Through 22 years under Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots’ coaching staff has seen quite a bit of change. In fact, only one member of his original staff remains with the team to this day: running backs coach Ivan Fears, who actually predates the Belichick era in New England.
However, the 67-year-old is nearing the end of his career. Fears is expected to announce his retirement this offseason, which will create another opening the Patriots will have to fill over the coming months: Fears will become the fifth offensive assistant to leave the organization since January.
The first four all departed to join the Las Vegas Raiders. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was named as the team’s head coach, and he took assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree, wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi and offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo with him. Hardegree and Bricillo will serve in the same basic roles with their new club, while Lombardi is taking over as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator.
Their former team, meanwhile, is looking for ways to replace them. Some of those replacements appear to be obvious.
The expectation is that assistant running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri will replace Ivan Fears. Troy Brown, who already worked with the wideouts last year as well, appears to be the frontrunner to fill Lombardi’s former job. The same is true for Billy Yates — Bricillo’s assistant in 2021 — along the offensive line.
The other two spots — coordinator and quarterbacks coach — have no clear line of succession. That is especially noteworthy as far as the coordinator role is concerned: the Patriots under Belichick have always had their next OC waiting in the wings.
When Charlie Weis left after the 2004 season, Josh McDaniels was ready to take over. McDaniels did not receive the official title until 2006, but he was the next man up as far as play-calling duties were concerned. After McDaniels’ first departure in 2009, Bill O’Brien ascended to the coordinator throne. He too did not immediately take on the job title — he received it in 2011 — but he was the designated OC as soon as McDaniels left the building.
The same was true when O’Brien left after the 2011 Super Bowl. McDaniels had returned to the staff at that point as an offensive assistant, and his outlook was never in question: he was brought back to succeed O’Brien upon his eventual departure.
This year is different, though. The Patriots do not have a spare coordinator lying around just waiting to be activated. What they have instead is candidates.
O’Brien, who is now working as the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama, was rumored as a McDaniels replacement. So far, however, he remains with the Crimson Tide and all signs are pointing towards his status not changing in the near future.
A return of former wide receivers coach (and backup play-caller) Chad O’Shea or ex-assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski is also possible. So far, however, no such moves have been made.
At the moment, it therefore seems most likely that New England will promote from within. The available on-staff options, especially as far as play-calling and coordinator duties are concerned, range from Joe Judge to Nick Caley to maybe even Matt Patricia.
Judge was brought back recently after a two-year sabbatical as New York Giants’ head coach. He most prominently coached on special teams during his first tenure in New England, but also worked with the wide receivers in 2019. It is obvious that Bill Belichick thinks highly of Judge: his words and actions speak a clear language.
Then, there is Nick Caley. Caley is probably the top internal option to get the promotion to coordinator at one point. A John Carroll alum just like McDaniels, he joined the team in 2015 and after two years as an offensive assistant was promoted to tight ends coach. The 39-year-old has worked with the position group ever since, but it would not be a surprise to see him add additional responsibilities this year.
Whether or not those include a new title such as passing game coordinator or the like remains to be seen, but the gist remains: Caley will play a prominent role, as will Joe Judge.
Former Patriots assistant Dante Scarnecchia is of the same opinion.
“When you coach the tight ends, you’re coaching a position that transcends the entire offense,” he told The Athletic. “He’s involved in the passing game, so Nick has been in every passing-game meeting. And the run game, so he’s been in every run-game meeting. Nick has been in a lot of meetings, as has Joe Judge. They’ve got to get somebody who can mentor the quarterback. Somebody has to oversee the offense.”
That duty of overseeing the offense might fall to either Caley or Judge, or maybe stay with Belichick (which in turn would give de facto coordinators Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo more freedom on the defensive side of the ball). One candidate that has also been mentioned, however, is Matt Patricia.
ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss recently brought up his name:
Few, if any, truly know what Belichick is thinking. But the possibility of Patricia joining the offensive staff in some capacity has come up in conversations with smart NFL personnel projecting Belichick’s next move, and the thinking goes like this:
With the Patriots set to retain the core of their existing defensive staff, but losing elite institutional brainpower/knowledge on offense without McDaniels and others, Belichick might view some combination of Patricia and Judge as his best option to spearhead the offensive transition.
The Patriots taking such a combination approach should be expected — no one coach will be replacing McDaniels in 2022, especially given the lack of a clear successor as opposed to previous transitions. What all of that will look like in action, however, has yet to be determined.
Fact is, Belichick and his team are no strangers to seeing staff turnover.
In 2005, for example, they lost their coordinators on both sides of the ball when Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel joined the Cleveland Browns. In 2019, when Brian Flores took the head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins, he brought the aforementioned O’Shea and Schuplinski as well as cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer with him (the Patriots also lost defensive line coach Brendan Daly to Kansas City that same year).
2022 is still different, though. Not only was one side of the ball hit pretty hard, the team is also losing assistants while trying to create the best possible environment the help its young starting quarterback make the famous second Year 2.
The system remaining in place — it has not changed since the days of Charlie Weis — is a positive for Mac Jones. However, he will need to get used to working with a new support staff and vice versa. That in itself makes this offseason’s personnel transition a unique experience for the Patriots.