For the first time since 2013, the New England Patriots must find a new coach to lead their offense.
Longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reportedly will be hired as the next head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, leaving a significant void on New England’s coaching staff.
The importance of this next Patriots hire cannot be overstated. Quarterback Mac Jones enjoyed an impressive rookie season, but pair him with the wrong OC, and his potential could be wasted.
McDaniels also was New England’s QBs coach. No one worked more closely with Jones — and, before him, Tom Brady — than the new Raiders boss did.
Who should replace him? Here are nine potential candidates, beginning with the clear No. 1 option:
THE MOST OBVIOUS CANDIDATE
Replacing McDaniels with O’Brien would make perfect sense. He’s both the most logical and most desirable candidate, able to provide both a wealth of prior Patriots experience — including three highly productive seasons as their offensive play-caller (2009 to 2011) — and knowledge of the Alabama offense in which Jones excelled in 2020. In fact, the two even briefly overlapped in Tuscaloosa, with Jones helping teach Nick Saban’s system to O’Brien after the latter was hired as offensive coordinator last January. ESPN’s Adam Schefter has on multiple occasions mentioned O’Brien as a potential McDaniels successor, which suggests the former Houston Texans and Penn State head coach is open to returning. O’Brien deserved to be ripped for some of the baffling personnel moves he made with Houston, but he’s a talented offensive coach who’d offer the smoothest transition for New England’s promising QB.
THE INTERNAL OPTIONS
Outside of running backs coach Ivan Fears, who reportedly is retiring, Caley is the Patriots’ longest-tenured offensive assistant. The 39-year-old has been with New England since 2015 and has served as the team’s tight ends coach for the last five seasons (he also coaches fullbacks). A few months back, NFL Media’s Tom Pelissero included Caley on a list of potential head-coaching candidates “to watch in the coming years,” along with a few dozen other coaches. He has no play-calling experience.
The son of former Patriots executive and longtime Belichick friend Michael Lombardi, the younger Lombardi has been a New England assistant for the last three seasons. The 33-year-old was assistant quarterbacks coach under McDaniels in 2019 before shifting to wide receivers in 2020. Previously, he worked for the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets in various roles on both sides of the ball. Like Caley, he has not called plays.
Rounding out the Patriots’ current offensive staff are receivers/kick returners coach Troy Brown, running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri, offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, assistant O-line coach Billy Yates and quality control/assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree.
THE PATRIOT ALUMS
O’Shea was the Patriots’ receivers coach from 2009 to 2018 before leaving to become Brian Flores’ first offensive coordinator in Miami. He was fired from that role after one season, then spent the past two as the Cleveland Browns’ receivers coach and passing game coordinator under Kevin Stefanski. Late in his Patriots tenure, O’Shea would call plays during preseason finales, signaling his status as the next-man-up OC behind McDaniels.
Another member of Flores’ inaugural Dolphins staff, Schuplinski spent six seasons with New England, including three as assistant quarterbacks coach. In that role, he worked closely with the Patriots’ younger backup QBs. After being let go in Miami, Schuplinski latched on with another ex-Pats assistant, coaching New York Giants quarterbacks under Joe Judge for the past two seasons. The 44-year-old also could be a candidate to join McDaniels in Vegas. he would have been part of the latter’s staff had McDaniels taken the Indianapolis Colts job four years ago.
Godsey was the Patriots’ tight ends coach in 2012 and 2013 after one season as a coaching assistant. Since then, he’s worked for O’Brien in Houston, Matt Patricia in Detroit and Flores in Miami, most recently serving as the Dolphins’ co-offensive coordinator this season. Godsey has coached both QBs and tight ends and has spent years working in Patriots-style organizations.
We’ve speculated about Judge, who was fired by the Giants earlier this month, potentially returning to his old post as Patriots special teams coordinator this offseason. But could he take on an even larger role with his former club? That’s probably unlikely since most of his NFL experience has been in the kicking game, but he did have offensive responsibilities in 2019, when Belichick had him coach both special teams and wide receivers. Judge was able to parlay that season into a head-coaching gig despite the 2019 Patriots boasting a miserable wideout crew outside of Julian Edelman.
THE WILD CARDS
Kelly does not have any direct Patriots ties, but he was the Texans’ offensive coordinator under O’Brien and then David Culley. In that role, he helped develop two young quarterbacks: first Deshaun Watson, then Davis Mills, the 2021 third-rounder who performed surprisingly well as a rookie on a bad Houston team. Fired along with Culley after the season, the 35-year-old could be an intriguing target if the Patriots eschew more familiar names.
Gase would not be a popular choice, and his inability to properly develop Ryan Tannehill in Miami or Sam Darnold in New York makes him a highly questionable fit for Jones. But Belichick has a good relationship with Gase, who worked under Nick Saban at Michigan State and LSU and McDaniels in Denver, and he hired longtime Gase lieutenant Hardegree last offseason. Gase has been out of the league since the Jets sent him packing last year.