LATROBE, Pa. -- The conundrum facing Lions general manager Bob Quinn is a familiar, albeit complex one. It's a question faced by countless other football offspring of Patriots coach/oligarch Bill Belichick, and one navigated with generally middling results at best.
How much of Belichick's methods/philosophies/theories/practices/character/persona can one apply after being granted the nod of approval to leave New England's incubator, and how much simply won't translate? Without the genius of Belichick -- the evil genius some might suggest -- and without the greatness of quarterback Tom Brady and without the loyalty, influence and guile of owner Robert Kraft -- well, how much of the The Patriot Way will actually play well in other NFL locales, particularly those trying to rid the rot of decades of losing and decay?
Quinn is among the younger to hold his position at age 40 and someone with a limited national profile before being entrusted by owner Martha Ford to guide and oversee all aspects of her long-suffering franchise. In his case in particular, the contrasts between the Patriots and his new team are acute, given the fact the Lions last won a playoff game in 1991, have never been to a Super Bowl and have just 10 winning seasons since 1976, the year that Quinn was born.
The Patriots, of course, have 15 straight winning seasons, six Super Bowl appearances and four Lombardi Trophies in the Belichick/Brady era. The Lions last enjoyed consecutive winning seasons during the salad days of 1993-95.
So as Quinn watched his new team battle an opponent for the first time under his watch, albeit in this case merely for a joint practice with the Steelers at their bucolic training camp setting at Saint Vincent College, one couldn't help explore the dichotomy between the franchise he just left (Quinn was serving as New England's director of pro scouting at the time Ford honed in on him as the top candidate for her GM position), and the one he has inherited.
There is certainly much to be learned from some of the mistakes made by former New England peers who tried to mimic some of the legendary Belichick bluster and bravado -- like Josh McDaniels (who I believe will be a stud the second time around), Eric Mangini, and Scott Pioli -- and misappropriated for themselves as head coaches or general manager (to say nothing off the less-epic struggles of former Pats staffers like Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Thomas Dimitroff, etc.).
So while Quinn realizes that part of what made him so attractive to the Ford's is his exposure to greatness as a member of the game's most successful franchise this decade, he also is smart enough to realize and accept what he doesn't know. He'll further cultivate his voice and management style as he learns on the job, and vows not to pretend to be something he's not.
"You have to be yourself," Quinn said. "That goes for any profession, whether it's a reporter or a coach or a scout or a GM. It doesn't matter what you do -- if you try to emulate somebody and act like that, it's not going to be success. You've got to be genuine, and I was myself I think from the moment I interviewed for the job until, hopefully, today. And that's what I'm going to try to be throughout my time here, and hopefully I'm here a long time and I see the Lions win a lot of games."
Quinn learned plenty during his 15 years in New England, working his way up from the bottom as he began as a player personnel assistant in 2000 fresh off a brief stint as a graduate assistant at UConn. His new franchise is in a much different place than his former one, and has been for quite some time.
But he also knows that many of the tricks of the trade he picked up -- to say nothing of tried-and-true measures like constantly working the bottom end of the roster and mining the waiver wire -- will apply anywhere. Few have the eye for evaluation that Belichick and his top lieutenant, Nick Caserio, have developed, but being around them so long can't hurt.
"There are definitely bits and pieces that I'm definitely taking with me," Quinn said, "and I think I've said it before, but I have to do things my way. I can't try to be Bill. Nobody can be him. I just have to make sure I'm making the right decisions for the Lions, whether that be player acquisitions or things around the team and around the organization, things around the facility to try to create that winning culture, because as we know there hasn't been a lot of winning here, let's be honest with each other. So you try to instill that with the type of guys we bring in and draft and sign and acquire, and you try to build that day by day."
Quinn presents himself in a very down-to-earth fashion, without airs. He isn't talking down to anyone; by all accounts, his interactions with the local media have been quite positive, and he isn't trying to act like he's got this football thing all figured out. Those are all good foundational points. He's already had to deal with adversity -- the retirement of franchise pillar Calvin Johnson, for instance -- but hopes bringing in an exceptional human being and leader like veteran Anquan Boldin to the receivers room can at least offset that loss to some degree.
