FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick won’t say who the Patriots’ offensive play-caller will be this fall to replace Josh McDaniels.
Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, the likely candidates, won’t say either. Neither will the players, who won’t even acknowledge whether they know the chain of command.
“I’m just trying to work, get back out there, do my best,” cocaptain David Andrews said Wednesday. He threw up his hands as if to say, “Don’t ask me, I’m not trying to get into trouble.”
By all accounts, it looks as if Patricia is going to be the primary play-caller. During 11-on-11 drills in Wednesday’s practice, he was on the walkie-talkie and seemed to be relaying plays to Mac Jones and other quarterbacks.
But it could be a combination of Patricia, Judge, and even Belichick. During seven-on-seven drills, Patricia worked with the offensive linemen while Judge called the plays to the quarterbacks. During special teams periods, Patricia and Judge stood chatting with the quarterbacks. Patricia and Judge basically ran Wednesday’s practice as Belichick stood on the sideline for nearly an hour chatting with a defensive coordinator from Utah State who was in town to observe practice.
It’s certainly an interesting new offensive brain trust in Foxborough to replace McDaniels, who called plays and coached quarterbacks. Neither Patricia nor Judge has been an offensive play-caller in the NFL, or has much experience coaching offense. Patricia was a defensive coordinator before he became a head coach, and Judge was a special teams coordinator.
I can’t sit here on June 8 and say Belichick’s plan will fail. Perhaps Belichick is right. Maybe a good coach is a good coach, and if you can coach one position in the Patriots system, you can coach all of them. Maybe calling offensive plays isn’t as hard as we make it out to be. Maybe Patricia, 13-29-1 as the Lions head coach from 2018-20, really is a football savant, but he’s just better-suited as an assistant coach.
What I can say on June 8 is Belichick’s plan is incredibly risky. Maybe even needlessly risky. To not hire an experienced quarterbacks coach or an experienced play-caller for Jones as he enters his second NFL season is asking for trouble.
If the Patriots offense sputters in 2022, the inexperienced coaching staff will be an obvious scapegoat. But the fault really will fall on Belichick’s shoulders for not putting a better staff around his young QB.
Patricia seems the safer bet to be the play-caller for a handful of reasons. One is that he is truly Belichick’s right-hand man, more so even than Judge, whom Belichick respects a lot. Belichick entrusts Patricia to sign contracts and manage the salary cap. Belichick and Patricia vacation together. A week before the NFL Draft, they were out on the boat in Nantucket late into the night talking offensive scheme, per a well-placed source who happened to be in the boat slip next to them.
But it’s definitely going to be a group effort among Patricia, Judge, and Belichick. And maybe that’s enough brainpower to make the offense go.
It’s a complicated setup, though, rife with fair questions:
▪ Can Patricia call plays and coach the offensive line at the same time? This holds true for both practices and games.
▪ If Patricia continues to coach from the press box as he did last year, can he be an effective play-caller if he doesn’t have face-to-face contact with Jones? The game of telephone between Patricia upstairs and Judge and Jones downstairs could create gaps in communication.
▪ If Patricia coaches from the press box, can assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates handle the sideline coaching for one of the team’s most important units?
▪ If Patricia coaches from the sideline, who will replace him as the eyes in the sky for personnel and instant replay? Patricia took that important role last year after Nick Caserio left for Houston.
It would have been a lot easier for Belichick to simply hire a proven offensive coordinator. But this is the route he chose.
It’s an interesting choice, because Belichick has been down this road before, and it didn’t end well.
He did not have an official offensive coordinator in his five seasons in Cleveland (1991-95). Belichick called plays sometimes, even though he had spent most of his career as a defensive coach.
But there was no chain of command, and it led to confusion and finger-pointing. Gary Tranquill, the Browns quarterbacks coach from 1991-93, told the Washington Post in 2018 that Belichick’s offensive philosophy was just to call plays that he struggled to defend. In one game, Belichick unexpectedly told Tranquill that he was in charge of calling plays for the rest of the game, and that it was his fault if he was unprepared.
The Browns made the playoffs in just one of Belichick’s five seasons, and they finished 11th, 15th, 16th, 20th, and 25th in points scored, out of 28 teams.
“There was nobody on offense calling the shots,” said Tranquill, whose last coaching job was as Boston College’s offensive coordinator in 2009-10. “I didn’t have any fun coaching there. It’s as simple as that.
“We would mash around things for hours, and then we’d have to go through him to make sure, and he’d say he doesn’t want to do that — which is a head coach prerogative, but sometimes that got old.”
Maybe this year is Belichick’s shot at redemption. He can prove that the play-caller-by-committee approach can work. That the system — his system — is more important than the individual play-caller.
But if the offense sputters, it’s an easy finger-point. Patricia and Judge may be calling the plays, but it will be all Belichick’s fault for taking an unnecessary risk.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.