including Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants, which the Patriots lost. Spikes wasn’t the Patriots’ best defensive player, but Patricia had made him serviceable.
When Spikes’ rookie contract expired, though, Belichick let him go, and Spikes signed with the Bills, a division rival. Even so, Patricia still stayed in touch. Spikes thought of him something like a father figure, someone he could talk to about anything, including their shared passion for wine. “He’s Italian, so he thinks he knows all about red wines,” Spikes says. “He’s definitely a well-rounded individual. He’s someone I aspire to be, as a man.”
After that 2014 season, during which Spikes started 10 games with Buffalo, Belichick decided to bring him back on a one-year deal. But three weeks later the Pats released him, after Spikes’ car was found abandoned after an alleged hit-and-run. Spikes took the 2015 season off completely, and Patricia checked on him on “almost every day,” he said. A lot of time they’d just talk life, about personal stuff, like Spikes’ older brother in prison. “I would go to a dark place, and he’d talk to me,” Spikes says. “He had all this other stuff going on, and he would still find time. I don’t know how he did it. I could talk to him about anything. I mean, anything. It didn’t matter what time it was. I know I can call him anytime [at night] and he’s going to pick up.” He knew that Patricia was probably up watching film anyway.
Spikes played one more forgettable season in Buffalo, in 2016, but did not play anywhere this past season. He may never play in the NFL again, and, if that’s the case, he’ll retire having never achieved the same kind of success he had under Patricia in New England.
That’s another quality that separates Patricia from some of Belichick’s other protégés: his ability to take serviceable players like Spikes and work them into an effective unit. The Pats have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense in each of Patricia’s six years as defensive coordinator, including two straight finishes in the top five now. “There’s new guys in there, different guys on the field [every year], and it doesn’t matter,” Spikes says. “It’s coaching.”
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