Patriots Mailbag: Josh McDaniels Could Return as Offensive Coordinator, But Some Issues Await

Patriots Mailbag: Josh McDaniels Could Return as Offensive Coordinator, But Some Issues AwaitFOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots might be off for the weekend, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop delivering the mail. With another 13-win season in the books, the playoffs at the fore and a high-profile coaching transition, there’s plenty to discuss this week in New England.

Also, I wanted to extend a thank you to everyone who used the mailbag forum to say some nice things about my Wes Welker feature. It’s very much appreciated.

Let’s open the bag.

Who replaces Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator: Jeff Davidson, Chad O’Shea or Josh McDaniels?
–@celticsfan2584, via Twitter

Let’s start with McDaniels, who has to be considered as the ideal candidate to take over for O’Brien. Obviously, McDaniels orchestrated the greatest offense in NFL history in 2007, and he could seemingly make a seamless transition back into the mix.

There are some potential holdups, though. First, he’s still under contract with the Rams, so the Patriots will have an extra hurdle to cross if they want to sign him. NFL Network reported the two sides will meet this weekend, which I believe is an extremely serious step. If both Bill Belichick and McDaniels are interested enough to take it this far, I strongly believe this meeting wouldn’t be an empty gesture to exchange holiday cards. Look at this as a serious step toward making it happen.

From there, I see three potential snags, though I’m not sure how serious they could become. First, McDaniels will obviously want to be a head coach again down the line. He’ll have to weigh whether or not a return to New England could advance his career. It’s become difficult for coaches and executives to establish a reputation under Belichick, who is given a vast majority of the credit for the success of the franchise. Now, clearly, plenty have left New England for bigger jobs, so they are being recognized for their work. But many, including McDaniels, have not been successful at those next stops. Can McDaniels return and advance his reputation? You know what, it wouldn’t hurt it, and after another stint in New England, he could continue to gain much more knowledge about the head coaching profession under Belichick, who clearly made the most of his return to Bill Parcells’ system with the Jets after things failed in Cleveland.

The second potential snag would be McDaniels’ compensation, which I don’t see as an issue at all. I’m sure owner Robert Kraft would make the finances work on McDaniels’ end. But would McDaniels want to have a great title, such as assistant head coach (Belichick’s title with the Jets)? Hierarchy is important within the organization, and McDaniels understands that, which makes me believe it wouldn’t be a factor if it’s requested and shot down (all speculation on my part). One more note, I think Belichick would avoid placing the assistant head coach tag on McDaniels because he would be viewed as the coach-in-waiting, which is a major distraction Belichick would want to avoid. Think he wants people — forget the media and fans, because I mean his players, assistants and the owner — wondering if his time is ticking as the head coach?

Third, and finally, since McDaniels is under contract in St. Louis, the Rams have the right to request their own compensation for relieving McDaniels. Since he’s simply an offensive coordinator, I don’t think the Rams would go overly crazy with their demands, so they could simply ask for money. But if they start asking for draft picks, the issue of compensation could get messy. Eventually, when the line is drawn, the Rams will have to succumb because they won’t want their new head coach (whoever it is) having to deal with this type of an issue early in his tenure.

I could add a fourth snag in the possibility of McDaniels interviewing for head coaching positions, but while getting a feel for the market, it doesn’t appear as though he’d get any serious consideration this offseason. I could definitely be wrong, but that’s my impression.

Anyway, if the McDaniels thing doesn’t work out, I’d add three candidates to the short list — former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill, tight ends coach Brian Ferentz and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea. Davidson is a good thought, too, after spending the early part of the decade in New England. If it’s Hill, I could see him getting the offensive coordinator tag. But if it’s Ferentz or Hill, I’d guess they’d be the play-caller for a year before earning the promotion to offensive coordinator, which is what happened with both McDaniels and O’Brien.

