Mike Reiss linked today to an open letter to Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick suggesting that we go outside the current staff and instead hire new offensive and defensive coordinators from outside the organization. The argument--and it's certainly valid and one I respect--is that the only way to return the Patriots to the Super Bowl is to hire Super Bowl-caliber coordinators like we had with Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis.
I understand that argument but I'm not sure I agree with it. Furthermore, I'd be very surprised if Belichick did that.
The great lure of going outside the current staff and bringing in outside coordinators is the possibility of getting a "name" coach to come in and run the offense and/or the defense. Other teams do this all the time. Last year, for example, the Packers hired Dom Capers away from the Patriots to run their defense. It can work very well, but there are drawbacks. Sometimes more subtle staff changes--and more time--can make just as big a difference. Since the Patriots have had a mass exodus of coordinators since 2004 (Weis and Crennel, then Eric Mangini, then Josh McDaniels, now Dean Pees), Belichick has promoted younger coaches from within to replace them. McDaniels replaced Weis, Mangini took Crennel's place, Pees replaced Mangini. McDaniels became a stud coordinator and quarterback coach and a hot head coaching commodity. It's hard to argue that Pees was bad, although it seems clear that if he did a better job, he'd still be here. But it seems everyone agrees that Bill O'Brien's first year as primary play caller (without the OC title) was uneven at best.
Now, both coordinator jobs are open. What will the Pats do? What should they do?
It would surprise me if Belichick goes outside the current staff for new coordinators. Hiring, let's say, Mike Martz to run the offense has a certain appeal. Martz is experienced, is widely recognized as a great offensive thinker, and could certainly add new dimensions to the Pats offense. But the problem with hiring Martz or someone else already established is that they usually have their own systems, their own schemes and favorite plays and formations which might--or might not--fit a new team. An outside offensive coordinator would have to get used to the Patriots personnel and adjust his system to this roster. It would mean a third straight year with a new play caller which would be further disruptive to an offense struggling to find its rhythm. Do the Patriots dare spend another season of offensive turmoil when their core players are either in their prime or nearing the end of their prime career years?
It may not be popular but I think the best choice would be to promote Bill O'Brien. On the assumption that he would never have been hired and then promoted (coaching assistant in 2007, WR coach in 2008, QB coach in 2009) if he weren't talented and smart, perhaps what he needs is simply to learn from last year's experience. He should be much better at play-calling now that he's had a season of experience and an off-season coming up in which to diagnose his mistakes and correct them. Giving O'Brien a chance to smooth out his play-calling and establish a better rapport with Brady and the other offensive players might make a greater impact on improving the offense than hiring someone new from the outside.
Over on defense, Matt Patricia is also labeled an up-and-comer, someone likely to get a DC gig with another team if the Pats pass him over. He, too, is considered plenty smart and as a member of the staff since 2004. Patricia might provide a different temperament and some new strategic approaches to next year's defense. But since he's very familiar with the personnel, he can also fit schematic changes to the players on the roster and not try to retro-fit some new scheme to a young defense, which may need more experience to build on 2009 and become better.
Unless Belichick dramatically reverses what he has done in the past, he'll promote from within for coordinators. And that might be the best way for the Pats to proceed, rather than bringing in new guys and new schemes.
But it can be argued that the coaching staff does need augmentation. We could say that there are too many young players to teach, too much to do week to week in both coaching up players and in devising and installing game plans for the comparatively small staff the Patriots have to manage fully. With that in mind, let me suggest what the Patriots could do to bolster their staff.
Defense: promote Patricia to coordinator and let him craft the plans and call the games. How about moving Pepper Johnson up, too? Johnson could be named assistant coordinator and perhaps even associate head coach. This would be a clear promotion and would help Johnson as he climbs the coaching ladder, plus he could make valuable contributions to Patricia in shaping the defensive plan. That would leave both the linebacking and the D-line in need of some help, however. What about promoting coaching assistant Patrick Graham (who played defensive line in college and coached it at Richmond before going to work for Weis at Notre Dame) to assistant defensive line coach? Promote coaching assistant Brian Flores to assistant linebacker coach since he played the position at Boston College. This would give Johnson help coaching the defensive line and Patricia help with the linebackers. Need still more help? Might the Pats bring back 2004 coaching assistant Cory Undlin to work with the linebackers, too? Undlin left in 2005 to join Crennel in Cleveland, eventually ending up as secondary coach in 2008 before spending last season on Jack Del Rio's staff in Jacksonville as a defensive assistant. A position coaching gig with the Pats would be a promotion for Undlin and would give the defensive staff the best of both worlds: a coach who was trained in the New England system (and on Belichick buddy Pat Hill's staff at Fresno State before that) but who has also been out on his own for five years, working in other systems, watching other coordinators, learning from other methods. This staff--with secondary coach Josh Boyer returning as well-- would be a great mix of experience and youth, and of some new thinking that is still grounded in knowledge of both the Patriot system and the team's roster.
Offense: There may not be a need to add anybody here, although--in keeping with the theme I established with the defensive staff--what about promoting coaching assistant Brian Ferentz to assistant offensive line coach? Ferentz could work with, and learn from, Dante Scarnecchia--possibly the best O-line coach in the league. But Ferentz, who played O-line for his dad at Iowa, could also help Scarnecchia tutor the many young linemen the team has now and might draft in April. As for other coaches, here's an intriguing possibility for an inside/outside hire: Scot Loefler of Florida as quarterbacks coach, leaving O'Brien to concentrate on game-planning and play-calling. Loefler was a grad assistant at Michigan when Brady played, and I believe Brady has credited Loefler with helping him develop. Loefler went on to be QB coach at Michigan, spent a year with the Lions gaining NFL experience, and is now at Florida as QB coach under Belichick's great friend and close offensive advisor, Urban Meyer. The coaching situation there is unsettled. Meyer resigned, then un-resigned, and it's not clear what that means for day-to-day coaching duties. Steve Addazio was the OC and the coach-designate when Meyer was supposed to be leaving with, one would presume, Loefler moving up to OC. But if the situation there is iffy and should the Patriots come calling, maybe Loefler could be lured away. He already has a comfort level and long-time relationship with Brady and he apprenticed last year under Meyer from whom Belichick regularly borrows offensive ideas. So, although he's an outsider, he's an outsider with excellent inside connections.
I obviously have no way of knowing how likely any of these scenarios are. But if these happen--and I don't think any of them are too far-fetched-- it would give the Pats coaching staff continuity and stability and the chance for current coaches to grow in their positions while also providing additional coaching depth and the potential for adding some fresh ideas and perspectives. In other words, all the benefits of hiring outside coaches but without shaking up the staff too much or creating too much counterproductive disruption.