FOXBOROUGH - Bill O’Brien is in State College, Pa., where last night he was hired as Penn State’s new head football coach, but he will return to New England shortly to continue the work of helping the Patriots prepare for their playoff game next Saturday.
O’Brien will remain the Patriots’ offensive coordinator through the end of their season, which could be as late as Feb. 5 for the Super Bowl. He will be there for the meetings and practices, for game-planning and talking with quarterback Tom Brady.
But he will certainly be burning the candle at both ends as he also begins the difficult work of rebuilding the scandal-plagued Nittany Lions program, compiling a coaching staff, signing a recruiting class, and not insignificantly, replacing legend Joe Paterno.
As for who will replace O’Brien, signs point toward Josh McDaniels returning after three seasons away from the Patriots. McDaniels accepted the head coaching position in Denver in 2009, his profile rising after, as offensive coordinator, he guided Matt Cassel through the first 15 starts of his career - his first starts since high school - and New England posted an 11-5 mark after losing Brady in the opening moments of the first game.
McDaniels was fired 12 games into his second season with the Broncos and served as the Rams’ offensive coordinator this season. Though Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney were fired this week, McDaniels was not, and his contract with St. Louis runs through next season.
However, the Patriots requested permission to speak with McDaniels, which was granted. McDaniels is in Massachusetts this weekend, and it is expected the Rams will release him from his contract, enabling him to return to the Patriots.
McDaniels left New England on good terms and with the blessing of Bill Belichick, which is why a reunion is possible. Also, it is believed that Brady in particular would be happy to see McDaniels return. That’s not to say that Brady is happy to see O’Brien go, but he and McDaniels had a very good relationship.
When one player was told yesterday that McDaniels would likely be back, it was hard for him to hold back a smile.
O’Brien is not the first Patriots offensive coordinator to accept a college job with the NFL still in session: Charlie Weis did the same in 2004, accepting the head job at Notre Dame, and New England went on to win the Super Bowl that season. In the days leading up to that game against the Eagles in Jacksonville, Weis discussed having to wear two hats, but said it just meant longer days for him.
Weis is now trying to assemble a coaching staff at the University of Kansas, where he was named head coach last month. He said in a statement distributed by the school that balancing two jobs wasn’t ideal, but it worked out.
“It was a hectic period, but all things considered I thought it went as smoothly as could be expected,’’ Weis said. “I had a plan of prioritizing everything that went into getting the new staff and program up and running, but I also made it clear that compromising the job at the Patriots was never going to be an option.
“In the end, the results turned out pretty well.’’
One player who was part of the Patriots’ offense in 2004 said he didn’t notice any change in Weis. In the postseason, he noted, players and coaches are focused solely on the task at hand.
But Weis had one significant advantage over O’Brien as he juggled his duties: He was named the Fighting Irish coach on Dec. 12, 2004, giving him more time to gather his staff, target recruits, and otherwise get his ducks in a row.
O’Brien will not have that luxury. National Signing Day, one of the biggest days of the year on the college football calendar, is Feb. 1. So if the Patriots are still playing then, O’Brien may not be getting much sleep.