By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has everyone’s attention in New England, especially the trio of coaches who now form the team’s offensive brain trust.
After longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels left to become head coach of the Raiders, New England did not name a new OC for the 2022 season. During training camp, the Patriots have rotated offensive play-callers from Bill Belichick to Matt Patricia to Joe Judge.
The team plans to split the coordinator duties between those three, with Patricia, the offensive line coach, taking the lead in most instances. He has called plays during 11-on-11 drills while Judge, the quarterbacks coach, relayed plays during seven-on-seven drills. Belichick looms over offensive drills, helps with play-calling and jumps into situations to provide hands-on coaching.
It’s coordination by committee.
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Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who played for Patricia while he ascended from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in New England, fielded a question about seeing his former coach make the move to offense.
“It’s awkward,” Mayo said on Aug. 1. “I’m still not used to seeing it.”
There is plenty of awkwardness in a Patriots offense that looks quite different from last season’s version. McDaniels took three offensive coaching assistants to Las Vegas, leaving Belichick with a brain drain on that side of the ball. Rather than promote from within and keep the same system, Belichick has rebuilt the offensive playbook and has handed Jones’ fate to Patricia, a defensive guru, and Judge, a special teams guru.
The Patriots have taken this coordinator-by-committee approach in Jones’ all-important second year of his career.
As the New York Giants’ head coach, Judge oversaw the development of quarterback Daniel Jones, whose career took a turn for the worse. As Detroit Lions head coach, Patricia didn’t exactly get the most out of Matthew Stafford. So, Belichick’s odd arrangement grows stranger upon examining the credentials of these coaches, who lack a track record of maximizing quarterback talent.
“I would love to be a part of those meeting rooms and staff rooms to hear all of the ideas and how it goes around,” said Jason McCourty, a former Patriots cornerback and now an analyst on “Good Morning Football.” “Being in that building and seeing Bill stand up in front of a squad and be able to coach offense, defense and special teams for an hour and a half, I don’t know if you can doubt his ability to pull this thing off.
“I don’t want to be Mac Jones going through it, I’ll say that. I’ll say that for sure. I think it’ll be one of those things where there’s growing pains in the beginning with everyone getting used to the new system. And getting used to new voices.”
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Imagine if Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell returned to the Los Angeles Rams in a few years to run Sean McVay’s defense. That would raise a few eyebrows, right?
This is all just a little strange, even for Belichick’s standards. And, of course, he has a history for breaking the mold — a tendency that has long been celebrated because of the Patriots’ success. Belichick was asked whether he has had to help Patricia transition to the offensive side of the ball this offseason.
“He’s been involved in that for the last four years, so no,” Belichick said.
Last season, Patricia was a senior football advisor for the Patriots and, for the three seasons before that, he was the Lions’ coach. So apparently, Patricia had his hands in the offense plenty during that span. As for Judge, he is a former quarterback who has long gravitated toward offense despite his coaching background on special teams.
Belichick doesn’t care that you or I don’t see the natural fit. He isn’t changing his outside-the-box way of running his organization. He’s going to continue to tinker and experiment. He clearly likes to explore strangeness.
And that’s why there is another bizarre layer to New England’s setup.
The Patriots are marrying McVay’s offense to Kyle Shanahan’s offense — and implementing those concepts into New England’s offense. That’s right: Belichick, famous for running systems that the NFL has copied for years, is now copying other coaches’ schemes. Players say Belichick is simplifying the offense with new terminology, but watching the unit at training camp, the coach is doing much more than adjusting the verbiage.
“Obviously, Coach Belichick has done a great job kind of explaining exactly what we’re going to do as an offense,” Jones said after the first day of training camp. “Matty P has seen so many different defenses — along with Coach Belichick — so it’s like they combine their knowledge of how to attack the defense. That’s something that’s really stood out to me.”
If this offense clicks, it will be special. But if it fails … well, I’ll get to that in a second.
Belichick has embraced a number of formations (with tight splits and jet motions) that mirror McVay’s unique concepts. Belichick has adapted an outside zone run scheme that Shanahan uses with the San Francisco 49ers. It makes plenty of sense to build that offense around Jones, a quick-thinking pocket-passer who can rely upon the run game to attack defenses.
Why does Belichick have Patricia and Judge overseeing that installation? It’s unclear.
So far in training camp, the growing pains have been immense. New England’s offense has lost the majority of the days to the defense. That might be fine if the defense looked like it would turn into one of the NFL’s best this season, but it was last seen giving up 47 points (while forcing zero punts) against the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs. That game might not have been representative of the Patriots’ defensive talent, but it’s the most recent bullet point on the résumé.
If the Patriots’ offense cannot move the ball against its own defense, there is reason for concern. It’s too early for panic. But urgency and unease? That’s fair.
“Better days ahead, but we’re in the start of this thing, and we’ve got to get it going,” Jones said last week.
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The Patriots haven’t played a preseason game yet, but they’re typically further along schematically by now thanks to years of continuity with Belichick, McDaniels and Tom Brady. This season, New England elected to reset its offense and build something new. Time will tell whether the Patriots made the right decision — and whether they’ve implemented their new system on the proper timeline.
There is no room for error. The Patriots open their season at the Miami Dolphins, at the Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. the Baltimore Ravens and at the Green Bay Packers. Every one of those teams (perhaps including the Steelers) could test the Patriots. But considering New England has one of the toughest schedules, with an enormously difficult six games to finish the season, the Patriots need to jump out to a strong start.
I can’t pull a Trent Dilfer and say the Patriots aren’t good anymore. No one should. But it’s important to acknowledge these growing pains amid the coaching turnover and schematic adjustments.
This is an opportunity for Belichick to show — yet again — that nothing is too weird for him. This is yet another year when Belichick will have to pull off something special. But if he doesn’t, the Patriots could miss the playoffs for just the fifth time in his 23 years.
And if that happens, his now-quirky coaching structure will look more and more like hubris.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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