Why the Patriots are banking on Bill O’Brien to fix their broken offense

FOXBORO, Mass. — It was second-and-6 in the first quarter of an otherwise nondescript exhibition game last month. The New England Patriots were in Green Bay for their second of three preseason tuneups.

Mac Jones got to the line of scrimmage and scanned the defense in front of him. He waved his hands to get the attention of his teammates. The third-year quarterback didn’t like the play that was called against this defense, so he audibled.

What followed was a 23-yard run by Rhamondre Stevenson, a big gain for an offense finding its footing.

But the play was noteworthy not for the yardage picked up, but rather because of what it symbolized. On the play, the assets around Jones weren’t all that different from the assets he had a year ago. Stevenson was still in the backfield. Hunter Henry was still the tight end. The receivers were similar.

Rather, it’s a snapshot into the biggest decision the Patriots made this offseason, one that more than anything else will dictate whether 2023 ends as a successful campaign for the franchise.

The Patriots didn’t revamp their offensive personnel this spring. They didn’t use any of their Day 1 or 2 draft picks on the offensive side of the ball. They used their money in free agency to fill in spots where they were losing starters (replacing wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor with JuJu Smith-Schuster; and adding Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson and others to take over for right tackle Isaiah Wynn).

That’s because Bill Belichick didn’t think a roster overhaul was required to fix an offense that last season ranked 24th in EPA per play and 25th in points per drive.

Instead, Belichick is banking on new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to turn things around, hopeful that he can raise the offense’s floor and bring out the best in Jones.

Belichick sees it like this: It’s hard to get a proper perspective of the players last season given the way the offense was run. Drastic turnover wasn’t necessary. O’Brien can come back to New England and fix all that was wrong (even though he hasn’t been in the NFL since he was fired as the Houston Texans’ head coach in 2020). If O’Brien can make this offense, say, the 12th-best unit in the league, and that’s paired with a top-five defense and top-five special teams unit, that should make this team good enough to compete for a playoff win.

Most of all, Belichick is making a massive bet that O’Brien steadies a turbulent ship and provides offensive stability that allows for a proper assessment of Jones while complementing what should be a good defense.

If he’s right, Belichick will take a massive step closer to the 19 coaching wins he needs to top Don Shula’s NFL record, give himself a chance to land the Patriots’ first playoff win in five years and again prove doubters incorrect, this time for thinking he hasn’t done enough to improve the offensive roster.

But if he’s wrong, it will set up some awkward conversations with ownership about how he handled the development of a first-round quarterback that Robert Kraft likes and how offensive decisions turned the team into a mediocre one in the post-Tom Brady years.


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O’Brien hasn’t been in the mood for reflection. He hasn’t wanted to discuss the 2011 season when he oversaw the Patriots offense, his time with Brady, what he learned in two head coaching stints — first at Penn State, then with the Texans — or even his high school years at St. John’s Prep just outside of Boston.

His current job is too big, his available time too limited.

“Right now, my mind is definitely on Philly and what we can do to put our players in the best position to make plays in that game,” O’Brien said this week with the Philadelphia Eagles coming to Gillette Stadium for Sunday’s opener.

In January, he was given the titles of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, two related jobs that carry a bit more weight with the Patriots than they do with other teams.

So far, Belichick has let O’Brien coach and implement the offense the way he sees fit. When Jones has questions, he knows whom to go to. That sounds like a simple thing, but it wasn’t the case a year ago when Joe Judge was the quarterbacks coach, Matt Patricia was the play caller (and offensive line coach) and Belichick hazily oversaw them both.

Now, the setup for Jones is clear. He meets with O’Brien regularly. That has allowed Belichick to be more hands-off with Jones and the offense, trusting O’Brien to properly work with both. It’s no secret Belichick wasn’t pleased with how Jones handled the offensive situation a year ago. But with O’Brien in the fold, the feeling appears to have improved. O’Brien’s work with Jones has left the coach with more confidence in his quarterback and the offense in general.

