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How Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions Are Handling a Virtual Offseason

Matt Patricia takes us inside his thought process as he built a virtual offseason, with advice from high-profile college coaches and his 9-year-old son. Plus, what we'd like to see in the 2020 schedule and what the NFL can learn from other leagues right now.

Too many of us have been there over the last few weeks. You’re on a work meeting call, or a virtual happy hour with your college buddies, and out of nowhere, that clock start ticking at the bottom of screen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You scramble to say whatever you need to say, get kicked off, and then wait for the next link to drop in your inbox. Or maybe you just bail.

Now, imagine you’re a head coach in the NFL, and there are about 100 people on that call.

Long story short, Lions coach Matt Patricia may have a degree in aeronautical engineering from RPI, but he’s not immune to that tricky time limit getting him like it has the rest of us this spring. And it actually created one of the cooler moments of the last couple months for him and his staff, as the second full-squad meeting of his virtual offseason program of 2020 came to an abrupt end.

“The whole thing crashed,” Patricia said from his suburban Detroit home on Wednesday afternoon. “And I was like, I just lost 100 people on that call, there’s no way I’m gonna get this back. I’m right in the middle of a presentation, there’s no way I’m gonna get this back. And unbelievably within two minutes, everyone was back on, dialed in, locked in and I was rolling. I thought there was no way that was gonna happen.

“And that’s probably my biggest fear, is when you’re in a big group, something happens and it crashes, having to get everybody back. But that day, it was really awesome.”

As it turned out (and I may butcher the explanation of this), as the Lions moved programs from one server to another, so the system could handle the larger capacity of users needed for a team meeting, the parameters got reset, and the time limits were reinstituted, creating a simple issue leading to the larger problem.

That larger problem gave everyone an out. No one took it. Accordingly, getting everyone back on became about more than Patricia getting to finish what he was saying. It was that the guys were committed enough to stick it out. And maybe if this is the season that Patricia’s Lions turn the corner, he’ll be able to look back on a moment like this as a sign that this particular group had the kind of buy-in he’s looked for two years to earn.

For now, it qualifies as a nice, if small, victory in a very different time. The pandemic has required that everyone be more flexible and adaptable. All the Lions who dialed back in that quickly that day, for a voluntary phase of the offseason, showed they were.

That, for Patricia and the Lions, is a start. Which is all you’re looking for this time of year, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

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Lots to get to in today’s GamePlan, including …

• My wish list for the 2020 schedule.

• Contingencies we could see in the slate.

• More on the re-opening of facilities.

But we’re starting with the challenges coaches have spent the last few weeks tackling, shown through the work that Patricia and the Lions have done.

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There wasn’t a playbook for any coach to follow on how to run an offseason program under these circumstances, so Patricia actually got started by tying his research to how he was handling another process rocked by the COVID-19 crisis—draft prep.

To make up for the lack of “30” visits, pro days and private workouts, Patricia, like a lot of other NFL coaches, leaned on his connections in the college ranks to gather information on prospects. Those coaches, he knew, were a little further along than the pros were. Most college programs were in the midst of spring practice when the shutdown happened, forcing them to pivot from classroom and on-field coaching to teaching virtually on the fly. So Patricia tried to use those guys as resources as he’d wrap up draft-recon conversations.

What programs are you using? What teaching methods worked? What did you try and have to throw out? How are you reaching your players?

He spoke with Ohio State coach Ryan Day a bunch, as he vetted three guys he wound up drafting—corner Jeff Okudah, guard Jonah Jackson and defensive tackle Jashon Cornell—and Day explained to him that he’d already been able to pull off full clinics using streaming video in front of larger groups, rather than just breaking things up into smaller gatherings.

“That’s what made me feel like I could say, ‘OK, I want to give this a shot with our full team, and not just go small groups,’” Patricia said.

Just the same, as he kicked the tires on Georgia tailback D’Andre Swift, who the Lions would take in the second round, Bulldog coach Kirby Smart took him through how differing Wi-Fi connections, from one person’s setup to another’s, could throw off the video presentation, which became a focus for Patricia as he and his staff got ready for what was coming.

And as Patricia talked through it with others, like Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and Boston College coach Jeff Hafley, virtual wins scored and losses incurred by each of those guys gave him lessons on how best to teach in this very different world. He also recognized there was enough trial and error involved where he didn’t want his staff to have to jump in blindly.

So as the league allowed for teams with returning coaches to do three weeks of work over a four-week span, from April 20-May 15, Patricia decided not to start with players until April 20, instead using that first week to not just keep his staff focused on the draft, but also do dry runs with the technology. One of the first things they learned was simple—different platforms worked best for different settings.

Among the available options (Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, FaceTime, Skype), the Lions actually decided they’d use one platform in the larger setting, another for position group meetings and yet another for more individual conversation, based on factors ranging from how the video worked on each to the players’ comfort level. And as they went, there were more lessons learned, which pretty much anyone out there may be familiar with now.

The players were going to be adaptable. And this was a lesson driven home for Patricia by his 9-year-old son, who taught him a trick on Zoom that he’d learned in taking his elementary school classes from home.

“He goes, Look, dad, if everyone’s muted, and someone needs to talk, just hold the space bar down and then they can talk, and let go of the space bar and everyone goes back to muted. And then you don’t have to worry about trying to click on and click off,” Patricia said. “And I was like, Great, a 9-year-old knows how to do this better than I do. But it was a great tip for when everyone’s wanting to ask questions, just do that, as opposed to trying to find the microphone, click it off, exit out, do all that. There’s a lot of that when we’re presenting.”

