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Will Bill Belichick’s Big Coaching Gamble Backfire?

In a pivotal year for quarterback Mac Jones, Belichick has turned the New England Patriots offense over to a pair of failed head coaches. What could possibly go wrong? Only everything.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every great coach must deal with brain drain. When an NFL team reaches a Super Bowl, every struggling team surely wishes they could hire the genius who made it all happen. They can’t—the geniuses generally don’t feel like leaving—so team owners turn to the people surrounding the Great Coach, hiring away his coordinators and assistants.

Sometimes, this works out. The Bengals hired Zac Taylor off Sean McVay’s staff in 2019, and three years later were playing McVay’s Rams in the Super Bowl. The Packers hired Matt LaFleur due to his close association with Kyle Shanahan and McVay; LaFleur has the highest winning percentage in NFL history. It even happens in college football. Georgia hired Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, and last year the Bulldogs beat Saban’s Crimson Tide in the national championship game.

And so, NFL teams have spent 20-plus years raiding the staff of Bill Belichick, widely regarded as the greatest coach in the modern history of the NFL. It has rarely worked out; Belichick has spawned a stunted coaching tree. Eric Mangini’s coaching career peaked with a cameo on The Sopranos; Charlie Weis did little more than bilk Notre Dame and Kansas out of tens of millions of dollars; Bill O’Brien kneecapped his own coaching ability with a disastrous attempt to mimic Belichick by pulling double duty as the Texans’ general manager. Belichick’s ex-assistants tend to offer weak imitations of their gruff mentor, bringing his trademark grumpiness and focus on team culture with none of his coaching brilliance.

In 2022, a strange new team has been tricked into hiring Belichick’s ex-assistants: the Patriots. Belichick has handed over critical offensive jobs to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, two failed head coaches who have done little to prove they deserve them.

Belichick had vacancies to fill after the Raiders hired longtime Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as their head coach. Belichick lost more than McDaniels, his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. McDaniels filled his staff with former Belichick assistants, hiring away a slew of assistants from New England’s offensive coaching staff.

Belichick replaced McDaniels as offensive coordinator with … nobody, technically. New England has chosen not to name an OC, the only team in the league to do so. But there’s a reason behind this: It’s widely reported that the offense is under the control of Patricia, a man who has single-handedly convinced me that not everybody with an engineering degree is intelligent. Patricia is still being paid by the Detroit Lions, who fired him in 2020 after three seasons that were awful even by Detroit Lions standards. There could be a financial element here, too; by withholding a coordinator title, the Patriots could be ensuring the Lions pay Patricia the remaining money owed on his contract while also getting out of having to fit within a pay scale for a position coach. So Patricia is calling plays as New England’s “senior football advisor/offensive line,” and the Ford family keeps sending him paychecks.

And New England’s new quarterbacks coach is Judge, another former Patriots assistant fresh off a failed head-coaching gig. Judge’s two-year tenure with the Giants will perhaps be best remembered for his decision to run a QB sneak on third-and-9 because he didn’t trust his quarterback to throw for a first down, which makes him a somewhat questionable hire as a quarterbacks coach.

The early results are troubling. It’s a critical year for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, a first-round pick in the 2021 draft. Jones failed to throw any touchdowns in preseason play, but did manage to throw an interception into quintuple coverage:

And reports from New England’s practices paint a picture of an offense in chaos:

So why would Belichick entrust Patricia and Judge with the development of the team’s most important young player? Perhaps Belichick believes in second chances. After all, he went 36-44 as head coach of the Browns and was expected by many to be a failure with the Patriots. And his decision to rehire McDaniels after a disappointing two years in charge of the Broncos paid off, as McDaniels rebuilt his reputation as one of the league’s top offensive minds.

But the strange thing about Belichick hiring Patricia and Judge to run his offense is not merely that they were failures as head coaches: It’s that they have virtually no experience doing the jobs they’re currently holding. Patricia was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017. Before that, he was in charge of the Pats’ linebackers and safeties. He played offensive line in college and spent a season as New England’s assistant offensive line coach in 2005, but other than that has generally worked on the defensive side of the ball. Judge was special teams coordinator in his previous stint with the Patriots, and also coached special teams under Saban at Alabama. Belichick did give Judge offensive responsibility as a wide receivers coach for a single season in 2019, in which the Patriots’ wide receivers were specifically criticized for their poor performance. Judge was a backup quarterback at Mississippi State, but if playing backup QB in college 20 years ago was a sufficient qualification to be an NFL quarterbacks coach, front offices would have to sort through thousands of job applications from accountants and gym teachers.

Belichick seems to really value the concept of coaches working on both sides of the ball. Perhaps this is because he actually spent time early in his career coaching receivers and special teams in the 1970s before making his name as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in the 1980s. Mangini, McDaniels, and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia switched sides of the ball under Belichick.

