NEWPORT, R.I. - Bill O’Brien traded in his nautical blue Patriots sweatsuit for the dark royal blue of Penn State nearly a month ago, but the native son of Andover, Mass., hasn’t gotten over the Patriots’ 21-17 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
What continues to bother O’Brien, who was New England’s offensive coordinator, is the blame that has been placed on receiver Wes Welker for the infamous incompletion on second and 11 with 4:06 to play.
Did Welker get more grief than he deserved?
“Definitely,’’ O’Brien said yesterday after a speaking engagement at the Big New England Coaching Clinic.
“I would tell [fans] they should be very grateful - I’m sure they are - to have a player like Wes Welker as a Patriot. He is what Boston is all about, in my opinion. He’s a hard-working guy, he’s a tough guy, he’s an honest guy, nothing was ever given to him.
“That wasn’t a drop. That would have been a tremendous catch, and he should never think twice about that. And it had nothing to do with us losing the game. There were many, many plays before that where we could have made better coaching decisions, and better plays. That’s just one play of many.’’
O’Brien didn’t offer a comment on the throw by Tom Brady, nor was he asked a pointed question about it.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, speaking at the same event, agreed with O’Brien.
“It wasn’t a great throw,’’ Gilbride said. “It would have been a difficult catch. Welker was expecting the ball to the inside, where it should be on a seam route.’’
Gilbride confirmed that Giants safety Kenny Phillips was not in the correct position on the play and would not have made a play on the ball had it been thrown inside.
“I’m not sure it would have been a touchdown, but it would been a big gain,’’ Gilbride said.
As for a few other lingering questions from the Super Bowl loss, O’Brien “didn’t want to make excuses,’’ but said the ankle injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski affected the offense because “obviously he was hampered.’’
O’Brien also bristled at some of the criticism for not using more of the no-huddle offense, such as on the three-and-out drive with 6:37 left in the third quarter when the Patriots held a 17-12 lead. It appeared the team slowed the pace down a bit there.
“Not intentionally,’’ he said. “We always tried to play fast, maybe it looked like it was slowed down. I felt like we no-huddled as much as we had . . . I didn’t think it was a matter of no no-huddle in that game.’’
O’Brien’s one big regret from the Super Bowl?
“Probably the first play of the game, call a different play,’’ he said of the safety Brady took that put the defense right back on the field. “But it was a play that we worked on that we felt like was going to be a good play. So hindsight is definitely 20-20. But if I could change one, I would change that one.
“It’s not why we lost the game, I want to make sure I’m clear on that, but all year we had started pretty well for the most part. That wasn’t a good start.’’
The Patriots have moved on to preparations for next season, but O’Brien, who immediately left to replace the late Joe Paterno at Penn State, has not been a part of the evaluation of the 2011 season, nor the discussions of what the Patriots will do next. And O’Brien didn’t have an opinion about what they should do in the draft.
“It’s an inexact science, I will say that,’’ he said. “And New England, I can only tell you my experience, is that Bill [Belichick] teaches you how to evaluate talent. No one is ever going to be perfect in that process. Mistakes are always going to be made but to me, it’s hard to doubt what Bill does there. It’s proven.’’
O’Brien didn’t readily say the Patriots would be a better offense if they acquired a dangerous receiver in free agency and/or the draft.
“When you look at your roster in the NFL, you see what you need and then you look at what’s available, and what the value of what that player is,’’ he said. “That’s what they’re doing right now.
“They’re looking out there and saying, ‘Here’s what we need to improve.’ I don’t know what that is, I really don’t. And then they’re saying, ‘This guy is more valuable than that guy at that position so let’s put him at that position.’
“So how much would a deep threat help? Maybe that would take away from some other part of the offense. I don’t know. I would have to sit back there and be studying it right now, and I’m not out studying it.’’
O’Brien disagreed with the notion that some teams, such as the Giants this season and the Jets in 2010, can clamp down on the Patriots between the numbers without a vertical threat.
“This year we did a better job,’’ O’Brien said. “The other thing that nobody ever talks about, that I think you need to, is how fast we played this year. We played a very high tempo most of the year so guys were uncovered and we would throw a hook pass out there and that would go for 15 yards.
“There are other ways to get the ball down the field. I think everybody kind of clamors on [the vertical game] because I think ’07 spoiled a lot of people with [Randy] Moss. But there are other ways to get chunk plays.’’
O’Brien said Belichick was a trusted adviser when it came to evaluating the Penn State job.
“I’ll never forget Bill Belichick’s reaction when I told him I was contacted about the job,’’ he said. “I’m going to keep the conversation really between he and I, but he had a ton of respect for that job, regardless of what happened.
“And that meant a lot to me. He didn’t think it would be easy, but he just had a lot of respect for that job.’’
O’Brien said the task of building a program - and not being the first coach after a legend - is on his mind now.
“I don’t look at that, I really don’t,’’ he said. “I think you just go in there and work extremely hard and do what you think is right, get the kids to buy into your philosophy and teach them how to play football your way, and do the best you can to show people that you’re running an open program, a program that is about the university and not just about football.
“And I think you can do that there. Again, I’m not trying to be Joe Paterno, I’m just trying to run a good, solid, championship football team.’’Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.