MINNEAPOLIS – In mid-December, when it was becoming more apparent which NFL head coaching jobs were most likely to open, an NFC executive was opining on the upside of New England Patriots coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia. Unprompted, he dropped another name into the conversation.
“Get to know Brian Flores,” he said. “He might actually be the Patriots’ best assistant coach, including both of the coordinators.”
At the time, that suggestion seemed hyperbolic. After all, McDaniels had been a head coach and was expected to be among this year’s most pursued candidates. Meanwhile, not only does Patricia have a background as an aeronautical engineer, but he’s also well-respected throughout the league. But the executive persisted, explaining that he had first heard the praises of Flores sung by Atlanta Falcons personnel man Scott Pioli, who hired Flores in New England in 2004. The executive did some research. When he was finished, Flores had climbed nearly to the top of his head coaching and coordinator short lists.
“He’s a connector,” the executive said. “He connects and motivates players at a really high level. He’s really sharp when you talk to him. Disciplined. He’s going to be a head coach someday. I don’t even think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he could succeed Bill Belichick in New England in a few years. He could be the guy.”
Less than two weeks after that conversation, the Arizona Cardinals had asked for permission to interview Flores, the Patriots’ current linebackers coach, for their head coaching job. Despite being 36 years old and spending the balance of his 13-year NFL career inside the New England bubble, Flores is solidly known throughout the league. Now he appears to be on the cusp of succeeding Patricia (bound for Detroit as its head coach) as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. And maybe, given the right timing and circumstances in the next few years, even being in line to someday become Belichick’s successor.
Is that a premature thought in January of 2018? Yes. But with Flores being so young and having such a versatile background in the organization, he’s arguably building better credentials than anyone left on the roster following the next wave of departures. And again, he isn’t a secret around the rest of the NFL. And while he’s not nearly as young as the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay was when he became a head coaching commodity, the affection for Flores inside other franchises is not unlike the eyeballs that McVay began to draw in 2014, when he took over the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator job at 28 years old.
Part of the attraction to Flores comes from him having served on both sides of the fence for the Patriots, including as a personnel evaluator under Pioli for four years before eventually moving over to the coaching staff. He knows all facets of the Patriot Way intimately, from the draft to the field and all the organizational details in between. Those who have departed New England have tended to keep Flores in mind for future coaching positions. So much so that when the Cardinals asked for permission to interview Flores in January, some in the NFL assumed it had been triggered by Arizona’s director of football administration Mike Disner, who briefly crossed personnel paths with Flores in New England.
“[Flores is] a real dude. Commands respect,” said a second NFC evaluator who also ranks Flores as New England’s top assistant – ahead of McDaniels and Patricia. “Genuine. Tough. Smart. Driven. I’m not the only one that has that opinion. If you secretly polled people in that building, most would say the same.”
It’s remarkable praise for a coach that most haven’t gotten to know yet. Some may remember him as the guy who was introduced to the world in the video snippet as he screamed at Malcolm Butler to get on the field moments before Butler picked off Russell Wilson at the goal line to seal a win in Super Bowl XLIX. Patriots fans know him as New England’s defensive red-zone coordinator – an area of the unit that has been one of the strongest in the NFL this season. Players? He’s just “Flo”. And to hear them tell it, his “do your job” sermons sound a lot like Belichick.
“Flo says it all the time, whenever we get in these big games, whether it’s playoffs or a big division game, he always says, ‘One play at a time,’” safety Devin McCourty said. “… Human nature [is] that your mind starts to drift, and you start thinking this, and he says, ‘You’ve got to just lock in. One play at a time.’ And not let the moment take over and get too big, or if a bad play happens … just move on to the next play, good or bad, and just continue to do that for the whole game. And I think that has really resonated with me.”
It’s remarkable that some perceive Flores on the same coaching level as McDaniels and Patricia, and that he has managed to earn that respect far behind the New England curtain. During his entire career, no less. As a general rule, Patriots assistant coaches aren’t the most accessible people on the planet. Once someone goes into the system on the lowest rungs, it’s hard to get to know a great deal about them until they begin to reach the top of the food chain. And Flores has seen the lower rungs better than most, starting as a scouting assistant and working his way up for four years, then moving over to coaching in 2008 and starting at the bottom of the coaching tree.
His unique transition gives Flores added value now. He was hired by Pioli as a glorified scouting gopher in 2004 – doing runs for coffee, dry cleaning, driving people around and then grinding tape all night and scratching out low-level reports until his fingers cramped. For little pay and almost no visibility, living as spartanly as possible in the attic of a rental house with some friends in Framingham, Massachusetts, nearly 40 minutes from the office.
“I was the poorest guy, so I had to sleep in [the attic],” Flores said this week. “[I] made the least. Paid $400 [a month], lived in the attic, slept on an air mattress. When it got real cold, I went to my then-girlfriend – now, wife – and slept at her place.”
Flores smiles at the memory.
“Don’t tell her mom that,” he said.
The work paid off, with Flores moving up to a pro personnel scouting position, doing advance reports on opponents. For a guy whose initial goal was to be a general manager, he had gotten himself onto the right track. But something changed after the 2007 season. The Patriots went 18-0 and into the Super Bowl as one of the greatest teams in NFL history. Then they suffered a crushing loss to the New York Giants, and Flores found himself wanting more. Not to just evaluate players down to a molecular level, he wanted to get closer to the game. He wanted to motivate. And that brought him back to Pioli, explaining that he had the growing urge to coach and have a more direct impact on wins and losses.
But to make the change to coaching from scouting would mean starting over again at the bottom. Flores told Pioli he was ready for the challenge.
“[The Super Bowl loss] hurt,” Flores said. “It was a tough loss. It was tough for everyone. I don’t want to live in the past, but it was a point in my career where for me, personally, I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more involved and do as much as I could do to help the team.”
With that, Belichick moved Flores to special teams, where he became an assistant to coordinator Brad Seely in 2008. Thus began a winding path, as an offensive assistant position under Bill O’Brien and then a defensive assistant position directly under Belichick. Followed by three seasons as an assistant coaching the safeties and two coaching the linebackers.
Put it all together and you have an impressive tapestry of experience that stands out even on the Patriots’ staff – which is known for the varied experience of the assistant coaches.
That route is fitting for Flores. He grew up in the rough and tumble Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A neighborhood both famous and infamous for having produced Mike Tyson and being one of the most highly saturated public housing enclaves in the city. He landed in football when his uncle, former New York firefighter Darrel Patterson, drove him by a Pop Warner game in Queens one afternoon and Flores asked to play. Eventually, Flores’ aptitude in both academics and football delivered him to prestigious Poly Prep Country Day school in Brooklyn. That would be followed by a scholarship to Boston College, where he played linebacker before eventually making his post-college transition into the Patriots’ organization.
In life – much like his NFL career – his experience has been rich and varied. And that has helped him bond with the people around him.
“I was in private [high] school,” Flores said. “I went to a private college. But I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. I’ve seen a lot of different walks of life, so I feel like I can connect to pretty much anyone. You’ve just got to find that spot for each individual person.”
Given his nickname amongst some of his admirers as the Great Connector, it’s safe to say Flores has found that spot over and over. And it has moved him into the most prime position on the Patriots’ staff. He’s the next man up, just like so many before him. But maybe more so than anyone before him, his resume could end up keeping him in New England.
Not because others won’t want him. Perhaps because the Patriots will need him more. And might have bigger plans for him than anyone could imagine.