FOXBOROUGH - Rumors began swirling last week that Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien might be interviewed for a head coaching position in the NFL, his name at one point tied to the Chiefs, who, it was reported, could hire him as offensive coordinator and “head coach in waiting.’’
But yesterday multiple reports tied O’Brien’s name to an entirely different job, and in the college game: Penn State.
Last night, ESPN reported that O’Brien and Penn State officials were “expected to meet this week to work out a deal.’’
The Patriots are in a bye week after wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs yesterday. The Nittany Lions will close their season today against Houston in the TicketCity Bowl.
Earlier yesterday, Jon Saraceno of USA Today tweeted that it is basically a done deal. “A person with knowledge of the Penn State hiring tells USA Today that only contract details need to be finalized before O’Brien is the man,’’ Saraceno tweeted.
At a Penn State pep rally yesterday, acting athletic director David Joyner cut off a reporter’s question about the reports and said, “No, don’t believe anything you read in the newspapers.’’ He answered “No,’’ when asked if anyone could be classified as a leading candidate.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said about O’Brien, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope he’s here for a long time and I told him that, too.’’
Brady added, “He’s been a great coach and friend. We have a great relationship; probably a very unique relationship in that we communicate all the time. I always enjoy working with him, and he’s done an incredible job with this team and this offense. He expects nothing less than our best.’’
O’Brien joined the Patriots in 2007 as an offensive coaching assistant. In 2008, he became receivers coach, and moved to quarterbacks coach in ’09.
While O’Brien did not officially receive the title of offensive coordinator until this season, he has been the primary play-caller for the offense since he became quarterbacks coach.
But O’Brien’s contract is up at the end of this season. Although he is still under contract with New England, NFL teams would need to request and receive permission to interview him. College teams, however, are a different story.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick would not discuss a potential move by O’Brien.
“We were just trying to beat Buffalo today and now we’re moving on to whatever’s next,’’ Belichick said. “I don’t have anything to say about any other situation other than the New England Patriots.’’
Receiver Wes Welker had similar thoughts. “We are not really worried about that right now,’’ he said. “Our focus is on here and the postseason. We have a chance and everybody is going to take full advantage of it.’’
The 42-year-old O’Brien, a Massachusetts native who played at Brown - also the alma mater of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whom he would be replacing - had spent his coaching career in the college game before joining New England.
After his playing days at Brown, where he was a linebacker and defensive end, he began coaching there, first with the tight ends and then inside linebackers. He left Brown to take an opportunity at Georgia Tech, where he spent eight years, rising from graduate assistant to offensive coordinator/assistant head coach. Two-year stints at Maryland and Duke followed, and he left his spot as offensive coordinator with the Blue Devils to take a low-level position on Belichick’s staff.
It is unlikely the media will hear any of O’Brien’s thoughts on this in the coming days: NFL rules only require teams to make coordinators available during the regular season, and O’Brien is not scheduled to take part in today’s conference call, as he had done for the last 17 weeks.
Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who infamously pretended to shoot himself in the leg against the Jets in a touchdown celebration, was flagged again yesterday for his antics.
This time, after catching an 18-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, he lifted his shirt to reveal a message that read, “Happy New Year!’’ Johnson was pulled for the remainder of the game.
“I didn’t know it was going to draw a penalty,’’ Johnson said. “At the end of the day, what I did was what I did, and I am going to try and bring in the New Year. Ultimately, it hurt my teammates and that is the thing that is hurting me the most. The fact is that it hurt my team.’’
Of coach Chan Gailey’s decision to pull him, Johnson said, “I have to respect his decision. He made it and I can’t complain about it or whine or pout. He made his decision and I am going with it. It really doesn’t matter why or how it happened, at the end of the day what I did hurt my teammates and I have to take that and I will.’’
Gailey said, “What we said after we had an issue earlier in the season was if anybody got a penalty that hurt our football team for any kind of demonstration, that he was out that game and then we would decide about the next game.
“And so, if I say that, then I am going to do it, so he was out.’’
Gailey said he was tired of Johnson being selfish.
“I got tired of it the first time it happened,’’ he said. “But, you hope people learn from situations.’’
Belichick became the first coach in NFL history to lead his team to five seasons of 13 or more wins. He also did it in 2003, ’04, ’07, and ’10.
“I think it’s a compliment to the players,’’ Belichick said. “They’re the ones that won them and went out there and earned all those wins. I didn’t make any blocks or make any tackles or catch any balls or make any kicks. Give them the credit.
“It’s been a privilege for me to coach some of the great players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach in my career, both as an assistant and head coach. I think all of those wins are reflective of the team and the players that were out there making the plays. They’re the ones that really deserve the credit.’’
George Seifert coached the 49ers to four seasons of 13 or more wins.
Welker had six receptions for 51 yards, an off day for him but still enough catches to give him 122 for the season and make him just the second player in league history to record two seasons of 120 catches or more. Cris Carter, who had 122 receptions in 1994 and ’95, is the other player with that distinction.
Welker had 123 catches in 2009.
Welker has 554 receptions in his five seasons with the Patriots, finishing the season three shy of Troy Brown’s team record of 557.
Mark Anderson got his 10th sack of the season in the second quarter, tying him with the injured Andre Carter for the team lead. It was the first time since 1985 that the Patriots had two players hit double digits in sacks. The last duo was Andre Tippett (16 1/2) and Garin Veris (10) . . . BenJarvus Green-Ellis had the sixth multi-touchdown game of his career, his 10th and 11th scores of the year. New England is 22-1 when Green-Ellis scores a rushing touchdown . . . Jerod Mayo finished the season with 102 tackles, the fourth straight year he’s topped the century mark. Fred Marion (1985-1990) holds the franchise record with six seasons of 100-plus tackles . . . New England set a team record for total net yards in a season, with 6,848. That beat the 2007 mark of 6,580 . . . The players received today off and will return to work tomorrow . . . The Patriots inactives were: G Logan Mankins, RB Kevin Faulk, DL Ron Brace, RB Shane Vereen, T Sebastian Vollmer, LB Tracy White, and QB Ryan Mallett . . . The Bills’ inactives were: QB/WR Brad Smith, DB Josh Nesbitt, OL Kraig Urbik, DL Jarron Gilbert, LT Demetrius Bell, WR Kamar Aiken, and TE Fendi Onobun.Zuri Berry of the Globe staff contributed to this report and material from the Associated Press was used. Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.