“He comes in early, stays late, works hard, understands the offense: how it works, how to get his teammates involved, how to help them be productive,” Belichick said of Jones. “He’s had a really good stretch here in training camp and had a good spring to propel himself into this time period, so it’s been pretty consistent all the way through.”

Jones’ trust in O’Brien has been returned in the form of more influence in the offense. A year ago, Jones was strongly discouraged from changing plays at the line of scrimmage. The thinking was, We’ll call the plays. You run them.

Now the view is more collaborative. O’Brien offers Jones a play call to relay in the huddle, plus another option in case Jones thinks the first one won’t work based on the way the defense lines up. Then there are other checks Jones can go to throughout a game. In other words, O’Brien gives the quarterback a full toolbox and lets him pick the right tool for the job.

“I think the big thing is just using your tools,” Jones said. “Just trying to use your toolbox to get into the right plays. And that’ll get easier as the season goes on because you see more looks and remember the looks.”

Though Belichick and the Patriots know how important O’Brien is to their success in 2023, O’Brien is aware of the important role Jones must play. That’s why O’Brien is leaning on his college roots to help Jones put a dismal 2022 behind him.

After O’Brien was fired by the Texans, he went to Alabama to become the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban, one of Belichick’s most trusted friends. In Tuscaloosa, he became well versed in the run-pass options Saban has made a central part of Alabama’s offense since Jones arrived in 2018.

Now, O’Brien is bringing that approach to the Patriots’ playbook. For this team, it serves two purposes. First, O’Brien realizes his offensive line could be a problem, at least early in the season as they work in two starters who missed all of training camp and deal with continued uncertainty at right tackle. The RPOs relieve some of the pressure on the line, resulting in either rushes against light boxes or quick passes where they’re not required to block for long. Second, the plays are part of the reason Jones thrived at Alabama, throwing for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2020.

Before Jones left for the NFL in 2021, he had one final task at Alabama: help teach the newly hired O’Brien the Crimson Tide’s core offense.

Coach Bill Belichick, left, has entrusted offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien with getting the most out of third-year quarterback Mac Jones. (Eric Canha / USA Today)

The Patriots’ outlook in 2023 is simple. They believe in their defense. They think their special teams can be vastly improved.

And the offense? Well, two years ago, with Josh McDaniels running the show, they were a top-10 group. The players aren’t all that different from back then, and they’re even better at some positions.

If O’Brien can get Jones to improve on the success he had as a rookie, he could turn this offense back into a top-10 unit. At a time when the rest of the league is assuming middling results from the Patriots, an offense that good could make them one of the NFL’s bigger surprises.

“I just think, overall, he’s a way better quarterback,” safety Adrian Phillips said of Jones. “He took last year on the chin. He’ll be the first one to tell you that’s not how he wanted to play. And for all of us, that’s not how any of us wanted to play. But he’ll be the first to tell you that, and he’s coming out here every single day and he’s trying to light our defense up.”

In a lot of ways, O’Brien was a slam dunk hire. Kraft likes him. Belichick is familiar with him, which is important for a coach who doesn’t like to hire outside his staff. O’Brien’s no-nonsense attitude should be a good fit for cleaning up an offense that played sloppily under Patricia and Judge. And who better, the thinking goes, to revive Jones than a coach who just worked with Saban and saw where and how Jones succeeded at Alabama?

But what happens if they’re wrong? What if Belichick’s trust in O’Brien isn’t enough to overcome the team’s ordinary talent on offense? What if the offensive line Belichick constructed isn’t good enough or the receivers he chose can’t get open enough?

Belichick watched last season as his offense was among the least effective in the league. It cost his team a playoff appearance. And he has yet to make drastic changes to the personnel, effectively swapping Smith-Schuster for Meyers, Reiff for Wynn and tight end Mike Gesicki for Jonnu Smith. The players weren’t the problem, in Belichick’s mind.

That puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders of one man. He is expecting O’Brien to turn around an entire unit on a team facing a lot of pressure to win now.

(Top photo of Bill O’Brien and Mac Jones: John Amis / Associated Press)

“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.

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