He's been granted broad and fairly sweeping powers by the Ford family, which made this job so attractive despite all of the years of futility. Given his lack of macro-level administrative experience, team ownership realizes that this will be a process and require some time. The fact he was granted the ability to decide whether to keep head coach Jim Caldwell upon his arrival speaks to that level of autonomy, although Quinn seems grounded enough not to let that go to his head.
He's also buoyed by the fact that several of his close associates from his time in New England -- who understand how things are done there and have lived through that unique Patriots culture -- were able to join him in Detroit early in his tenure. Director of player personnel Kyle O'Brien spent 10 seasons with Quinn in New England, and chief of staff Kevin Anderson is a longtime Patriot as well. The director of football research-special projects is former UConn coach Randy Edsall (a very Patriot-centric title if there ever was one), one of Quinn's mentors.
"You look at regime changes over last five to 10 years, and I was able to bring in four of five close confidants in a couple of months," Quinn said. "With some teams and some GMs, it takes years to do that. So I felt very fortunate about that."
The Lions will be judged on wins and losses, like everyone in the NFL, but will have to hit some other incremental guideposts as well. Accruing more depth on the roster and making gains in certain position groups will be monitored closely from week to week and month to month.
"We've got to build the depth of the roster," Quinn said. "In my opinion, when I evaluated the Lions from afar, that's where they were lacking. If someone went down, the replacement really wasn't good enough to go in and be functional. So we're starting to do that. I'm not sure if we're quite all the way there, but that's something that I've really been focused on really from the day I took the job."
Notes from the Steelers-Lions joint practices
- Even without Ben Roethlisberger, who was given a personal day off, the Steelers first-team offense had its way with the Lions defense. Landry Jones picked them apart, top Lions corner Darius Slay could not keep up with receiver Antonio Brown (not sure who can in single coverage). Lions coordinator Teryl Austin is very, very good, but he doesn't have the horses on that side of the ball anymore. A lot more work will be put into finding playmakers there, though Ziggy Ansah may lead the league in sacks this season. Watching him in one-on-one drills isn't even fair.
- Quinn would love to have Megatron around still, but feels pretty good about the receiver group compared to where it was when the future Hall of Famer retired. Johnson gave adequate notice he was mulling retirement, allowed Detroit to prepare. A lot of the offense was flowing through free agent Marvin Jones on Tuesday, especially during a long drive. "We've got good depth there," Quinn said.
- Keeping tight end Eric Ebron on the field and productive could be an issue. Seems like a common problem since he's been drafted. He could be a huge weapon in the offensive scheme but dependability is a concern. Rookie tight end Cole Wick, an undrafted free agent from the University of Incarnate Word (and yes, I had to Google that twice; it's in San Antonio and plays in the Southland Conference), was going with the starters Tuesday and caught a short red-zone touchdown in 11-on-11 at the end of practice. He is pretty raw but gradually earning more respect and a long look. "He's getting there," quarterback Matthew Stafford said.
- It's clear Stafford has a very strong relationship with coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. There is a lot of latitude for the passer and they seem to see the game the same way. Caldwell said they will continue to experiment with altering the speed of the offense from fast to slow and in how often they huddle. "The important thing is that we can change pace," Caldwell said.
- Steelers star running back Le'Veon Bell continues to impress in his rapid return from knee surgery. He took a hit at one point on an inside run, tumbled hard to the ground and popped back up as if nothing had happened before sprinting back to the huddle (trust me, the Steelers' brass was holding its collective breath on the sidelines).
- The Steelers are not engaged with the representative for Antonio Brown on a new deal, contrary to some reports. As I wrote the last time I was in Latrobe, the odds of him getting one in 2016 are very bleak. In 2017, however, he'll be the first man up. The Steelers remain motivated to get guard David DeCastro signed to a long-term extension, but those talks have no nowhere thus far.
- Roethlisberger is expected back at practice soon, maybe even by Wednesday night's session with the Lions before the teams play an exhibition game in Pittsburgh on Friday.