O'Brien has been handed the keys

BILL O'BRIENThird NFL season BILL O'BRIENThird NFL season
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / June 13, 2009
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Officially, the Patriots don't have an offensive coordinator. The title remains unfilled on the team masthead following the departure of Josh McDaniels to Denver. Unofficially, the offense has been bequeathed to Bill O'Brien.

The 39-year-old O'Brien, who joined the team as an offensive coaching assistant in 2007 and graduated to wide receivers coach in 2008, inherited McDaniels's quarterbacks coach title and has been running the offense during organized team activities and this week's mandatory minicamp. The situation is similar to 2005, when coach Bill Belichick tapped McDaniels to succeed Charlie Weis, but didn't give him the offensive coordinator title until 2006.

The Andover-born O'Brien said yesterday he's pleased with the progress the offense has made in the offseason, gearing up for training camp, which will start July 30.

"I think that these guys worked hard to do the things that we've asked them to do this spring," said O'Brien. "It's not just in the spring, it's been since the offseason program started back in February; they've done the things that we've asked them to do and I think there has been improvement. I think it will play off more in training camp, but I'm pleased with where we are right now."

O'Brien, who spent 14 seasons as a college assistant coach, also has to be pleased with where he is. Three years ago, he was coaching at football doormat Duke, and now he's running an offense that features Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

One of the enduring images of the offseason has been watching Brady, recovering from his left knee injury, and Moss spending extra time during practice trying to reestablish the symbiotic relationship they had during their record-setting 2007 campaign.

"These guys are two professionals that come to work every day in the two years that I've been around them and work as hard as anybody else on the team," said O'Brien. "I think not having played together in a while, I think they try to get together out there and work on the finer points of different situations in the game. It's just two guys who are working out little kinks in the offense and are trying to get better."

That's what O'Brien is trying to do as well. It doesn't take someone with an Ivy League education like O'Brien, a Brown alumnus, to realize that if the Patriots' high-powered offense sputters, the finger will be pointed at its new conductor, whether he has the title of offensive coordinator or not.

O'Brien has a difficult act to follow. McDaniels had the Patriots in the top 10 in the NFL in points per game each season since 2005. Even with Brady shelved for 15 3/4 games last season, the Patriots ranked fifth in total offense and eighth in scoring offense with McDaniels directing the attack.

Although O'Brien has never been in charge of an NFL offense, he did spend two seasons (2005 and '06) as the offensive coordinator at Duke and held the coordinator title at Georgia Tech in 2001 and '02.

Under O'Brien's direction, Duke finished 105th out of 119 Division 1-A teams in total offense (283.4 yards per game) in 2006, but in 2001 Georgia Tech led the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing and finished third in scoring. Both seasons in which O'Brien was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech rank among the school's top 10 in total offense per game.

O'Brien understands he's in a different league now, though, both literally and figuratively.

"I think the experience of coaching in those roles in college has helped me just in the experience of going through it and the organization skills that [those roles] required," he said. "There are different strategies. There are different rules. The field dimensions are different. There are a lot of things that go into that, so I think the experience of coaching helps, obviously, but I also think that we all pitch in."

Translation: Expect O'Brien to have a lot of help. He has the benefit of Belichick's mind and veteran coaches Dante Scarnecchia (offensive line) and Ivan Fears (running backs). Plus, Brady's command of the offense entering his 10th season is like having a coach on the field.

"It's just a different role for me," said O'Brien. "It's been exciting. It's been fun, and I think we've all kind of pitched in to put this whole spring together, and it's worked out pretty well so far. Just like I said about Tom, as coaches we can't wait for training camp either, although I will enjoy a little vacation here over the next few weeks. But we can't wait for training camp to start up."

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