1 – It’s hard not to observe the way Bill Belichick is rebuilding the Patriots’ coaching staff and not see a potential new trend for the longtime New England sideline boss.
Once upon a time it seemed that the most prized, trusted Belichick assistant was the kind that loyally worked his way up the football ladder from the lowest of lowly jobs. Many were former Division III football players who worked tirelessly to carve out coaching careers for themselves based almost solely in hard work, grunt work. Think Josh McDaniels or Matt Patricia.
Now, though, there appears to be a bit of a turn in Belichick’s focus as he retools and retains a coaching staff that many believe was at the root of New England’s issues in 2022. Much of this offseason has seen Belichick tied to former NFL players-turned-coaches in his search for the right mix if coaching minds in Foxborough.
First, Belichick and the Patriots prioritized keeping Jerod Mayo put at Gillette Stadium, the former All-Pro linebacker likely getting an increased role in the New England organization as shown by him taking part with his boss in interviews for the offensive coordinator role that ended up going to Bill O’Brien.
But Mayo wasn’t the only former high-level NFL player involved in those interviews. Three other candidates for the job included a pair of longtime NFL receivers in Arizona assistant head coach Shawn Jefferson, Minnesota wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell and Oregon associate head coach Adrian Klemm, all of whom played for Belichick’s team at one point or another in their professional careers.
Now, with O’Brien in the fold, New England is reportedly interviewing Klemm and Bills assistant offensive line coach Ryan Wendell, who played under Belichick for seven seasons in New England, for the offensive line coaching role.
Belichick has openly talked about the value and positives of having former players on his coaching staff over the years. Mayo, Billy Yates and Troy Brown have been in that role in recent seasons, one that Pepper Johnson fulfilled for the first half of Belichick’s tenure in New England.
But based on the targets Belichick has had for his assistant coach search this winter, he may be prioritizing playing experience in the NFL more than ever as he strives for the perfect mix of sideline leaders in New England.
2 – Wendell is an interesting candidate for the Patriots offensive line job. Back in his playing days he was kind of the David Andrews before David Andrews. Wendell arrived in New England as an undersized undrafted center from Fresno State in 2008 before working his way up to starter and team captain. Wendell started 49 of the 79 games he played for the Patriots from 2009-2015, including all 16 games at center in back to back years in 2012 and 2013. He’s been the Bills assistant offensive line coach since 2019.
Wendell’s playing career overlapped with O’Brien’s previous stint in New England from 2007-11. He also played his entire Patriots career under legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, likely able to bring some of the roots of the long successful offensive line system back to New England to address an area of concern from last season. Of course, Klemm also played for Scarnecchia for five years as the first draft pick of the Belichick era in New England in 2000.
Beyond the former players Wendell and Klemm, ESPN reports that Baltimore assistant offensive line coach Mike Develin and Giants assistant Tony Sporano Jr. are also in the running the for the offensive line job in New England. Develin is another former NFL player (Bills and Cardinals 1993-99) who played in college for former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz at Iowa and was also on O’Brien’s staff with the Texans.
3 – If you’ve been following the photos and reports out of Las Vegas this week, Belichick is serving as more than just a distant “supervisor” at Shrine Bowl practices. The bulk of New England’s coaching staff is on hand in Vegas, Brown serving as the head coach for the West squad. Bill Belichick, O’Brien, Joe Judge, Mayo and Steve Belichick have all been listed as “supervisors” for the week of practice leading up to the game. But the 70-year-old Belichick has been observed taking a very hands-on approach guiding individual players in specific technique and coaching points in all three phases of the game. Regardless of the structure at the Shrine Bowl, or how the structure of his 2023 Patriots coaching staff unfolds, it doesn’t look like Belichick is any less focused on his role in the coaching process, including detail-driven work with individual prospects at a pre-draft bowl game.
4 –The 2018 season saw a passing of the torch in terms of the AFC title game. That January’s postseason saw the Patriots reach the AFC championship for the NFL-record eighth straight year, facing the upstart Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Tom Brady’s squad not only won that game, but the Super Bowl as well. It was the first of what is now five straight AFC title game appearances for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, all in Kansas City. The last AFC title game without either Mahomes’ Chiefs or Brady’s Patriots was after the 2010 season when the Steelers and Jets met in Pittsburgh.
This year’s AFC title game is a rematch of one from a year ago, with Mahomes’ Chiefs hosting Joe Burrow’s Bengals. The two young quarterbacks have developed quite an entertaining rivalry the last couple seasons, with some beginning to compare it to the Brady vs. Peyton Manning glory days of AFC play in the 2000s. But Mahomes and Burrow are already doing something their Hall of Fame predecessors never did, as Brady and Manning never met in consecutive AFC title games.
5 – As the Patriots look for an offensive line coach as part of a process to bring improved play to the area that was a significant disappointment in 2022, New England need to look no further than the AFC championship for what could have been with its own offensive line personnel. Former Patriot Joe Thuney is a force on the K.C. line at left guard, having joined the Chiefs on a five-year, $80 million contract prior to the 2021 season. On the other side, the Bengals’ line is led by center and captain Ted Karras, who left Foxborough to join Cincy on a three-year, $18 million contract this offseason. Both were key veteran cogs and leaders in their time in New England and are part of the success stories with their new teams vying for a spot in the Super Bowl.
6— Prediction Time I: The Brock Purdy-led 49ers head to Philly for the NFC title game with Mr. Irrelevant looking to become the first rookie QB to lead his team to the Super Bowl. Purdy is already a great story, taking advantage of his elite playmakers and defense to get to where he is. Jalen Hurts has led the Eagles to Super Bowl-contender status from pretty much Day 1 this season and now is on the doorstep of the big game. His team’s pass rush should make life tough on Purdy, who looked like a shaky rookie at times early last week. The 49ers love to run the ball and that’s the weakness of the Philly defense. This should be a fun game, even if it’s not quite the QB matchup of the AFC. The Eagles have a really well rounded team even if they don’t have quite the star power of San Francisco. The bet here is a home-cooking victory for Nick Sirianni’s team, maybe something in the range of 24-20 with a Purdy mistake playing a key factor in the outcome.
7 – Prediction Time II: There is no question the AFC title game is the marquee matchup. Mahomes and Burrow are probably the two best QBs in the game today. Both are young, budding stars. Burrow is trying to lead the Bengals not just back to the Super Bowl for the second straight year, but also to secure the first Lombardi Trophy in Cincy history. Mahomes and Andy Reid remain the team to beat, similar to Brady and Belichick for the better part of two decades. Mahomes’ ankle could be the key. If he can move around and make plays like he wants to, like he was before the injury against Jacksonville, he’ll be tough to beat at home. But Burrow and the Bengals have the firepower to obviously put up points and get into a shootout with anyone. Burrow might be the most popular player in the NFL right now. His confidence bordering on cockiness is alluring for so many fans. He has a leadership brings an “it” factor that simply can’t be faked. The bet here, and maybe this is swayed by rooting interest, is that Burrow’s Bengals get the 31-27 win. Either way, let’s just hope this one lives up to the hype and expectations.