Bill Belichick is the best head coach in the NFL and a lock to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame on first ballot. For all his success, there is one popular albeit a bit far-fetched criticism of him: almost all of his former assistants who went on to find success away from the New England Patriots have struggled.
From Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, to Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, to, most recently, Joe Judge and Brian Flores, Belichick’s coaching tree is anything but as legendary as its namesake. Obviously, there are exceptions: Bill O’Brien was quite successful in Houston, while Alabama head coach Nick Saban cannot be left out of the conversation either.
Then, there are Belichick’s former players who went into coaching. One can find a lot of success stories in this group, with ex-Patriots quarterback Kevin O’Connell the latest to rise to the ranks of head coach.
A third-round draft pick by New England in 2008 who appeared in two games for the team before his release the following year, O’Connell will take over as the Minnesota Vikings’ new head coach. He is therefore following the footsteps of fellow ex-Patriots Mike Vrabel and Kliff Kingsbury.
The most successful of the three in terms of accomplishments during both his playing and coaching careers, Vrabel won three Super Bowls in his eight seasons playing under Belichick. He later went on to coach at Ohio State and in Houston under O’Brien before taking over as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach in 2018. Since then, Vrabel’s team has gone 43-27 and won a pair of AFC South titles.
Kingsbury, meanwhile, has a similar career as O’Connell. He also lasted only one year with the Patriots after they drafted him in the sixth round in 2003; he later moved into coaching and through the college ranks before getting hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. The Cardinals went just 24-25-1 under Kingsbury, but he led them to their first playoff birth since 2015 earlier this year.
After bouncing around the league for four years following his release from the Patriots, O’Connell joined the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers in an assistant role. He later moved to Washington, where he rose to the rank of offensive coordinator — a role he kept when he joined the Los Angeles Rams in 2019.
Now, O’Connell has taken the next step in his career. While now on par with Vrabel and Kingsbury, he is not the only ex-Patriots player currently finding success in coaching.
Wes Welker is coming off his third season as the 49ers’ wide receivers coach. Ryan Wendell spent the last three years as assistant offensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills. Steve Gregory, on the other hand, worked as a defensive assistant in Detroit and Miami since his return to the league in 2018.
The Patriots also have some former players on their own staff; the future appears to be bright for both of them.
Jerod Mayo is serving as de facto co-defensive coordinator in New England, after having spent his entire eight-year career as a Patriots linebacker. The 36-year-old took two head coaching interviews just earlier this year, even though it appears he is set to stay with the team for another season. That said, Mayo should be expected to leave the organization to become a head coach somewhere else sooner rather than later.
Troy Brown worked with New England’s kick returners and both the running backs (2020) and wide receivers (2021) since returning to the team. While not as hot a commodity on the coaching market as Mayo or some of the other ex-Patriots out there, he too has taken on a prominent role as an assistant under Belichick.
As for Belichick, if his former players are added to his coaching tree it is looking a lot better than the popular narrative might make it seem.