What the Return of Bill O'Brien Means for the Patriots
12 days into their offensive coordinator search, the New England Patriots have tabbed their man. Although he was the favorite from the jump, Dorchester's own Bill O'Brien is officially back in the fold under Bill Belichick as the Patriots offensive coordinator. Last with the team in 2011, He's most recently spent the last two years at Alabama, working hand in hand with the 2021 Heisman winner and likely No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young, although he does have a connection, albeit slightly, with Mac Jones.
O'Brien ran what might be the best iteration of the Patriots' offense ever in 2011, but his second major stint at the college level has shown that he has been able to evolve with the times as well. What does that mean for the Patriots moving forward on multiple fronts? Let's find out.
Relationship with Mac Jones
Although Bill O'Brien never directly coached or worked with Mac Jones as a player at Alabama, there was some overlap as the former was coming in as the latter was departing. Jones, who was at this point preparing for the 2021 draft, helped O'Brien get up to speed with the Alabama playbook. O'Brien directly credited Jones for this, as well as Bryce Young, right before the Crimson Tide took on Cincinnati in that year's College Football Playoff Semi-Final (Cotton Bowl).
As for Jones, this move appears to be to his liking, via Mark Daniels. He's been open this season about wanting to be coached hard, and he certainly got his wish. Just ask Tom Brady about that. Having someone that has some prior familiarity with him, and can potentially bring elements of a college offensive system into the pro ranks is big.
O'Brien Alabama Offensive Notes
At surface level, the offensive numbers with O'Brien in Tuscolusa looked good. Alabama ranked sixth in the nation in points per game in 2021 (39.9), then fourth last year (41.1). The talent level on that 2021 offense was much better however and was probably the better unit overall. Headlining that offense were Bryce Young, Brian Robinson, Jameson Williams, and John Metchie, along with offensive linemen Evan Neal, and Emil Ekiyor. Just a preposterously good core and they would have probably won the Natty had Williams and Metchie not both suffered knee injuries. Just watch how O'Brien attacked the exact same Kirby Smart Georgia Defense in that season's SEC title game.
Alabama then lost the middle four of that group going into 2022 and suffered a major drop-off in wide receiver production. Jermaine Burton and Ja'Corey Brooks had just 209 more combined yards than Metchie did in '21 (1142 Yards), and 221 less than Williams (1572 Yards). Alabama did however gain running back Jahmyr Gibbs through the transfer portal via Georgia Tech, and he became an integral part of O'Brien's 2022 unit. I'm genuinely intrigued to see if O'Brien pushes to draft him, if it makes sense, this year. Gibbs has drawn near-universal comparisons to Alvin Kamara, and his reception skills fill a need for the Patriots out of the backfield. The Patriots have taken three backs in these last two drafts, but Gibbs is an undeniable talent at this point in his career.
Now, Alabama fans by a good majority seem very happy that O'Brien is out of the program, but he got glowing endorsements from Alabama's best, in the form of Young, as well as edge rusher Will Anderson before the Sugar Bowl.
“[O'Brien] has taught me so much. I’ve grown so much as a player under him. And getting to have the experience of him coaching the greatest, some of the best players to play the game, him having so much knowledge, and me as a younger quarterback, getting able to gain that, to learn the ins and outs of the system, and see all that he’s brought, it’s been an honor for me to play with him for these past couple years. I’ve grown tremendously. All the stuff that he brings. How he carries himself day-to-day. Someone who comes in, and he’s always teaching. He’s intense; he’ll get after it. But he’s always teaching. There’s no time where he’s not pushing us to be better. There’s so much that I’ve learned from him. And that’s someone that I’m super close with. I have a great relationship with. So I’m forever grateful and super blessed to have had him as my coach.” - Bryce Young
“It’s cool. I love Bill. We have a great relationship. Just to have a coach like that -- people may think, because of his credentials and everything like that, he may walk around and be, like, stuck up. But he’s very open to all the players. He jokes with us. He laughs with us. He’s very welcoming when you come into his office and sit down and talk to him. Even though he’s the offensive coordinator, I go into his office sometimes and chat it up with him. It’s good. I love him.” - Will Anderson
Crunching the Numbers and Line it Up
The two key areas where the Patriots' offense was inexcusably bad were the third down conversion (27th in the NFL) and red zone conversion departments (32nd in the NFL). The addition of O'Brien should remedy both issues on day one. In 2021 Bama converted at a 46 percent rate (17th in CFB), down from 53 in 2021 (2nd in CFB). Alabama's red zone percentage (touchdowns or field goals counted in college) dropped from 93.3 to 89.4. But to give you some NFL numbers, in O'Brien's last full season with the Texans in 2019, they ranked ninth in the NFL and fourth in the AFC in red zone efficiency at 62.7 percent.
