Four Thoughts On What Bill O’Brien Return Means For Patriots, Mac Jones

O'Brien previously was a Patriots assistant from 2007-11

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January 24

Meet the new Patriots offensive coordinator. Same as the old Patriots offensive coordinator.

Bill O’Brien is returning to New England to reclaim the job he last held in 2011, according to multiple reports Tuesday morning.

The 53-year-old Andover, Mass., native will be tasked with reviving an offense that nosedived this season under the leadership of play-caller Matt Patricia and quarterbacks coach Joe Judge, as well as rekindling the promise quarterback Mac Jones showed before his Year 2 regression.

Here are four thoughts on what the O’Brien hire means for the 2023 Patriots and their QB:

1. This was always the best and most obvious choice
When Josh McDaniels left the Patriots last offseason, O’Brien looked like the most natural candidate to replace him. His commitment to Alabama — where he was serving as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban — and other factors prevented a reunion from happening. But better late than never.

After the ill-fated Patricia/Judge experiment crushed the Patriots’ playoff hopes and transformed Jones from a poised, confident rookie into a mercurial sophomore prone to mistakes and on-field outbursts, they’ll now be able to turn their offense over to someone with years of experience both calling plays and coaching QBs.

O’Brien did both at a high level during his first stint in New England — his Tom Brady-led offenses in 2009-11 ranked sixth, first and third in scoring and first, first and third in DVOA — and even has a prior relationship with Jones, with whom he briefly overlapped in Tuscaloosa. O’Brien’s offenses during his run as head coach of the Houston Texans weren’t nearly as successful, though those often featured replacement-level quarterbacks.

Can O’Brien return the Patriots’ offense to those Brady-era heights? We’ll see. In all likelihood, no. But if the Patriots can replicate the success they had on defense this season, they won’t need an elite offense to compete. Even approaching the production they had under McDaniels in 2021 (sixth in scoring, 10th in DVOA) would put the Patriots squarely back in the playoff mix in the AFC.

2. This is big for Jones — and the Patriots’ evaluation of him
Choosing to pair Jones with a play-caller who’d never called plays (Patricia) and a position coach who’d never coached quarterbacks (Judge) at a pivotal time in his NFL development instantly seemed like a bad idea. Those criticisms proved valid, and as a result, we learned next to nothing about the young QB in his second pro season.

Yes, Jones’ numbers stunk. He ranked fourth-to-last among qualified QBs in both QBR and EPA/play. But was that because of his own shortcomings or the fault of the coaching staff? How much blame did he deserve for how poorly the offense performed with Patricia and Judge leading the show?

With O’Brien back in town, those questions no longer apply. Jones now has a capable, experienced coach who should be able to set him back on the proper trajectory. And if he can’t, then the Patriots can acknowledge Jones isn’t the guy and start planning for the future with someone else behind center.

Jones’ and O’Brien’s personalities also should mesh well. The former said this season that he wants to be “coached harder,” and the latter brings a fiery demeanor and temper that earned him the nickname “Teapot” during his first Patriots stint. Jones is “very” excited to play for O’Brien, a source close to the QB told MassLive.com’s Mark Daniels.

O’Brien returning to Foxboro has sparked speculation that Tom Brady could do the same, but that still seems far-fetched at this stage.

3. What will O’Brien’s staff look like?
With an official offensive coordinator now in place, the next step is assembling O’Brien’s lieutenants.

This season, the Patriots had Patricia and Billy Yates coaching the O-line, Judge coaching quarterbacks, Nick Caley coaching tight ends, Vinnie Sunseri coaching running backs and Troy Brown and Ross Douglas coaching wide receivers. It’s unclear how many of those assistants head coach Bill Belichick plans to replace, but it’s at least safe to assume Patricia and Judge won’t be back in their 2022 roles, if they’re with the team at all in 2023.

Will the Patriots promote Yates or bring in a new voice to lead their O-line after that unit struggled this season? Will O’Brien coach QBs in addition to his coordinator duties — as he did during his last go-round in New England — or appoint someone to fill that role?

Will Caley, whose contract reportedly is up, stick around now that he’s not receiving an OC promotion? Will any of the other candidates for the coordinator job (Keenan McCardell, Adrian Klemm and Shawn Jefferson) instead come aboard as position coaches?

Brown and Douglas reportedly are serving as head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, at next week’s East-West Shrine Bowl, which seems to suggest they’ll keep their jobs. Either also could be reassigned to a new position group.

4. What does this mean for a potential DeAndre Hopkins pursuit?
The Cardinals reportedly plan to shop their star wide receiver this offseason, and the Patriots’ need for a game-changing No. 1 wideout makes them an intriguing potential suitor. But Hopkins played for O’Brien in Houston and said he had “no relationship” with the coach during their six seasons together, which ended with his widely panned 2020 trade to Arizona.

“That would be interesting to pair Bill O’Brien with Hopkins if O’Brien ends up with the Patriots OC job,” an NFC executive told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler this week. “They might not be friendly. But they had success together with subpar quarterback play, so maybe it can work.”

Hopkins has a no-trade clause, so he could veto a potential move to New England if he does not want to reunite with his old head coach. But perhaps his and Belichick’s mutual admiration for each other would be enough to draw him in.

Belichick last month compared Hopkins to Hall of Famer Cris Carter and said he’s “every bit as good as anybody I?ve ever coached against.” New Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort is a Patriots alum, so there’s a connection there, too.

It’s unclear whether the Patriots are even planning to pursue Hopkins, but he’d provide an instant boost to their passing attack, which has been led for the last three seasons by impending free agent Jakobi Meyers.

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Thumbnail photo via Gary Cosby Jr./Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports Images
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