Patriots Mailbag: Who Should Lead Pats’ Offense In 2023?

Plus: Evaluating the problematic state of New England's O-line


December 9, 2022

Mailbag time! Let’s dive right into your New England Patriots questions.

Why on earth does Matt Patricia still have a job? And why is Kendrick Bourne in the dog house for speaking the truth?
Bill Belichick said this week that he feels “good” about the Patriots’ offensive setup and won’t make any “major changes” for the home stretch, so it sounds like fans are stuck with Patricia as New England’s offensive play-caller through the end of this season.

The experiment of replacing Josh McDaniels with a defensive coach (Patricia) and a special teams coach (Joe Judge) has been a resounding failure thus far, with the Patriots regressing from a borderline top-10 offense in 2021 to one of the NFL’s worst this season. And buy-in from the players seems to be waning, as evidenced by Mac Jones’ sideline blowup and Bourne’s explosive postgame comments (by Patriots standards) about Patricia’s play-calling.

Belichick believes it’s too late in the season to switch play-callers. But unless the offense improves considerably over these final five weeks, it’s hard to imagine New England sticking with this controversial and much-maligned leadership structure in 2023. As much loyalty as Belichick clearly has to Patricia and Judge, even he has to recognize that the status quo is not working.

The offense is a mess. Jones looks more like a rookie than he did last season. Every skill player not named Rhamondre Stevenson or Jakobi Meyers is having one of the worst seasons of his career. Something has to change.

As for Bourne, there hasn’t been any public evidence that his remarks landed him in Belichick’s doghouse, though the head coach surely did not appreciate him. We’ll see if it affects his playing time Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals, but the Patriots may need him with Meyers on the mend.

Meyers took a shot to the head late in last week’s loss to the Buffalo Bills and still was in concussion protocol as of Thursday night.

Do you see the Belichick going out of the norm and hire a new offensive coordinator? Someone completely from a different team, different system, or even someone from college? Belichick picked the mind of Chip Kelly before
A natural transition from that last question: If the Patriots opt to install a new offensive coordinator this offseason, who would they pick? Bill O’Brien’s name already has been floated, as his prior experience running New England’s offense would make him a natural choice. O’Brien also briefly overlapped with Jones after he became Alabama’s OC in 2021, and multiple reports have indicated he’s open to returning to the NFL ranks next season.

It’ll be fascinating, though, to see if Belichick would consider a candidate who does not have previous Patriots ties, because that’s something he’s almost never done. Every Patriots offensive and defensive coordinator — and de facto OC/DC — since 2000 worked with or under Belichick before taking that job. The vast majority rose to coordinator roles after stints as New England position coaches:

Offensive coordinator or play-caller
Matt Patricia
Josh McDaniels
Bill O’Brien
Charlie Weis

Defensive coordinator or play-caller
Steve Belichick
Brian Flores
Matt Patricia
Dean Pees
Eric Mangini
Romeo Crennel

Weis overlapped with Belichick with the New York Jets. Crennel was on Bill Parcells’ Jets and Giants staffs alongside Belichick. The rest of the assistants on that list coached one or more Patriots position groups before taking the reins of the offense or defense as a whole.

In the Belichick era, there’s only one example of New England making an outside hire for either coordinator job: Greg Schiano in 2019. Schiano, who had a close relationship with Belichick but had never coached with him, was tabbed to replace Flores after the latter left for the Miami Dolphins. He lasted just a few months in that role, however, resigning before spring camp to “spend more time on (his) faith and family.”

So, there’s there is precedent for Belichick bringing in an outsider to fill one of those prominent roles, even if he’s only done so once in two decades. If he chooses to buck tradition and go that route again this offseason, the list of offensive-minded NFL coaches who currently are free agents includes Adam Gase, Gary Kubiak and Frank Reich, who was fired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts after the Patriots routed them last month.

Belichick also could pluck an up-and-comer from the college ranks, but that would stray even further from his typical M.O.

