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Sunday Patriots Notes: Should New England bring back Bill O’Brien?

Related: The Patriots offense is broken. Can it be fixed, though?

2022 CFP National Championship - Georgia v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 13th week of the NFL regular season is already in the books for the New England Patriots. The team of head coach Bill Belichick playing on Thursday night, falling 24-10 to its division rival Buffalo Bills to drop to 6-6 on the year.

Obviously, all of our focus over the last few days was on that game. To keep you up to date with some of the stories that have emerged that we did not have time to cover elsewhere, however, make sure to check out this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.

Should New England bring back Bill O’Brien? University of Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is reportedly eying a return to the NFL, and amidst the Patriots’ offensive struggles this year the franchise seems like a logical landing point for the 53-year-old. O’Brien, after all, spent five seasons in New England between 2007 and 2011 and coordinated the offense to a Super Bowl appearance in his final season.

He later spent time as head coach at Penn State and with the Houston Texans before joining Alabama in 2021. His experience is substantial, which is why a reunion would make sense. That is especially true considering that a) New England has fielded an insufficient attack under first-year leadership from assistant coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, and b) O’Brien’s familiarity with the system might make for an attractive landing spot.

While both of those factors speak in favor of the two joining forces again, nothing appears to be in the works for now. Additionally, there are arguments to be made against the Patriots bringing its ex-coordinator back into the fold.

For starters, he himself might want to look at head coaching opportunities before settling for another coordinator gig. Also, the Patriots might be hesitant to bring in another new coach to work with quarterback Mac Jones after he and the system around him already underwent a transformation from Year 1 to Year 2. With O’Brien also having head-coaching aspirations, stability would not be a given with him back Foxborough.

So, while bringing O’Brien back to take over as coordinator would make some sense given the current state of the Patriots offense the circumstances might work against it.

The offensive struggles fall back on one person: Bill Belichick. New England’s offense, as noted above, has had a hard time recently and has been one of the least productive in the league since Mac Jones’ return from injury in Week 7. A lot of the blame, rightfully so, falls on the aforementioned Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.

Ultimately, though, everything falls back on their superior — in this case, head coach Bill Belichick. He said so himself earlier this season.

“We have a lot of people on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, everybody contributes,” he told reporters in September. “Ultimately, I have responsibility for everything that happens on the field. In the end, I’ll take responsibility for that.”

The 2022 Patriots offense is worse than its 2020 version. How bad is the Patriots offense? Using Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the unit is worse than its 2020 version led by quarterback Cam Newton. Whereas that team had a DVOA of -7.3% (23rd), this year’s is at -9.3% (25th).

How is this possible? For starters, quarterback Mac Jones’ early-season performance was rough from a turnover perspective — similar to Newton’s in 2020. Also, the team’s running game has taken a step back and is noticeably worse than it was two years ago.

Patriots players make their frustrations public. Following the 24-10 loss to the Bills on Thursday, several players let their frustrations known. While wide receiver Kendrick Bourne might have been the most noteworthy among them, tight end Hunter Henry and running back Rhamondre Stevenson also lamented the state of affairs.

“We’re just not consistent enough,” said Stevenson, arguably New England’s most consistent player on offense this year. “We drive the ball into the red area and things like that, but we can’t score. So we just need to work on that and work on finishing our drives.”

Henry sang a similar song when asked about the unit’s issues.

“Not sustaining drives. Not getting first downs and getting things going. Not possessing the ball. Beating ourselves, not blocking the right guy, not communicating well or whatever it is. Penalties, turnovers, early on in the season,” he said. “It’s not been good.”

One potential solution to New England’s offensive woes? More no-huddle. While the Patriots offense is a below-average unit by most metrics, there are some areas possibly worth trying to build on. Among them is using no-huddle to drive the ball down the field.

As the following graphic by Pro Football Focus’ Arjun Menon shows, the Patriots are among the most effective teams using this mode of attack:

Arjun Menon

As can be seen, when measured by expected points added (EPA), the Patriots are among the four best teams in football right now. However, their no-huddle rate ranks in the bottom half of the league.

Maybe employing more looks like that — something that worked very well in the third quarter against the New York Jets in Week 8 — might help get the unit back on track.

Offensive tackle looks like the No. 1 draft priority for next year. Thursday’s game against the Bills further showed that New England has some notable issues at offensive tackle. Left-side starter Trent Brown was not at a 100 percent coming off an illness, while the right side was manned by Conor McDermott just 10 days after he was signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad.

Obviously, a team can never fully prepare for injuries but the position already was an issue before it lost Isaiah Wynn, Yodny Cajuste and Marcus Cannon to injury. Wynn struggled in his first year at right tackle, while Cajuste and Cannon also had a hard time providing consistent play at the position. Brown is solid, but still playing his worst season as a Patriot.

Solving any of this in 2022 will be hard; the personnel is what it is. However, the long-term future the current group of players is not. Accordingly, the position appears to be the top draft priority heading into 2023.

The Patriots selecting several tackles high would not be a surprise considering that Brown, Wynn, Cajuste and Cannon are not guaranteed to be back next season. And even if some of them are brought back, the team needs to find a way to improve the quality of play at this crucial position.

Patriots-Raiders could lose its prime time slot this week. By Tuesday, the NFL will have to decide whether or not to leave New England’s Week 15 game against the Las Vegas Raiders in its current time slot at 8:20 p.m. ET on Sunday. There is a case against it, after all, given that the 6-6 Patriots have looked bad in two of three prime time games so far this year and the 4-7 Raiders are also vastly underperforming.

Looking at that week, there are several attractive candidates to be flexed into that prime time spot:

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: The AFC East might just be at stake in this game that has not yet been scheduled by the league. Miami is currently 8-3, with the Bills at 9-3 after beating the Patriots in Week 13.

Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers: Both the 7-4 Titans and 6-5 Chargers are in the playoff hunt in the AFC, making this an important matchup for both teams. It will be particular important for L.A., which is currently fighting for a wild card spot.

Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: While not as attractive as those other two games, Joe Burrow versus Tom Brady would make for an easily-marketable contest. The Buccaneers currently sitting at 5-6 might be an issue, but the 7-4 Bengals are a playoff contender.

As can be seen, the league has options in case it does not see Patriots-Raiders as worthy of that coveted 8:20 p.m. ET slot on Dec. 18. If moved, the game would likely be kicked off in the 4 p.m. window.

The salary cap could grow significantly in 2023. Nothing will be official until later in the process, but the early indication is that the salary cap could see significant growth in 2023. The belief is that it could surpass $220 million after being set at $208.2 this season.

If so, New England should be in a good position. According to salary cap expert Miguel Benzan, the team will have around $36.9 million to operate with if the cap reaches its projection of $228.2 million. This would put the Patriots into the top-10 in available resources.