FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On ESPN’s NFL Live program last month, New England Patriots Hall of Famer Tedy Bruschi discussed the team’s transition from Brian Flores to Greg Schiano as the defensive play-caller, and what might prove to be Schiano’s biggest challenge.
It wasn’t related to scheme. Instead, Bruschi highlighted the importance of relationships and building trust.
“This is what’s so valuable to me, and it’s gone all the way back to the coordinators with Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Matt Patricia,” Bruschi said on the program. “You get [Bill] Belichick in a team meeting and he beats you down, but then you break up and get into the defensive meeting room. And if Schiano is the voice there, he has to understand: Is he the type of guy who brings the fellas back up? What kind of mentality does he have?
“Brian Flores, after the Miracle in Miami [Week 14 loss in 2018], went in front of that unit and said, ‘That’s on me.’ Can Schiano get that type of respect from the players, and give that type of humility when he makes a mistake? And will players relate to him?”
How Schiano, 52, connects with players will be one of the more closely watched storylines of the Patriots’ 2019 season, as he returns to the NFL for the first time since being fired in 2013 after two seasons as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach. He has spent the past three seasons as an assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
His rigid style turned some players off in Tampa, but one thing that figures to help this season is that three of Schiano’s former players at Rutgers — veteran defensive backs Duron Harmon and twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty — are key Patriots defenders.
“We always had a great relationship,” said Harmon, who enters his seventh season in New England. “I’m happy for him to have a job, coming here, and hopefully he will gain the respect of all the players and this coaching staff, just trying to do his job of leading us to play great defense.”
The coach-player dynamic will naturally be different from their time at Rutgers.
“Seeing him back here is funny because the last time you played for a guy, you’re 18 to 22,” longtime captain Devin McCourty said. “So it’s a totally different ballgame. I’ll be 32 for this season and I’m interested to see the dynamics and how he’s changed.
“He’s always been a great coach, and a hard worker. I remember going into his office, seeing the couch being ready and prepared for him to sleep there — all the hours he poured in and what it meant for him to be our head coach. So I’m excited not only to have him on staff but also the opportunity he has to be back in the NFL.”
Jason McCourty last played for Schiano in 2008 at Rutgers.
“In college, it’s just different,” he said. “You relate to him from a coaching standpoint: It’s, ‘Hey, these are the expectations [and] I expect you to live up to them.’ When you don’t live up to them, there are going to be consequences — whether it’s running, coming in early, whatever the case may be. That was kind of his way — setting the standard and holding you accountable to achieving the standard.
“I’m very interested to see what it’s going to be like now. I can talk about college and all of that, but I have no idea what it’s going to be like to have him as a coach now. It’s different when you’re coaching an 18-year-old kid and trying to prepare him for fatherhood and all of that, just in life beyond football. The last time he coached me, I was a young kid, but now I’m 31 and have three kids.”
As for Schiano’s preferred approach from a scheme perspective, all three Rutgers alums cited the same word: aggressive.
“He gets after people, and that’s what I loved at Rutgers,” Harmon said. “We were probably one of the better third-down teams in the country. He blitzed a lot, played some man. But one thing I know for sure, he was blitzing and we got after the quarterback.”
How much influence Schiano will have over the Patriots’ approach remains to be seen, as coach Bill Belichick has traditionally been heavily involved with the unit, especially the front seven.
Meanwhile, Schiano has had some of his greatest success developing defensive backs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if that type of combination — Belichick overseeing the front, Schiano focusing on the back end — ultimately reflects how things unfold in 2019.
Devin McCourty can envision how the two coaches combining brainpower might benefit the team.
“One phrase he always used to say was, ‘simple us, complex them,’” he said. “He always wanted us to understand our defense as a whole, and what we were trying to do, and also understand how we could make it more complex for the offense to figure it out.
“So from that mentality standpoint, that is what we preach here: Fully understanding the scope of the defense, but also the defense being complex enough so offenses can’t just pick it apart. I’m anxious to see the mesh between what Coach Schiano has been doing and what we’ve done here with Coach Belichick and the different defensive guys we have. I think sometimes that can be a good change and have different elements.”
In doing so, the players expect a discipline-laden approach, with sharp attention to detail.
“Greg is tough, a tough guy to play for, but a guy that when you walk away, you’re going to have a ton of respect for,” Jason McCourty said. “I remember being at Rutgers and we’d be complaining until the wee hours of the morning about whether it was conditioning, Schiano went off on somebody, how hard practice was. But fast-forward to years later, I got into the league and you start to have families and kids, a lot of his quotes and things he said and put on the board were ringing true. …
“In college, when you say, ‘I’m going to do right by your son and he’s going to graduate,’ the effort and responsibility that goes with that, I have a tremendous, tremendous amount of respect for not only the way Coach Schiano coached, but the way he led our program.”
Both Devin McCourty and Harmon had a similar experience.
“Playing for Coach Schiano, coming in as an 18-year-old, was extremely hard,” Devin McCourty said. “Very disciplined. I remember times when we had to come all the way up the line. Not over the line. Not to behind the line. I remember small details like that, which when you’re a teenager, you hated. If you didn’t do it right, you’d be running laps.
“But I also remember, my first day in New England [in 2010] and thinking, ‘Man, I’m grateful I got to play for Coach Schiano because of all those small, minute details that sometimes in the NFL they don’t have time to go over or deal with.’ When it’s already your foundation, it made everything so much easier. Understanding the culture. Understanding the hours that had to be put in. I felt like I got a tremendous advantage being coached by him.”
Added Harmon: “Obviously coming from college and coming to the Patriots, I wouldn’t say it was an easy transition, but it was easier compared to what a lot of other teammates went through at the time. He was demanding excellence out of you each and every day, trying to get the best out of you. At the end of the day, it was fun too. I had enjoyed playing for Coach Schiano because he brought a lot of energy. He was a great guy to my mom, my family — they all loved him. But the energy he coached with was nothing short of amazing. He was always trying to pick the guys up, always trying to get the best out of us. It would be a little tough from time to time, and obviously as a young adult, you needed that — someone always pushing you to make sure they got the best version of you.”
That was a popular phrase for Flores when the former Patriots defensive playcaller spoke with reporters throughout the 2018 season. He talked about the combination of discipline and compassion weaved together with the goal of helping players becoming their best selves.
Flores had a built-in connection with players similar to Patricia before him, as both worked their way up the ranks in the Patriots’ scouting and coaching staffs. That’s a background in the organization that Schiano doesn’t have, so there’s some ground to make up.
“I remember talking to Dev about Flo[res] years ago when he was a safeties coach and at his house for Thanksgiving,” Jason McCourty said. “Obviously, [Coach] Schiano is a brand new coach, so relating to players, you can’t really speak about it now until we have the ability to go in and talk to him.”