Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia speaks to the media during the NFL combine on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Indianapolis.
Detroit Free Press
Jamie Collins was always a dependable player. He worked hard on the practice field, took care of his business and stayed out of trouble. But Ellis Johnson knew Collins was no damn leader, that’s for sure.
The rangy linebacker with unbridled athleticism was kind of aloof — shy around almost everyone at Southern Miss — during a disastrous final season of college football in 2012, when the Golden Eagles lost all 12 of their games and Johnson, their coach, was kicked to the curb.
So, years later, after Collins was drafted by New England, won a Super Bowl, made a Pro Bowl, got traded away to Cleveland and then rejoined the Patriots, Johnson had come to find out that his former defensive standout was now a vocal presence on a team that set the standard in the NFL. That was what a Boston-area beat writer told him last year during an interview for a story about Collins. Johnson couldn’t believe it. So, he reached out to his good friend, former Patriots assistant Joe Judge, who is now the head coach of the New York Giants.
Yep, Judge told him, it was true.
“Said he was a totally different guy,” Johnson recalled. “Talking on the field. Communicating. More in tune with the guys in the locker room. Just a great team player.”
The changed man that is Jamie Collins is the one Matt Patricia coveted at the outset of free agency earlier this week, when the Lions acquired him on a three-year contract worth $30 million. The Lions were one of two teams that made legitimate offers to the 30-year-old starter, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, and the strong working relationship between Patricia and Collins contributed to the mutual interest that led to a deal being consummated. The Lions’ attraction to Collins was understandable. As Detroit slogged to a 3-12-1 record last season, there were communication breakdowns on defense while rumors spread about discord among players disenchanted with Patricia’s management.
Collins, with his championship pedigree, helps alleviate that — giving Patricia an ally on the 53-man roster who can make an immediate impact on the field.
“That’s a huge factor,” said Hue Jackson, who coached Collins in Cleveland. “I am not going to say it’s everything. But it’s a huge factor because you want to put guys in the locker room that understand, number one, what he wants, and number two, that know how to do it, and number three that can teach how he wants to do it.”
During Jackson’s first season with the Browns in 2016, Cleveland acquired Collins in a mid-season trade after hemorrhaging points on a weekly basis. It was seen as a coup, asCollins was in the prime of his career.
“Tremendous pro,” Jackson recalled. “His football IQ is off the chart.”
That became evident the first day Collins walked into the Browns’ Berea, Ohio, facility. His position coach, Ryan Slowik, met with him for six hours going over the scheme and his responsibilities. Because of his versatility and the need to fill the holes pockmarking the Browns’ defense, Collins would have to play both inside and outside in the team’s base and sub packages. He had to absorb information in a condensed time frame and grasped everything instantaneously, according to Slowik.
“It was like he was with us since OTAs,” Slowik said. “He is one of those guys you tell him something once and you don’t have to tell him that again.”
So, the Browns plugged Collins into the lineup and he immediately emerged as one of the team’s top contributors, staying on the field for every snap in six of his first seven games in Cleveland.
Dependable and productive, he also became an intermediary between Jackson, Slowik and Collins’ teammates. Surrounded by young players, Collins had elevated stature inside his new locker room. Whereas he hung in the background and manifested a rugged individualism during his first run in New England, Collins was more collaborative after he arrived in Cleveland.
“Guys just automatically looked up to him,” Slowik said. “He was not a guy who was scared to tell the young guys how it is, how the league works, what you need to do to be successful, how you’re viewed throughout the league. He had the ability to be a bridge between the coaching staff and the players, yet still have that respect with his teammates.”
In essence, he matured into the Alpha that Johnson needed back in 2012, when he took over a program that won 12 games the previous year but curiously reversed course in the blink of an eye. As the losses piled up in Hattiesburg, Johnson tried to cajole Collins — one of the Golden Eagles’ three remaining defensive stalwarts — to rally the team. But as Collins went on to produce more tackles than any other Southern Miss player, he remained quiet.
“He was never a complainer and he wasn’t anybody feeding the fire of negativity,” Johnson recalled. “But as I said there were about three in there who could put the cold water on it and he never would try. … A team that has to depend on their coach to be the leader is not ever going to reach full potential. That leadership has to come in the locker room, to come out of the team itself. I truly believe that.”
How Collins came to that realization in due time is anyone’s guess. But he did. And years later, as he joins the Lions, his willingness to take charge could have a measurable impact on his new organization.
As Jackson said, “He brought that credibility with him. His voice was heard and how he worked was seen. It’s not about personal (things) for him. It’s about team goals and it is always has been. He’ll bridge that gap really fast and as a coach that’s definitely what you’re looking for.”