Defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and linebackers coach Matt Patricia are considered the front-runners to replace Dean Pees as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, according to WEEI.com.
The two come from very different backgrounds, but both are qualified candidates with strong resumes.
Johnson was a star linebacker at Ohio State and played 13 seasons in the NFL, 10 of which were spent under the tutelage of Bill Belichick. He won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants in 1986 and 1990 before going on to play for the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and New York Jets.
Johnson retired after the 1998 season and spent just one year away from the game before joining Belichick in New England as a coaching assistant in 2000. In 2001, he was promoted to inside linebackers coach, a position he held for three years before taking over the defensive line duties.
“I think the big thing that Pepper brings to our staff that is really unique is that he’s played in this system and he's actually done it out there on the field,” Belichick told WEEI earlier this month. “That’s been important, not just [to] our defense, but to our entire team, talking to players. He’s got a wealth of experience, and he’s very good at sharing that.”
Patricia, on the other hand, is 10 years younger, played his college ball at Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and never played in the NFL. He served as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1996 before becoming the defensive line coach at Amherst College in 1999.
He then moved to the D-I ranks when he became the offensive graduate assistant at Syracuse in 2001, before finally entering the NFL as an offensive coaching assistant for the Patriots in 2004. A year later, he was named assistant offensive line coach, and a year after that, he replaced Pees as the linebackers coach.
But what Patricia may lack in experience, he makes up for in brains.
"He always knows what’s going on all the time," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich told WEEI. "He’s very up to speed on everything. He knows the adjustments, he knows all that stuff. He’s definitely telling us all the right information at the right times."
"He’s a real good coach," added fellow linebacker Pierre Woods. "Very smart. Very intelligent. Has a great knowledge for the game when it comes to breaking down opponents. He does a great job."
The Patriots have a tendency to promote from within, so it would come as no surprise to see either Johnson or Patricia get the job.
One outside candidate whose name popped up was that of Al Groh, a disciple of Belichick and Bill Parcells, who was recently fired after nine seasons as the head coach at Virginia. He took his name out of consideration on Friday, though, when he accepted the defensive coordinator job at Georgia Tech.
As Ron Borges of the Boston Herald points out, it would be interesting to see if Johnson would stick around if Belichick chose the less-experienced Patricia over him.