How is the OL health and depth looking after a long break going into Monday night? Will we see more stability?

Um, not good.

Starting tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn both did not practice Thursday, leaving the Patriots extremely thin at the position. It also doesn’t seem like Marcus Cannon will return from injured reserve this week, as he has yet to begin practicing. So, if Brown and Wynn can’t go Monday night, the Patriots’ only available tackles would be Yodny Cajuste and Conor McDermott, neither of whom has ever looked like a competent NFL starter. They also could bump out Mike Onwenu, who’s played well at right tackle in the past, but Belichick has said the team would prefer to leave him in his natural position at right guard.

The only tackle on the Patriots’ practice squad is Hunter Thedford, a recently converted tight end who’s never played an NFL snap.

New England’s offensive line play has been dreadful of late, and a lack of continuity surely has contributed to that. Injuries to Wynn, Cannon, Cajuste and center David Andrews have forced the Patriots to field six different starting O-line combinations over their last seven games:

Week 13: Brown-Strange-Andrews-Onwenu-McDermott
Week 12: Brown-Strange-Ferentz-Onwenu-Cajuste
Week 11: Wynn-Strange-Andrews-Onwenu-Cajuste
Week 9: Brown-Strange-Ferentz-Onwenu-Cajuste
Week 8: Brown-Strange-Ferentz-Onwenu-Cannon
Week 7: Brown-Strange-Andrews-Onwenu-Cannon
Weeks 1-6: Brown-Strange-Andrews-Onwenu-Wynn

“The availability has been inconsistent, so we’ll see what that looks like, even on a daily basis,” Belichick said this week. “We’ve got situations where some of those players have played but not practiced. So it is what it is. We’ll just take it day by day.”

Cohesiveness up front will be important this week against an aggressive Cardinals defense. Arizona has just 23 sacks on the season — tied for eighth-fewest in the NFL — but ranks third in the league in blitz rate, per Pro-Football-Reference, sending extra rushers on 35.3% of their defensive snaps.

Will the Patriots be able to win a playoff game that requires them to pass more than 40 times? Or can they only win a low scoring game holding the other team to 17 points or less?
They have yet to prove that they can.

Since drafting Jones last year, the Patriots are 0-9 when their opponent scores at least 25 points. They’ve won just twice when their opponent scores more than 17. They’ve come close on a few occasions (the overtime loss to Dallas last season, the Minnesota game on Thanksgiving) but have not won a high-scoring shootout since November 2020, when they rallied to beat the New York Jets 30-27 with Cam Newton at quarterback.

The Patriots also are 1-6 when Jones attempts more than 35 passes.

Is Hoyer still hanging around even on IR? Feels like Mac could use him helping out
Yep, he is. Brian Hoyer has frequently been spotted at Gillette Stadium since landing on injured reserve after Week 4. When the Patriots practice, he often throws and works out on a separate field.

It’s unclear whether Hoyer is fully recovered from his concussion and healthy enough to play if called upon, but the Patriots don’t have any real need to reactivate him unless Jones or backup Bailey Zappe suffers an injury. It would make the most sense for New England to keep the 36-year-old on IR as an emergency option/veteran mentor, and if he has no issue with that, that’s where I expect him to remain for the rest of the season.

Are there any statistics on Brendan Schooler being one of the best special teamers in the league? Every punt it seems like he’s there and there about
You could make the argument that no Patriots rookie this season has been better in his specific role than Schooler. He’s been flat-out fantastic in kick/punt coverage.

Schooler’s 10 solo special teams tackles are tied for the NFL lead (no other Patriot has more than four) and he’s recorded at least one in each of the last seven games. The undrafted free agent also is one of just six players with multiple fumble recoveries in the kicking game, and that doesn’t include the blocked punt he recovered against the Indianapolis Colts.

Teams can only include one special teams player on the ballot for Pro Bowl fan voting, and Matthew Slater naturally is the Patriots’ nominee. But Schooler deserves legitimate Pro Bowl consideration. He’s been that good.

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