“We didn’t have shotgun (at Wesleyan University),” Belichick said when asked about snapping to quarterback Mac Jones during an individual drill. And, “I'd like to be matched up against a couple of (Patriots players),” Belichick joked about dropping back into coverage.
It was notable then that one day before sending Patriots players home and off for summer vacation early from spring practices that Belichick let “offensive assistant” Joe Judge and “senior football advisor” Matt Patricia mostly run the show with help from tight ends coach Nick Caley, running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri and wide receivers coach Troy Brown in Wednesday’s practice while the head coach spent most of the session talking to Utah State defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda.
Judge and Patricia possess vague job titles, but they have more clearly defined roles in practice. Judge works with Jones and the quarterbacks, and Patricia spends most of his time with the offensive line. On a team that cares more about titles, Judge might be called a passing game coordinator while Patricia could be a deemed a run game coordinator. Evan Rothstein, who came with Patricia from the Lions and whose job title currently is “research and analysis/coaching,” helped out with quarterbacks, keeping most of his attention on rookie Bailey Zappe. He appeared to be in an assistant QB coach position.
“Matt and Joe have a tremendous amount of leadership, as do the other coaches on the offensive side of the ball, too,” Belichick said before Wednesday’s practice. “Ross (Douglas), Troy, Nick, Billy (Yates), Vinnie, they all bring a good level of experience, playing experience, coaching experience, experience in our system. It's a good group.”
Between his distant approach to Wednesday’s practice and his decision to wipe the Patriots’ last three spring sessions off the slate, it seems that Belichick was content with the work his team put in before training camp begins in late July.
Players are saying all the right things in public about the team’s offensive staff following an offseason departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi, offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo and assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree and the retirement of running backs coach Ivan Fears (who continued to watch practice from afar last week). But they are less certain about the team’s offensive approach, with a former special teams coach and ex-defensive coordinator running the show, in private.
At least one prominent offensive player felt the coaching staff was unprepared at the start of the offseason workout program. The team hosted visits from Alabama offensive coordinator (and former Patriots OC Bill O’Brien) and Arizona head coach (and former Patriots QB coach) Jedd Fisch this offseason. The only reason why O’Brien isn’t currently New England’s offensive coordinator might be that Belichick didn’t want to pluck him away from his good friend Nick Saban and leave the Alabama head coach in the lurch looking for a new play-caller.
Belichick himself has more experience calling offensive plays than Judge or Patricia, and it’s currently unclear who will be taking on the task when the season starts in September.
“If you're asking about game plans, we're months away from that — months,” Belichick said late last month when questioned about who would call offensive plays for New England this season.
“Months away. Months. What plays are we calling? Mini-camp plays?”
When plays were called during 11-on-11s, it appeared to be Patricia handling the duties. While Patricia was away working with offensive linemen during 7-on-7s, it appeared to be Judge.
Both Patricia and Judge have head-coaching experience — Patricia with the Lions from 2018 to 2020 when he accumulated a 13-29-1 record and Judge with the Giants from 2020 to 2021 when he went 10-23 — but limited work exclusively on offense.
Patricia, a college offensive lineman, began his NFL coaching career as an offensive assistant in 2004 and assistant offensive line coach in 2005 before moving to defense permanently in 2006 and beyond. He was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator for six years before taking the head coaching job with the Lions, and he worked in an advisory role last season in his return to New England.
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Jamal Agnew, who played both wide receiver and cornerback under Patricia in Detroit, said the coach “let the offensive staff do their thing.”
“I will say Matty P is one of the smartest football brains I’ve been around,” Agnew told PFF. “He can literally coach any position group at a high level in my opinion.”
Judge, a college quarterback, was a special teams coach for most of his eight-year coaching tenure with the Patriots, though he also coached wide receivers in 2019 before leaving for the Giants. In New York, Judge split his time on the practice field between offense, defense and special teams before last season when it became clear that the Giants needed more help on the offensive side of the ball.
Patriots players, like most people in the building, are left in the dark about the team’s offensive plans in 2022. Belichick has a small circle of trust inside Gillette Stadium, and Judge and Patricia are included in it.
Mike Lombardi, a confidante of Belichick’s and former front-office staffer in New England, challenged the idea that Patricia would call plays this season.
“I don’t buy it at all,” Lombardi said on his podcast, “The GM Shuffle.” “I don’t know how an offensive line coach can call plays. … You’re not seeing the game from above the stadium. You’re seeing the game from the end-zone level. So, it’s impossible to focus on that and then call plays.
“If Matt Patricia was the line coach and there was a line coach that really handled — they have Billy Yates there, but (Patricia is) the guy coaching them. And when they come to the sideline, he’s gotta go over and spend all of his time making sure they understand it. Who’s sitting with Mac Jones? That’s the key guy. That’s the guy that’s gonna call plays because on Monday through Saturday, that personal relationship between the quarterback the play-caller manifests itself on Sunday. … And as the play-caller, you never want to put that guy in an uncomfortable position. You don’t want to give him something that he’s not comfortable with. How can Matt Patricia coach the line and those eight or 10 guys he’s gotta coach and then develop a relationship with the quarterback? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Lombardi believes Judge will call plays, though, “Belichick just doesn’t give away titles and jobs.” The offensive play-caller will likely have to earn the role in training camp and preseason. And if no one can?
