Originally found on Fox Sports:
National Football League
Jan. 17, 2024 5:29 p.m. ET
After parting ways with Bill Belichick last week, the New England Patriots made a move toward what’s familiar: head coach Jerod Mayo. Will their next set of moves be about sparking change?
“As you evaluate the players and the scheme, I think you have to evaluate the culture and evaluate how the pieces fit,” Mayo said during his introductory press conference on Wednesday.
Mayo added: “I’m not trying to be Bill.”
After Belichick’s departure, the Patriots didn’t spend time interviewing head coaching candidates. They pounced on Mayo to serve as the heir apparent to the greatest coach of all time. They had already agreed to a succession plan with Mayo last offseason, with a clause in his contract ensuring his promotion after Belichick’s departure, per multiple reports.
Owner Robert Kraft explained that hiring Mayo was a lot like hiring Belichick.
“I have the same feeling now,” Kraft said.
There’s no doubt that Mayo was the best internal candidate. And to me, there’s no doubt that he’ll do a great job bringing a new era to New England. He is the right blend of familiar (a former player who learned from Belichick in the locker room, front office and coaches meetings) and new (with a youthful approach and a sense of how to connect with today’s players). But there’s no denying that his NFL career — both as a player and coach — was forged in Belichick’s Patriot Way. And Belichick’s coaching tree hasn’t borne much fruit.
If Mayo’s era in New England is going to work, he’s going to need to make some crucial changes. He has already begun interviewing for special teams and defensive coordinator roles. But that might not even be where the team needs the most radical change. The Patriots need help on offense and in the front office.
Because let’s say Mayo retains Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator — or even brings back Josh McDaniels. (Both options are in play, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo.) And then the team elects not to hire a GM. Then the organization is basically running it back, just with Mayo instead of Belichick. And while things will change, they might not change all that much. After a 4-13 season, things need to change quite a bit. And given that Mayo is an unproven entity, why wouldn’t New England just stick with Belichick for another year if the franchise isn’t going to embrace change?
Mayo made it clear a few things would be different structurally for the Patriots. One example? Mayo will make sure to name coordinators. It sounds ordinary and unremarkable, right? But keep in mind that Belichick had no defensive coordinator in the final six years of his tenure. He intentionally obscured who did what.
“I think titles are important,” Mayo said. “No knock to Coach Belichick. … People have to know what you do. Inside, it’s all about collaboration.”
It’s a small signal but a signal nonetheless that the Patriots are moving in a new direction — not a totally new one, but a new one nonetheless.
New England needs to signal it is embracing modernity.
On offense, the Patriots had a failed trial with the NFL’s hottest offense: the Shanahan system. Belichick nearly embraced change and trend by implementing the scheme in 2022. The idea was good. The execution was problematic, with Belichick hiring his former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and former special teams coordinator Joe Judge to teach an offense they didn’t know to a unit they’d never coached. It was a total mess. Maybe they could have … I don’t know … plucked a staffer from the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams or even Miami Dolphins?
That’s where Mayo should start by looking — in those three locations along with Detroit and Houston. I like the idea of bringing back McDaniels, who is a brilliant offensive mind (even if he isn’t the greatest head coach). But maybe the ideal situation is to have McDaniel as the quarterbacks coach or senior football advisor — or in some sort of offensive consultant role. The offensive coordinator job, however, should go to someone largely disconnected from the Belichickian system. Someone new.
Something similar needs to happen in the front office. New England needs to bring in new minds to lead its scouting department — and bring it into the future. The team’s lack of talent seemed to be the root cause of the issues for the Patriots offense. They can fix and toil over the scheme for all of eternity, but without the right players, the offense won’t work.
“Players win games. Coaches lose them,” Mayo said.
The team intends to give more power to director of scouting Eliot Wolf, according to reports. The Patriots are also in no rush to make a hire at GM, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The team’s top dog has been Matt Groh, who sources inside and outside the organization told FOX Sports was in over his head in 2023. It’s hard to get a true read on his efficacy, in part because Belichick always had the final say. And you can’t know for certain whether these recent, poor draft classes were due to Belichick, Groh or some combination of both. But it’s likely both.
Even if Groh and Wolf are a capable one-two punch, I’d like to see the team bring in new perspectives to audit the team’s approach, which might need something of an overhaul after Belichick long rejected the influx of analytics. It sounds like the Patriots will make an addition — just not right away.
“In the short term, we’re looking for collaboration as our team has a tremendous opportunity to position itself right, given our salary cap space, and we’ve never drafted, in my 30 years of ownership, we’ve never been drafting as low as we’re drafting,” Kraft said. “So we’re counting on our internal people, whom we’re still learning and evaluating. So we’re going to let that evolve and develop, and before the key decisions have to be made, we will appoint someone. And at the same time, we’ll probably start doing interviews and looking at people from the outside.”
As much as Kraft muddled that answer, he did make one thing clear: The Kraft family will not take on an increased role in personnel. They will remain uninvolved.
“If you get involved and tell them what to do or try to influence them, you can’t hold them responsible or have them accountable,” Kraft said.
It is obvious that Mayo is the centerpiece of the organization — not in the same way Belichick was. But no one ever will be. Mayo did note that he will rely upon the experts around him to do what they do best. Strength training? He’ll leave that to the trainers. Scouting? He’ll let the scouts go to work. Belichick wanted a hand in everything. Maybe Mayo will operate with a loosened grasp.
What that means, more than anything, is that he’ll need to hire carefully in positions where he’ll need additional expertise, including — as you’ve heard me mention again and again — on offense and in the front office.
Mayo may just have the best defense in the NFL in 2023. But if the Patriots are going to get back to the Super Bowl, they’ll need the right GM to pick the right quarterback at third overall, they’ll need to support him with the right free agents (given their considerable salary cap space), and they’ll need the right offensive coordinator to sew everything together.
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 @henrycmckenna.
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