Curran: Pats OC search shows Belichick's comfort trumps all originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Everything is on hold as we wait for white smoke to rise over One Patriot Place signaling an actual, real-life homosapien has been selected to run the Patriots offense with a title and everything just like you’ve seen on TV.
When that news drops, we’ll deep dive into either: A) why the hiring of Bill O’Brien means the Patriots are back in it or, B) why the Patriots couldn’t get Bill O’Brien.
As we wait, we can credit the Patriots for casting a wider net at OC than they did last offseason when they cast no net at all.
But the net still ain’t big. If you’re not a Friend of Bill B., you need not apply.
Every individual screened has some kind of Belichickian tie. Former Patriots OT Adrian Klemm was a second-round draft choice of the Patriots in 2000. Keenan McCardell played for Belichick in Cleveland. Shawn Jefferson played wideout for the Patriots in the mid-to-late ‘90s and overlapped with Belichick in 1996. Nick Caley has been on staff since 2015 as tight ends coach. And O’Brien’s obviously been here.
The industry is TEEMING with offensive coaches with novel ideas and approaches.
But it seems the only way to get an audience with Bill Belichick is by having been previously hired by him (Klemm, McCardell, O’Brien) or having shared a locker room (Jefferson) with him. Doesn’t matter if he has to go back three decades to find that tie, if it’s there, the No. 1 qualification is satisfied. Then he will deign to give an audience.
The incestuous approach has an obvious upside. Familiarity.
Coaches who’ve been around Belichick know the expectations, the hours and the meager pay. They know what Belichick considers “good” football. They knew it because they coached alongside him. Or they were hired by him in their early-20s through shared interests like lacrosse (Mike Pellegrino), learn “good football” and know no other way to attack the job.
The Patriots staff through the years was first populated by people Belichick worked alongside like Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. Then, when those coaches moved on, young coaches vetted by working under Nick Saban (Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll for instance), working as ballboys for the Browns (Eric Mangini) or playing for Belichick (Pepper Johnson) were hired and rose to higher positions.
The whole industry is a “Who you know…” business. Most are. But the Patriots are the most clannish team in the league. A closed loop. Bill Belichick’s comfort level rules all.
Why did he keep drafting players from Rutgers? Because his son Stephen was playing there for head coach Greg Schiano. Belichick came to trust Schiano (who spent about three days as Patriots defensive coordinator in 2019). Stephen could vouch. Rutgers became a Patriots farm team.
The Patriots also went exceptionally heavy on Urban Meyer players from both Florida and Ohio State last decade. In 14 of Belichick’s 23 drafts, he’s taken multiple players from the same school. There are the usual suspects – LSU and Alabama players when Saban’s been in charge. But there were also two from Pat Hill’s Fresno State program in 2005, two from Texas A&M in 2003, the top two from Georgia in 2018.
Once Belichick feels good about a program and the person running it, he will keep going back to that well. That worked great with Logan Mankins and James Sanders (Fresno) or Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan (Rutgers). Not as well with Meyers’ players like Chad Jackson, Jermaine Cunningham or Aaron Hernandez.
Not everyone remains a “made man” forever. Trust can evaporate. Ask Mangini. Or Flores. But if you stay on the right side of Bill, Foxboro can become safe harbor for friends who got turned out into the cold.
When Mike Lombardi got fired by the Browns in 2014, he came to work for the Patriots for two years. After Matt Patricia got fired by the Lions in 2020, Belichick brought him in to stay busy and lick his professional wounds. Joe Judge was dismissed by the Giants. He landed back in New England. In each of those cases, the former team was on the hook for paying the balance of the contract with, presumably, some offset from the Patriots.
The Patriots could avoid picking up full freight for these guys by just calling them “advisors” and letting their former employers keep paying. The Razorback Foundation actually went after former University of Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema AND the Patriots in court after Bielema took low-paying jobs with the Patriots and kept collecting his $12M buyout from the foundation.
Counsel for the Patriots Brandon Bigelow argued, “The Patriots paid Mr. Bielema a fair and reasonable sum for this work and undoubtedly could have offered him substantially less for the work he performed. …
“It is obvious that what the Foundation is really doing is seeking improper leverage in a simple breach of contract dispute with a former coach. . . . As this matter proceeds, you also should consider how it might appear to others for the Foundation to be asserting frivolous claims against and harassing a professional football team for simply providing an opportunity to a fired college football coach.”
Interestingly, both Bielema and Lombardi moved on from the Patriots when contracts with their old employers ran out and the Patriots would have to start paying. We’ll see if the same happens with Patricia, whose Lions deal has now expired. I’m hearing he might be on his way out as well.
It’s an angle. The individual wins by working at the right hand of Belichick. The Patriots get work at a reduced rate. The competition to remain in Belichick’s good graces is keen.
What’s the downside to this incestuousness as it relates to this coaching search?
The pool of young guys willing to work long hours for short pay with ambiguous titles must remain stocked. Otherwise, you’ll run low on future candidates. Especially if a coach is hired elsewhere and he then raids your staff. As Belichick did when he came to New England in 2000.
The previous decade of Brady-aided team success saw younger coaches and executives flee for new jobs. McDaniels, Patricia, Brian Flores on the coaching side; Nick Caserio and Monti Ossenfort on the personnel side. They leave, they bring coaching friends with them, the staff shrinks. And the pool of experienced replacements gets shallower.
The hits Belichick has taken with coaches and executives exiting because of age and opportunity is unprecedented in scope. That can’t be minimized. And nobody knows it better than Belichick.
But Belichick’s discomfort with coaching flight and his desire to reward loyalty comes at a cost. Nick Caley checked all the boxes last offseason when Josh McDaniels left. Caley went to John Carroll like McDaniels and Caserio. Worked at Arkansas for Bielema. Worked his way up from offensive assistant in 2015 to tight ends coach where he’d been for five seasons under McDaniels.
He made perfect sense as McDaniels’ successor, even if the team passed on giving him the OC title. Instead, the Patriots reportedly blocked Caley from going to Las Vegas with McDaniels and chose instead to make Patricia – who was clearly overmatched in the role – the playcaller/de facto offensive coordinator.
What did Caley do in 2022 that made him worthy of an interview when he wasn’t last January? Was installing Patricia what was “best for the football team?” because Caley (who had an expiring contract after 2022) was an X-factor? Or was it the easiest thing to do and the one that made Belichick most comfortable?
Obviously, O’Brien is a highly qualified candidate. He’s the leader by a longshot because of experience as a head coach in college and the NFL and as a high-level OC. But the experience level of every other candidate – especially after last season’s regression – remains modest. None have been an OC in the NFL. All will have a learning curve if hired. But the box they check - knowing Bill Belichick and being appreciative to Bill of the opportunity if it's offered to them - is the most important box.