By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
Foxborough, Mass — Bill Belichick’s offseason reads like he watched the new Top Gun movie too many times. The coach, after watching it — like we all did — for the sixth time in a row, must have turned up “Danger Zone” on his home sound system and told himself: We are all Mavericks. He also told himself he was going to do things differently in 2022. Very differently. Like Maverick.
OK, I’ll try to be serious.
While all that is completely fictionalized, the New England Patriots are indeed doing things differently this year. Now, don’t roll your eyes at me. I can hear what you’re saying: It’s Belichick. The guy always does things differently. Not usually to this degree! His outside-the-box approach is layered at a different level than is typical for the coach. It might just be the riskiest approach he’s ever taken in his Patriots tenure.
Let’s dive into some examples.
1. The Patriots have only one coordinator, Cam Achord, and he coaches special teams
The Patriots haven’t had a defensive coordinator for a long time. Their most recent DC (all the way back in 2017) is actually back with the team on the offensive side of the ball: Matt Patricia. (Though Brian Flores was the de-facto defensive coordinator in 2018.) Since Flores left, the Patriots have split the job in half between Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick. So for the last five years, New England has not disclosed how they develop their game plans, who calls plays (Steve) and who handles personnel during games (Mayo).
It’s actually somewhat normal for Belichick to avoid naming a coordinator on offense or on defense. The weird thing is that he hasn’t named one on either side of the ball this year. It seems Patricia, the offensive line coach, and Joe Judge, the quarterbacks coach, are co-coordinators on offense, though New England has cast as much mystery over the situation as it possibly can. We don’t know who will call plays, though it’s likely to be Patricia. We don’t know how the team will handle the management of quarterbacks and offensive line, which got messy during the preseason. The offensive line was literally left to coach themselves at times, with center David Andrews reviewing film and delivering coaching points.
But while Belichick has left his defense without a coordinator, he doesn’t usually do that with his offense. He’s had an offensive coordinator since 2010 — and even back then, Bill O’Brien was the de-facto coordinator. That’s certainly the impression players were under.
“I didn’t actually know that [O’Brien was just the QBs coach],” said Rich Ohrnberger, a former Patriots offensive lineman and current FOX Sports radio host. “It is so funny how different the perspective on the outside is compared to what actually happens inside the building, because Billy O’Brien was our offensive coordinator, and I never thought to look up in our game program or on our website if that was his actual title.”
That helps beg the question of whether any of this matters. If the players know, then who cares about the media? So then I’ll ask: do the players know? Because this year, it doesn’t sound as streamlined as in 2009 and 2010.
At the start of this year, there were clearly three voices in players’ ears: Belichick, Patricia and Judge.
“We don’t know who the play-caller is,” former Patriots receiver Julian Edelman said during an appearance on WEEI sports radio in Boston. “I think it’s going to be a collaborative effort. I think it’s going to be Bill, Judge and Matty P.”
As in past years, the Patriots are likely to streamline communication through one voice. Maybe — just maybe — New England is beginning to funnel that message through Patricia.
“He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever been around in terms of football knowledge,” Patriots quarterback Mac Jones said.
There is, of course, another layer to the coordinator oddity. Because if the offensive leader is Patricia — the 1A — then the 1B is Belichick and the 1C is Judge. But neither Judge nor Patricia are known for getting the most out of quarterbacks. During Judge’s time in New York, Daniel Jones went from “Danny Dimes” to “Danny Crimes against Humanity.” And Matthew Stafford, under Patricia in Detroit, looked like the most underachieving quarterback in the NFL. That’s why he ended up with the Rams, who helped him win a Super Bowl within 12 months.
So not only is there a question of who is in charge, but also a matter of why they’re in charge. It’s rare to see coaches switch sides of the ball, only to get bestowed with additional responsibility.
2. The Patriots are rethinking their offensive system by copying others
Belichick is famous for setting the trends. He is the Gucci of the NFL.
Or he was.
Suddenly, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have emerged as the fashionistas. And everyone wants what they’re selling — namely, an offensive scheme that’s almost impossible to defend when executed well. Belichick is stealing elements of their playbook, which is weird because teams have done that with him for years.
But when teams steal from those coaches, they often hire someone from that coaching tree to help with the implementation of the system. Not Belichick. He is using his former defensive coordinator (Patricia) and special teams coordinator (Judge) to add those elements to the offense. Because he’s Belichick and he does what he wants.