At Bama, O'Brien did what you would probably expect from a typical college offensive coordinator. A good amount of pre-snap motion, RPOs, bunch sets, etc, etc. Of course, there was some good ole fashion Hoss Juke (empty set formation) every now and then, which has been an absolute staple of the Patriots' offense for literal decades. If you remember the "Jordan, Jordan" audible from the 2016 AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh, that's what Brady audibled into. Here are some other examples of Hoss Juke in New England and elsewhere, as well as a great in-depth look from O'Brien on the play in a seminar video.
The best part of O'Brien's return for my money, however, is the fact he was behind the 2011 offense, which from a statistical and personnel standpoint, might be the best in team history. Heavy usage of 12 personnel saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combine for 169 catches, 2237 yards, and 24 touchdowns. Wes Welker also feasted under B.O.B in '11, picking up 122 grabs for 1569 yards and nine touchdowns. Not to mention Deion Branch coming in with 51 catches for 702 yards and five scores. Now, it's fair to say they don't have that level of talent now, but they have a solid base to build off of.
With that said, 12 personnel is also not the end all be all, as good as it can be with the right players. I think regardless of what their 'main' package is, the Patriots need to have an increased focus on RPOs and play-action passing, which was borderline non-existent at points with Matt Patricia in games with McCorkle. The drop-off in numbers in attempts per game for both wasn't much, but the number of first downs from RPOs/PA passes was, 24 to be exact. Jones also touts an 86.2 completion percentage on RPOs on 51 attempts, and a 70.5 completion percentage on play-action passes in his short career. I'd play those numbers any day of the week if I were Bill O'Brien.
Finally, O'Brien has typically done a great job of getting the ball in the hands of his best playmaker/s. Whether that be Gronk and Welker here, DeAndre Hopkins in Houston, or Jameson Williams, John Metchie, and Jahmyr Gibbs at Alabama, that level of production from his top guys have been a priority. Hopkins specifically from 2014-2016 was impressive just because of the level of play he was with at quarterback. Speaking of whom...
Relationship with DeAndre Hopkins?
The Patriots (+500) remain one of the three betting favorites, along with the Packers (+380) and Chiefs (+450), to acquire Hopkins' services by trade this offseason. Jeremy Fowler also named the Patriots, along with the Ravens, as suitors in an ESPN+ piece on Tuesday. With Bill O'Brien now in the building, does that complicate things? Well, that's hard to say, Hopkins said shortly after being dealt from Houston to Arizona, that he and B.O.B. had "no relationship" in their six years together. Given the lackluster deal which sent him out, which in essence was Hopkins and defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence ('20 fourth-round pick) for David Johnson, Ross Blacklock ('20 second-round pick), and another pick used to acquire Marcus Cannon from New England, those feelings might as well been mutual.
With that said, O'Brien and Hopkins had a good business relationship when it came to football, with Hopkins putting up four Pro Bowl seasons, along with three First-Team All-Pro campaigns. Furthermore, via an anonymous NFC team executive in Fowler's aforementioned piece, the two could "make it work" despite a potentially rocky personal relationship. And for nothing else, Bill Belichick and Hopkins seem to be big fans of one another. If anything stops this from happening, it's what it would take to give up, or more specifically what it would directly cost to have him here. Mike Riess' word is borderline gospel when it comes to the Patriots, and he had this to say just days ago.
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