But in all of those instances, the coaches were young and unestablished; they still had a lot to learn about the game and hadn’t yet figured out their career paths. That’s not true of Patricia and Judge, both of whom are in their 40s, have already had the most prestigious job in coaching and failed spectacularly. It’s extremely rare for coaches to switch this late in their careers—if Patricia were named offensive coordinator, he’d be just the second coach in modern NFL history to have OC and DC jobs in his career. These guys aren’t first-timers—and critically, they had the opportunity to establish themselves on offense while running NFL teams, and could not.

The Lions had cracked the league’s top 10 in points per game in 2017 under Jim Caldwell, who actually had a winning record as the Lions’ head coach. Then they hired Patricia in 2018 and quickly dropped to 25th, with quarterback Matthew Stafford having the least productive full season of his career. The Lions went 13-29-1 under Patricia, then Stafford won a Super Bowl a season later with the Rams.

Judge’s failures on offense with the Giants are even more stark: Daniel Jones threw 24 touchdowns as a rookie in 2019 under Pat Shurmur; he threw just 21 in two full seasons under Judge, as Giants QBs finished dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt in 2021. It would be alarming if Judge merely had no experience working with quarterbacks, but it’s somehow worse that he coached a QB in such a similar situation with such awful results.

In 2020, Daniel Jones was a second-year QB picked in the first round of the previous year’s draft, coming off a decent rookie year—just like Mac Jones now. After two years of regression under Judge, most Giants fans are ready to be done with their Jones. With Judge now in charge of New England’s Jones, will things be the same in two years?

But the unusual composition of Belichick’s coaching staff does not end with his attempts to rehabilitate the careers of his former assistants. The Patriots are one of a handful of teams without a dedicated defensive coordinator, but Belichick’s defensive staff is comprised of just six defensive coaches, tied for the fewest in the league. (The Steelers also have six, though they have a coordinator, Teryl Austin, and former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores serving as a senior assistant and coaching linebackers.) The Pats do have a potential future head coach on the defensive side of the ball, as linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has received several interviews for head-coaching positions over the past two offseasons. But even though Mayo is considered a rising star in the field, he essentially splits duties 50-50 with Steve Belichick, one of Bill’s sons. (Last year, Mayo was specifically listed as working with inside linebackers and Steve Belichick with outside linebackers; this year they are both simply titled as linebacker coaches.) Steve is joined on the defensive staff by his brother, Brian, who coaches safeties. Both of the young Belichicks played lacrosse in college, although Steve did spend one season playing college football—as Rutgers’ long snapper. Long story short, the Patriots have the smallest defensive coaching staff in the NFL, and one-third of that small staff is Bill Belichick’s lacrosse-playing progeny.

To be fair, Bill Belichick has earned a healthy benefit of the doubt. He has literally won championships with Patricia and Judge by his side. Perhaps it has never mattered too much who works under the greatest coach of all time, so long as the greatest coach of all time is pulling the strings. And after winning six Super Bowls in New England, the coaching legend has free rein to do whatever he wants for as long as he wants.

But it’s hard not to question the people Belichick is surrounding himself with. The Patriots and their questionable-looking offense now have the third-best odds to win the AFC East—a change from the beginning of the offseason, when they were even with Miami. And by letting Patricia and Judge use their clumsy hands to mold Mac Jones, Belichick is making a decision which could alter the future of the Pats’ franchise well after he retires. If the Pats finish third in the AFC East this year—something they’ve done only once in the past 20 seasons under Belichick—that’s a disappointing season. If Jones’s development stalls and he doesn’t pan out into a franchise QB, New England could be looking at a disappointing decade.

Belichick’s choices also stand out as the league attempts to foster diversity among its coaches. In 2016, Belichick was criticized for having the league’s least diverse staff, and only one of the 10 men he has hired as a coordinator in his career (Romeo Crennel) has not been white. Given the opportunity to change this, Belichick is instead choosing to hire the same guys he’s had in the past, with the addition of his two sons. (The trend of coaches hiring their direct family members has been criticized as a major factor in the persistent lack of diversity among NFL coaches.) And while most of the 31 other NFL teams have both offensive and defensive coordinators, the Patriots have nobody in either role, which seems like a convenient way to skirt the Rooney Rule requiring teams to interview minority candidates for coordinator positions.

Belichick’s surprising lack of a flourishing coaching tree may be the most baffling thing about his career, but looking at his 2022 team, it’s a bit less surprising. Given the opportunity to fill some of the most significant roles on his staff, he didn’t seek out the best and the brightest. He’d rather work with people he’s comfortable with, be they his least successful former assistants or his literal children. The Patriots have experienced brain drain for the better part of two decades—but it’s hard to feel confident in the brains Belichick has brought in to work alongside him.