GREEN BAY – Patrick Graham won’t say he should have been a great football player.
But he believes he could have been much better, and short-changing himself in a college career spent mostly on the bench at Yale has served as a driving force as a coach.
It’s a big reason Graham has made his way from tiny Wagner College to Notre Dame to the New England Patriots and now to the Packers as Green Bay’s new defensive run game coordinator and inside linebackers coach.
He’s never going to sell himself short again.
“I owe football a lot, and I didn’t necessarily give football enough when I had the opportunity to as a player,” said Graham, a reserve defensive lineman at Yale around the turn of the century. “My teammates can attest to that. I didn’t work hard enough at it.”
Dedication hasn’t been a problem since, as his career arc proves.
Urged by his position coach at Yale, Duane Brooks (who’s now at Dartmouth), to give coaching a try as a way to pay for an MBA, Graham – a sociology major who had bailed on his original plan to get a degree in chemical engineering – also saw it as an escape from a public relations consulting gig that had him writing articles, if he remembers correctly, on Hobart deli slicers.
So he latched on with Wagner as a graduate assistant coach, and he’s never left the profession.
“Within a month, I realized, OK, this is what I want to do,” he said. “This is how I’m going to pay back football for helping me so much in my life, and 16, 17 years later, I’m still a class short of my MBA, so that’s what happened.”
His college stops included Richmond, Notre Dame and Toledo before breaking into the NFL with the Patriots in 2009. Seven seasons in New England were followed by two years with the Giants before joining the Packers. He has coached defensive linemen or linebackers for all but a couple of seasons along the way.
His self-assigned debt to football stems from the impact all of his coaches, dating back to the Pop Warner days, had on him. Graham didn’t share personal specifics, but part of that impact is evident in the way he thinks about the game.
Introduced to it in a straightforward, fundamental way, Graham never strays far from that foundation as a coach no matter how much schemes and trends evolve.
Ask Graham about the different things inside linebackers are being asked to do in the current world of endless sub-packages and hybrid players, and he’ll emphasize that it’s still about doing what they’ve always done.
“Guys have to get off blocks,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. It’s not going to change. You have to get off blocks. No matter how much people, whether it’s the media or people outside, are saying it’s a space game, you have to get off the block to win the game.”
But don’t take that to mean Graham ignores how creative backfield alignments and stand-up tight ends make an inside linebacker’s job different. To Graham, defenders still must do the same things, they just have to be trained to read things differently.
“The key thing to me is getting their eyes in the right place,” Graham said. “There might be a little bit more going on with the eyes for those guys, but get their eyes in the right place, you’ll be OK.
“There’s a reason somebody came up with ‘reading your keys.’ I tell them all the time, I didn’t make it up.”
Graham was still in the process of watching film on Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas, so he declined to comment on the players currently at the top of his depth chart.
Martinez took the biggest leap forward in 2017, leading the NFL in tackles and improving his pass defense. The Packers also employed safeties Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones as inside linebackers on a regular basis last season as well.
No matter who’s filling the role, Graham sees the inside linebacker posts as vital, because the middle of the field is “where they’re trying to attack.”
“In terms of the passing game, you have to defend the field inside-out, no matter how much they do the read-option, the RPOs, all that stuff,” he said.
“Obviously some scheme is a little different, but it comes down to defeating blocks, tackling people and playing your leverage in coverage. Now, our goal as coaches is to help narrow that scope and make sure they understand it.”
Graham sounds like a coach who will make sure. He credits Bill Belichick with helping instill a selfless, team-oriented, get-better-every-day atttiude to his job, which resonated loudly with Graham in part because he was already heading in that direction – due to his regrets as a player.
As the Packers look to turn their defensive fortunes around, Graham promises to be a coach with plenty to give. He has no regrets since becoming one and doesn’t plan to have any now.
“I could have been better,” Graham said of his playing days. “I could have done more for the team, putting the team first. That’s how I approach it now and why my work ethic is where it’s at.”