In theory, New England could build something fascinating: a lovechild of the Belichick, McVay and Shanahan offenses. But that theory has looked rough in practice. The Patriots offense was an inconsistent mess during preseason and training camp.
“It didn’t look good in the preseason,” Edelman said. “I’m not going to lie.”
No, it did not.
3. The Patriots have built around a young quarterback
Lost in all these storylines about the coaches is that Jones is entering his second season. Belichick has said for years that players progress the most in between their first and second season. Why? Well, it’s simple. Once you’ve done something once, you know how to do it better. Once you’ve completed a full NFL season and have taken the time to digest what went right and what went wrong, you can learn from all of it and try again — but better.
“I think it’s all about your tools and problem-solving,” Jones said when asked about his offense’s struggles. “I tend to enjoy the problem solving part. That’s the fun part of the game, like I said. We have good coaches that are going to put us in a position to do that. We have good experience with some of the looks we’ve seen last year and preseason. So it’s all about what are my tools and how can I fix it?”
Last season, he did nothing but correct his mistakes, in part because he had McDaniels there to help elevate Jones on a week-to-week basis. This year, Jones will have to do it with his rookie co-coordinators in Patricia and Judge. And all three of them will have to get their work done during a schematic rebuild that seemingly has already taken longer than expected. And because of that, Jones is behind schedule — through no fault of his own. He looked like a player on an upward trajectory until the schematic changes blew up his offensive line’s ability to block the run game and protect him in the passing game.
This whole situation feels like a newlywed couple moving into a half-finished house.
What could go wrong? No but actually. How could this end?
“Utlimately, it’s my responsibility, like it always is,” Belichick told the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy this week. “So if it doesn’t go well, blame me.”
4. New England is designing a defense without a true No. 1 cornerback
A few years ago at the NFL combine, a former Patriots scout explained that Belichick was supposed to take off early from Indianapolis. But he stayed a few extra days. Why? Well, the coach wanted to see the cornerbacks go through workouts. He couldn’t help himself. He loves defensive backs. Evaluating them is his bread-and-butter.
Perhaps that helps explain why and how they’ve had one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks for about 10 years running, stretching back to 2012 when they began the run with Aqib Talib. They have acquired Talib, Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore. But even when the roster didn’t seem to have a top-end cornerback, Belichick fashioned one out of thin air. The recent examples include J.C. Jackson and Malcolm Butler, both undrafted free agents out of college.
That streak looks like it’s over. New England has entrusted cornerback Jalen Mills with the CB1 spot. And while he’s a competent defender who has actually looked to have taken a step in 2022 during training camp, he was also a middle-tier second corner in 2021. So he would have to take a massive step forward if he’s going to be The Guy for New England. Like I said, Belichick has fashioned CB1s out of nowhere, so it’s possible he does that with Mills.
But it’s far more realistic to expect the Patriots to deploy significantly more zone defense in 2022. That should help mask their deficiencies at cornerback. That will also mean outside linebackers Matt Judon and Josh Uche and defensive tackles Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux have to be absolute studs this year. Because if a team thinks it can sit back in zone and beat quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, they’ll need a ferocious pass rush.
That appears to be what Belichick is betting will come to fruition, which is odd — considering his affinity (and aptitude for scouting) defensive backs.
So what does it all mean?
Even Edelman is willing to say that things — from afar — don’t look good. But McCourty had an excellent message that’s worth bearing in mind.
“I think it’s something that may have some growing pains in the beginning, as everybody’s getting used to going to be a new system and getting used to new voices,” McCourty said. “But I don’t know if you ever want to doubt Bill Belichick.”
For the last 23 years, there have been proclamations of Belichick’s decline. And for the last 23 years, they’ve been wrong. Certainly, this year feels different, with a particularly odd set of dynamics at play. But perhaps that’s when Belichick does his finest work.
I’ll admit that I have just laid out a forecast that indicates the sky will fall. But you know how Belichick feels about meteorologists, don’t you?
“They’re almost always wrong,” Belichick said in 2021. “If I did my job the way they do theirs, I’d be here about a week.”
He’s been in New England a lot longer than that. Maybe this bold strategy pans out.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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