Bill Belichick knew his offense needed a change coming off a disappointing season, so the New England Patriots’ head coach went out and hired Bill O’Brien as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Needless to say that expectations for the new guy are pretty high.
O’Brien was not just brought in to get the Patriots offense back on track following the one-year debacle that was 2022, but also to fix quarterback Mac Jones as well. Jones had an encouraging rookie season under Josh McDaniels in 2021, but did not progress as hoped while being coached by Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as a sophomore.
Will O’Brien be able to accomplish those lofty goals? Only time will tell, but he does offer something New England did not have a lot of during its 8-9 season in 2022: hope.
Just ask one of his former players.
“Just being around Billy O. and just the situations that I saw him put his players in when I was around him, when he was the offensive coordinator, I think that he is going to put Mac Jones in the best possible situation that he can be in week-in and week-out and throughout every single play,” said former Patriot Rob Gronkowski earlier this week.
“You’re not going to really see a play where you’re just hitting your head like, ‘What was that?’ I feel like Billy O. does a great job utilizing his talent around the quarterback position all the way to the tight ends and the wide receiver position.”
Gronkowski spent the first two seasons of his Hall of Fame career under O’Brien, including the 2011 season when he first served as New England’s offensive coordinator. The since-retired tight end experienced first-hand how he and the rest of the team would be put in positions to succeed, allowing the Patriots to advance all the way to a Super Bowl that year.
Also on that team was offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger, who recently spoke about O’Brien on the Next Pats Podcast.
“He’s an educator, to the granular level when he needs to be,” Ohrnberger said. “He can focus on pass protection or run blocking schemes. He can also focus on how soon or how quick you need to come out of your break if you’re a receiver. Also, the timing of the throws or the depth that the quarterback takes to the junction point in the backfield with the running back. Or the width of the running back in the running game, so he’s setting his landmarks so that you have success in following blocks on a run play.
“He has all those things dialed in so tightly that it doesn’t matter what position group you play in New England while Billy O’Brien was there. He could speak to you as if he could coach that position group. And what a compliment to give to an offensive coordinator, because that’s the job, that’s the role of coordinator. You have your finger in all those pots to understand the game, the complexity of what you’re trying to accomplish offensively at that level where you can communicate seamlessly with all those position groups.”
O’Brien’s abilities to teach the finest details of offensive football stand in stark contrast to the Patriots’ coaching setup in 2021. While both Matt Patricia and Joe Judge are seasoned coaches in their own right and have had plenty of success before, neither had the same deep-lying understanding of the game from that side of the ball.
O’Brien, on the other hand, has been an offensive coach for virtually all of his professional life. The experience that he has developed through the years is also why veteran NFL analyst Greg Cosell anticipates his addition to have a positive impact on the New England offense and its young quarterback rather quickly.
“They brought back Bill O’Brien, who I, personally, have tremendous respect for as an offensive coach, and offensive mind. And I think you’ll see real positive changes [almost immediately],” Cosell said on the Patriots Talk Podcast.
“I think Bill has a really good feel for schemes and concepts. I think Bill has a good feel for different formations. Bill is a guy that’s always liked the empty sets and I think that a quarterback like Mac Jones can thrive in empty sets because one of his positive traits is that he can play well before the snap of the ball. That’s become increasingly important in the NFL for quarterbacks.”
Having the quarterback execute on the field is one thing, surrounding him the best possible setup is another. Roster construction obviously plays a part in this, but so does coaching and, as Ohrnberger pointed out, in-game decision-making on the play-caller’s part.
“The most important thing is play sequencing,” he said. “What play are you running as a result of a play you’ve shown a week ago, a couple of weeks ago, earlier in the game? What formations are those plays coming from? What motion are you running in conjunction with that play to confuse the defense?
“You can confuse the defense and run a whole lot of pretty vanilla offensive plays, as long as you dress them up, so to speak, with varieties of formations and personnel groups and motion packages to confuse defenders. Billy O’Brien is one of the best in the game at doing that.”
O’Brien’s fingerprints will be all over the New England offense right away, but the area he touches will not just be Xs and Os. That is something another of the coach’s former players — Alabama quarterback Bryce Young — told Cosell.
“I’m very anxious to see Mac Jones with Bill O’Brien this year. I’ve gotten to know Bryce Young a little bit, and he raves about Bill O’Brien. Raves about him,” he said. “He just loves everything about the way he teaches the position, coaches the position. He said he’s hard but he’s fair. He teaches it. And Bryce, he’s as great a kid as there is, and he’s a kid that wants to be coached hard but I think Mac Jones would strike me as that.”
For Mac Jones, the 2023 season will be critical. The Patriots bringing in O’Brien is, in part, an acknowledgement of that — and of the fact that things did not go according to plan for the offense and the young QB in 2022.
So, will the new coordinator be the unit’s savior? Maybe, maybe not. But there certainly is some hype surrounding him.