As a rookie in 2013, Patterson busted a few big plays as a wide receiver, looked terrifying as a kick returner and was downright dangerous whenever he took a handoff in space thanks both to the element of surprise and his own gifts. His head coach that season, Leslie Frazier (along with Frazier’s staff) was in win-now mode. That’s not a bad mode to be in one season after making the playoffs (and with the interest of self-preservation in mind), but we can say with some certainty now that it was probably the worst thing for Patterson.
Instead of insisting that Patterson learn the nuances of playing his position, he was put in spots that accentuated his limited strengths. For a developed role player who has proven to be a specialist, that’s fine. For a rookie first round draft pick, it’s downright dangerous. Again, it’s not necessarily that Frazier was to blame; if my job depended on winning games, I would throw WR screens to Patterson all day, too. But we can agree it did him no favors in the long run (and Frazier ended up getting fired anyway).
Perhaps because of his philosophy, his longer leash as a new coach or both, Mike Zimmer has of course taken a much different approach. Akin to a baseball organization demanding that a young pitcher learn to master more than just a blazing fastball, Zimmer has sacrificed some short-term gains — i.e. just letting Patterson run the routes he is comfortable with — in hopes of a bigger long-term payoff.
Zimmer was asked about Patterson, who is about to enter his third season, on Wednesday. The coach is not one to blow smoke, at least in my limited experience, so his comments are worth something: “So far he’s doing well. So far he’s done well. These two days he’s been impressive. Today is a new day, we’ll see how he does today. I’m hopeful that today is just as good as yesterday and yesterday was as good as the day before. I don’t know that he has turned the corner yet, but he is definitely kind of rounding it.”
It’s strange to think of production from Patterson in 2015 being viewed as a bonus when there were such high expectations — and perhaps unfair ones considering he really didn’t accomplish much as a receiver as a rookie — a season ago. But that’s where we are.
If Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner can turn Patterson into the complete package, it will be a testament to the techniques they are teaching and the approach they are taking. If Patterson doesn’t make it, the biggest culprit will be his own inability to blossom. But it will also be fair to speculate that having too much success as a rookie in too easy of a fashion played a major role as well.