Why did the Patriots let Bill O’Brien talk with Penn State? Couldn’t they have made him wait until after they win the Super Bowl? I’m assuming you are getting many emails about this. Belichick is considered one of the greatest head coaches of all time. But is it hurting the Patriots that he is so good at training his coordinators, too, that we are consistently having to get new ones? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but is he too good?
–Griff

First, I know NFL teams have to grant permission to assistants who want to interview for a better job within the league (for example, a coordinator interviewing to become a head coach). I’m not sure if that’s also true for college positions, but it’s a common practice to allow these interviews to take place, just out of goodwill and a desire to allow their employees to better themselves. Think about it, if a team developed a reputation for making it difficult on assistant coaches to interview for the opportunity to land better jobs elsewhere, they’d have a very difficult time hiring quality coaches down the line.

Now, if the Patriots weren’t on the bye, I very highly doubt the interview would have happened this week. Typically, that’s an issue with most hires. The out-of-work former coaches, coaches on teams out of the playoffs and coaches on teams on the bye week get the early interviews. The other coaches have to wait until their team is done, which hinders their chances at getting a job because teams are often too impatient to wait until after the postseason.

As for the second question, assistant coaches are extremely vital in the development of players, who spend a lot of their time getting instruction from the assistant coaches on the practice field and in the meeting room. Their importance is so often overlooked in that respect. If you see one team develop a number of quality players at one position, you can bet the positional coach has a lot to do with it (example No. 1: Dante Scarnecchia). So, while I understood your sentiment, believe me, it’s significantly important to develop quality assistants.

Could this be the year when the Patriots play in the Super Bowl?
–John Adam

Yeah, absolutely, but I won’t change my thinking that they need to hope for one path over the other. I think the Patriots really need the Bengals to beat the Texans and secure a trip to Gillette Stadium, which I believe would be a fairly easy victory for New England. And since I think the Steelers would beat the Broncos to set up a Steelers-Ravens clash, the survivor (and I do mean “survivor” when those two teams play) would have a tougher time bouncing back than the Patriots after a meeting with the Bengals.

Can the Patriots beat the Steelers and Ravens in back-to-back weeks? Sure, but that road is significantly more difficult than the previous one I mentioned. One thing I was thinking of this week — I thought the Patriots would trounce the Steelers in Week 8 (which was also after a bye, coincidentally) because Tom Brady has been so good against that zone defense. Then, Pittsburgh came out with a much more aggressive man-coverage scheme that threw Brady for a loop. With an extra week to prepare for that man look, I’d again give the Patriots an advantage, especially since I can’t imagine the Steelers have yet another massive defensive overhaul waiting for the Patriots’ offense.

How will the Patriots adjust their defensive strategy to make some stops early in the game?
–@PaulGrube, via Twitter

It’s been a combination of things over the course of the season. Against Pittsburgh (and others), the Patriots played more man coverage when the zone wasn’t working. Against Denver, they changed the spacing of the front-seven to better handle the running attack. Against, Buffalo, they simply executed better.

I’ve said all along I think they’ve played better on the interior with man coverage with the linebackers because the linebackers and safeties have had some issues with zone spacing, which has allowed receivers and tight ends to roam free. The problem is the cornerbacks typically, if only slightly, play better in zone coverage, and that especially holds true for Devin McCourty, who is better when he’s facing the quarterback. It’s a tough balance, and it’s probably over-simplistic to say the linebackers should play man while the defensive backs play zone. I think they just have to figure out what works and what doesn’t a lot sooner than they have been, and they’ve definitely practiced that stuff this week.

Do you think there’s any chance Julian Edelman switches to defense permanently?
–Ronald A. Osborne Jr. (St. Croix)

Yeah, there’s a chance, but I’m not ready to commit to it just yet. If nothing else, Edelman has proven to be a very good tackler, which is surprising considering his offensive background. He’s athletic enough to play in the slot, too, so there appears to be enough there for it to happen. But if they need him to fill in as a slot receiver, he’s proven he can get it done in spot duty, so I don’t think they’d ever just tell him to stop attending offensive meetings. He’ll be an interesting player to watch in training camp this year.

Hi, Jeff. Long-time, first-time. My question: What are you expecting from this season of ‘Jersey Shore?’ #pleaseusemyquestion
–@mikecole25, via Twitter

Greatness.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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