The larger takeaway for the coach? “These guys are so much better at this stuff than we are,” he said. “I mean, just generationally, they’re already on it.”

Everyone’s home situation is different. The Wi-Fi issue was a real one, so trying to make sure everyone was where they needed to be was important, and there were real examples that Patricia took from Smart’s advice, when the Detroit and Georgia coaches talked.

“When you’re trying to coach and teach off the film, a lot of times you’re going frame-by-frame, because there’s steps and hand placement, and when the film skips, you might be giving a coaching point where the player can’t actually see that frame of film because it didn’t stream properly, or it skips through the streaming process, and they miss the coaching point,” Patricia said. “And then that becomes frustrating for everybody. I wanted to avoid frustration.”

That meant figuring out what worked best for everyone. In some cases, the Lions coaches would embed video into presentations. In others, they’d use their computer camera to shoot what was on their iPad or their monitor.

And that wasn’t the only variable the Lions tackled. Another was the Mac vs. PC problem. Patricia uses a PC, while a lot of his players are on Apple products, and the staff quickly figured out that they’d have to be in a position to troubleshoot both. So during that week of dry runs, they had some guys on PCs and others on Macbooks or iPads, to make sure they’d encounter issues the players would run into.

Presenting to a group would be different. And this is another example of the different place each guy is in playing a role. In all those little boxes on the screen, which we’re all familiar with now, there’d be more distracting elements than you’d have in an auditorium or a meeting room. A player might, for example, have his iPhone pointed at the side of his head while he’s projecting the meeting on to a monitor to watch his coach, leaving the coach looking at a little box shooting a guy’s ear.

That led Patricia to train himself to look straight at the camera.

“Just like I’d be looking at a person in the eyes, in the face, I want to make sure I give that same presence,” he said. “It’s not always easy because, certainly from a presentation standpoint, I have material on my desk, on my screens, different stuff we’re going over. You have to almost refocus that every once in a while, and be like, ‘Oh yeah, don’t forget, I’m controlling [the meeting].’ It’s just like when we play, teach the things we can control.”

There’s a time limit on attention span. Just the same as Patricia found the Lions could reap the rewards of the younger generation’s technological acumen, he also knew there’d be a limit on attention span—a point of diminishing returns in time spent vs. the effectiveness of how the lesson was being delivered. It’s something he’s studied, even before all this, to try to get the most out of the time he and his coaches get with the players.

He knew, then, that would have to be adjusted, given that everyone was sort of on their own to hold their focus, rather than being in a classroom setting. And the research he did showed that “a little over 60% to maybe 70% of what they can handle in the classroom is probably the appropriate time length for online.”

“To say this is a meeting room or classroom learning environment, it’s not,” Patricia said. “I do think there’s a time limit on how long you have their attention for before the natural surroundings, the distractions, whatever it is, takes over. We try to be cognizant of that too as we set up our different learning platforms. It’s really important.”

The big group settings actually work. I’ve talked to some coaches who’ve really focused on smaller groups, thinking the larger groups would give players too much of a substitute-teacher feel—license to tune out. But after talking to Day, Patricia knew he wanted to at least try and go forward with the larger team meetings, which are very much a staple of the program he’s set up, and the New England program he came from.

“For me, I enjoy having everyone on the team call,” he said. “I think it’s bringing great energy. It’s giving us an opportunity to click on as a team and share and grow and just have that energy that you’d have in a large setting with everybody. That certainly helps me. When you teach and you get up in front of a group, the energy is certainly something that helps make the whole session better. And that’s the one thing I do feel.

“The other part, when you give the message, where you are teaching, you certainly like to teach with that same energy and passion every time. And if you’re doing the same thing eight times over, I don’t want it to get stale, I don’t want it to get boring.”

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There are other positives that Patricia has taken from the experience, too. Established leaders like Matthew Stafford and Jarrad Davis have helped keep everyone together and engaged. New guys like Desmond Trufant, Nick Williams and Halapoulivaati Vaitai have added to the mix, bringing new perspective and energy. And he’s seeing signs that some of the positives from last year’s 2-0-1 start, before some bad luck and injuries hit, remain.

He also hopes that this gives his team some good lessons—“Everyone can problem solve their own situation to make sure that they’re getting whatever needs to get done”—that’ll serve everyone well in the fall.

But he’s not going to pretend this is ideal, either. It’s not. Therein lies where he hopes the greatest benefit comes. Everyone in the NFL is dealing with these circumstances. Having been the defensive coordinator of a Super Bowl team in the lockout season of 2011, Patricia knows well that who handles them best will go a long way in determining who’s left standing when all is said and done.

“I really wish we were in the building. I’d like to see these guys at work, I think the offseason’s so important,” he said. “This spring would’ve been great, because of the additions we have to our team and the growth of our team from last year. I don’t not want to be in the building. So that part of it is not fun for me. But you know me well enough to know, the competitive side of me takes whatever situation we’re in, and I wanna win the situation, absolutely. That part pushes me to make sure we are doing everything we can.”

Which is why everyone jumping back online for that second team meeting was a little thing that Patricia thought was a big deal. In that little moment, the Lions showed they were.

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POWER RANKINGS

In honor of the all-important schedule release show tonight, here are five things I’d love to see happen with the 2020 slate.