The New England Patriots like to zag when everybody expects them to zig, but they did not do so in their offensive coordinator search. Alabama assistant coach Bill O’Brien was considered the favorite to earn the job even before the interviewing process officially began, and he has now indeed been hired by the club to take over the vacant position.
We will have an entire offseason to dissect the move and its potential impact on a Patriots offense that looked uninspired for most of the 2022 season. For now, however, let’s take a quick look at what it means for New England heading into 2023.
New England is feeling comfortable in O’Brien: The Patriots and O’Brien have a common history, with him serving as an assistant coach between 2007 and 2011 — including as coordinator in his final year. That familiarity with the organization and head coach Bill Belichick was a key in the decision to pursue and eventually re-hire him 11 years after his original departure.
However, that was not the only driving factor behind his return. The Patriots apparently also feel confident in O’Brien to fix what was wrong on offense in 2022, from establishing a true identity to play-calling and fundamental coaching.
O’Brien might fill more than just one spot on the coaching staff: Bill O’Brien’s background in coaching is extensive, but as far as his new gig is concerned there is a realistic chance it will be two-fold. He will likely not only serve as offensive coordinator, but also resume the quarterbacks coach role historically held by the OC in New England.
Back in 2011, when O’Brien coordinated New England’s offense, he also worked closely with the position group. A similar setup being implemented this year would make sense, especially considering that starter Mac Jones is headed into a pivotal third season as a pro.
The pressure is now fully on Mac Jones: In a way, 2022 can be seen as a mulligan for Jones. With former coordinator Josh McDaniels leaving the team, and the keys to the unit getting handed over to duo of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, he found himself in a different position in his sophomore campaign.
Now, however, there are no more excuses. Sure, he will have a third voice in his ear in as many years with the Patriots, but O’Brien is the polar opposite of Patricia and Judge: he is an experienced coordinator and quarterbacks coach, whose goal will be to get the most out of the young quarterback — especially with the decision about the fifth-year option in his rookie contract coming up.
The pressure is therefore on the young QB to show that 2022 was, in fact, an outlier and not indicative of his prospects in the NFL.
What should help both Jones and his new offensive coordinator and presumptive quarterbacks coach is that they too share a common history, if only a minor one compared to the Patriots-O’Brien background.
“The most challenging thing for me was, when I came in here, learning this offense,” the then-Alabama OC told reporters back in 2021. “And I had a lot of people help me, people that were here before — guys on the coaching staff, obviously Bryce [Young]. I’ve said before, Mac Jones, when he was working out for the draft, helped me a little bit, which was great.”
The Patriots’ 12-personnel package might return: The Patriots implementing a two-tight end set as their base offense in 2011 played an important role in their offensive success that year; led by O’Brien, the unit finished the season ranked third in the league in scoring and advanced all the way to the Super Bowl.
Fast forward 12 years and the Patriots again have two talented players under contract at the position. While Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are not the same type of players as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, they are talented options despite an inconsistent output over the last two seasons. They also might be in line for a bigger workload, given O’Brien’s history working with 12-personnel packages.
Obviously, it remains to be seen how O’Brien will employ the talent on the roster. The thought of him finally utilizing the Henry-Smith pairing to its full complementary potential, however, should be a tantalizing one to Patriots fans.
The Matt Patricia/Joe Judge era is over: New England’s surprise announcement about starting the process to hire an offensive coordinator already put the word out there, but now it is official: the days of the aforementioned Matt Patricia and Joe Judge leading the offense are over.
Patricia served as play-caller and offensive line coach in 2022 and together with quarterbacks coach Judge led what was described as a “collaborative effort” to streamline the entire operation. That effort backfired, and the futures of the entire offensive staff are now in question — starting with those two men.
Hiring O’Brien is the first domino to fall: Patricia and Judge are not the only coaches whose status has now changed to TBD; there is a chance that New England also brings in others to complement its new coordinator.
One prime candidate is Adrian Klemm. Currently the associate head coach, run game coordinator and offensive line coach at Oregon, Klemm interviewed for the Patriots’ OC position as well. He did not get the job, but the team might still bring him in in case it plans to replace Patricia as O-line coach.
Additionally, the future of tight ends coach Nick Caley is up in the air as well. Caley was passed over as coordinator in 2022, but he was given a chance to interview for the job this time around. The Patriots picked O’Brien over him, which might drive him into looking for other opportunities rather than extend his soon-to-be-expired contract with the team. For what it is worth, he did interview for the New York Jets’ still-unoccupied offensive coordinator gig.
Either way, the O’Brien hiring is just the first shoe to drop on the offensive staff. Other moves will follow.