Belichick called offensive plays in his previous tenure as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and people around the NFL believe he could even take over those duties in New England this season. That would put more on the plate of inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick on the defensive side of the ball. The elder Belichick’s attention on offense during OTAs and minicamp this spring represented a shift from previous seasons when he had McDaniels to trust run the offense. We’ll find out sometime before training camp begins whether anyone inside Gillette Stadium will officially be given a coordinator title.
Most teams have succession plans for when a coordinator leaves. When McDaniels departed to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, along with him went Mick Lombardi, Bricillo and Hardegree. The mass exodus of ring-holders extends beyond the offensive coaching staff over the last half decade in New England. Former directors of player personnel Nick Caserio and Dave Ziegler are NFL general managers now. Quarterback Tom Brady is with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and wide receiver Julian Edelman have retired, like Fears. Rob Gronkowski is currently unsigned, but if he’s playing anywhere in 2022, it’s probably with his buddy Brady. The Patriots also traded right guard Shaq Mason and let offensive lineman Ted Karras leave in free agency this offseason. There aren’t many people left inside of Gillette Stadium who have mastered the old Patriots offense.
For years, New England’s offense was predicated on familiarity. It ran from Caserio in the coaches booth to McDaniels with the play call and play sheet on the sideline to Brady holding the ball and delivering passes to Edelman and Gronkowski running option routes. It didn’t matter much who else was around that core, because they’d all figure it out enough to keep picking up AFC championships and Super Bowl titles. McDaniels hung around two years past Brady, but with the longtime OC now in Las Vegas, Belichick made a smart move to “streamline” things on offense this offseason.
Players have spoken about different and simpler terminology. We could see the Patriots eschew a versatile rushing attack and hone in on outside zone runs based on what they showed this spring. New England doesn’t have a fullback. There was nary a guard pulling in practice last week. And the Patriots shuffled their offensive line to balance the beef with 380-pound left tackle Trent Brown playing next to 305-pound rookie left guard Cole Strange and 350-pound right guard Michael Onwenu playing next to 310-pound right tackle Isaiah Wynn with 300-pound veteran center David Andrews in the middle. Wynn is new to right tackle. Brown hasn’t regularly played left tackle since 2018. They started at opposite positions in New England last season.
Fisch spent two years coaching under Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams. During those two seasons, the Rams led NFL teams in rushing attempts from an outside zone primary run concept. Only 10.3 percent of the Patriots’ rushing plays last season used an outside zone primary run concept as the team leaned more heavily on man, pull lead and power blocking schemes. Since PFF began charting primary run concepts in 2014, outside zone runs account for 17.8 percent of New England’s carries, second behind man (19.7 percent) and just ahead of power (16.7 percent) and inside zone (10.3 percent). Strange, the Patriots’ 2022 first-round pick, and running back Pierre Strong, a 2022 fourth-round pick, are tailor-made for an outside zone scheme.
Simplifying run concepts would help New England’s less experienced running backs, blockers and coaches. The same can be said for their passing game concepts since only Caley, quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back James White predate 2019 among coaches, quarterbacks and pass-catchers. The Patriots’ offensive playbook had become unruly anyway and was excessively complicated for young players to learn.
O’Brien and Alabama used a run-pass option on 34.6 percent of their offensive plays last season. Jones also ran RPO on over 30 percent of Alabama’s offensive plays in 2020, and one source indicated before the spring that New England could implement elements of the Crimson Tide offense to help the young QB. Meanwhile, PFF only charted 15 Patriots plays last season with RPO concepts. Jones had success in minicamp taking more deep shots downfield with precise deep completions to wide receivers Tre Nixon and Nelson Agholor and tight end Jonnu Smith. Nixon was the beneficiary of three deep completions from Jones, who only attempted 70 deep passes as a rookie, ranking 17th among NFL quarterbacks.
In some ways it feels the deck is stacked against Jones as he enters his second season. He has a defensive-minded head coach, a former special teams coordinator and an ex-defensive coordinator currently molding his career. And while New England has a solid offensive line and deep stable of running backs, they certainly don’t have an above-average corps of pass-catchers compared to the rest of the NFL even after adding Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker and rookie Tyquan Thornton over the last two offseasons. But McDaniels’ departure and a “streamlined” offense could be a blessing in disguise if New England is able to transform its offense around Jones’ strengths.
As is their modus operandi, the Patriots are not revealing too many details about their new-look offense. But the combination of McDaniels’ departure, Jones’ ascent and O’Brien’s unavailability forced change inside the walls of Gillette Stadium. Time will tell what the offense looks like and if a patchwork approach to offensive coaching will result in a sturdy quilt.