Since Dean Pees left his post as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator earlier this month, it's been widely expected that Belichick will choose between two of his assistant coaches as Pees' replacement. Pats defensive-line coach Pepper Johnson and linebackers coach Matt Patricia both have the credentials for the promotion, but their résumés are positive in different areas.
As one Patriots player put it, he can see either one of the coaches getting the gig.
"You can't go wrong with either," said the player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Pepper, players really do relate to him and really respect him. You can talk to him. You have a lot of coaches who definitely know the game and know the X's and O's, but you can't relate to them. Pepper, you can relate to him. You talk the same language. That's definitely helpful. Matt is another guy who is well respected, and he knows what he's talking about as well. I wouldn't be surprised if it was either of the two [who got the job]."
Belichick has typically stayed within the Patriots organization when hiring an offensive or defensive coordinator, and that's a big reason why Johnson and Patricia look like the leaders in the clubhouse.
The lone exception to that rule came in 2001, when Romeo Crennel left Cleveland to run Belichick's defense in New England. When Crennel took over as the Browns' head coach in 2005, Belichick promoted Eric Mangini from defensive-backs coach to defensive coordinator. And after Mangini bounced for the Jets in 2006, Pees was promoted from his perch as linebackers coach.
It's been a similar situation on the offensive side. Charlie Weis was Belichick's offensive coordinator from 2000-04 before leaving for Notre Dame, and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels took the reigns as play-caller before his official promotion to offensive coordinator in 2006. McDaniels left for Denver prior to 2009, and Bill O'Brien switched from wide-receivers coach to quarterbacks coach and also assumed play-calling responsibilities.
For this promotion, Johnson might be the people's choice, and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork told ESPN.com he hoped Johnson would get the job. (That really should have been expected, though, since Johnson has been Wilfork's position coach for the last six years.) Johnson has a special relationship with the players because he has starred in Belichick's system, both with the Giants and Browns, and Johnson can relay his messages based on actual on-field experience.
Johnson is also heavily involved with the Patriots' offseason program. He helps with their strength and conditioning regimen, and he also takes on a significant role in helping the team's rookies adjust to life as professional athletes. Then, in addition to Johnson's responsibilities as the defensive-line coach, he also leads the weekly scout team, which is of the utmost importance for the Patriots' game-day preparations.
"Pepper has really been a very valuable person for me and for our entire organization," Belichick said earlier this month. "He has a good perspective, and he's got a wealth of experience and he's very good at sharing that."
Patricia, on the other hand, is an up-and-comer much like McDaniels was during his growth period in the system. Patricia, a 35-year-old who is considered to have an extremely intelligent football mind, was hired by Belichick as an offensive coaching assistant in 2004, and he began working alongside McDaniels. Patricia was promoted to assistant offensive-line coach in 2005, and he took over for Pees as linebackers coach in 2006. (While Patricia might not be the Patriots' most famous assistant coach, he could be best known as the guy in charge of calling linebacker Adalius Thomas to tell him he was benched in Week 6 against Tennessee.)
Johnson and Patricia are obviously both qualified to make the leap to defensive coordinator, and Belichick's difficult decision is a good problem to have in that regard. However, that might also be a double-edged sword. Johnson, who has been on Belichick's staff since 2000, has already been passed over twice for this job, and a third time could cause him to look elsewhere for opportunities with more room for growth. Plus, he was reportedly considered to be a candidate to become the Giants' defensive coordinator earlier in January, so Johnson knows he has earned respect around the league.
It's also been reported that Patricia could be an option as McDaniels' defensive coordinator in Denver, and with the league's recent trend to hire younger candidates as head coaches and coordinators, it's only a matter of time before Patricia's name circles with more frequency.
Thus, there is the possibility that politics could play some role in Belichick's decision, and he might even choose to divvy up the responsibilities equally between Johnson and Patricia. Belichick didn't employ a defensive coordinator in 2000 — with little success — so there is precedent for such a decision.
Whatever choice Belichick makes, it'll surely be complicated. But rest assured, he's got a pair of great candidates at his disposal.
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