Wanted: Stand-up guy
Contrary to what you have heard, the Patriots have not parted ways with their defensive coordinator.
Yes, the avuncular and affable Dean Pees, who held the title for the past four seasons, will not return next season, having either stepped down or been told that his contract would not be renewed, depending on whom and what you believe. This mutual decision spin is a great way for both sides to save face, but here is wishing Pees the best in his post-Patriot life.
Make no mistake though, the Patriots still have their defensive coordinator from last season. His name is Bill Belichick. He is not going to part ways with the Patriots, but maybe he should part ways with his grip on the defense and his hiring practices.
On defense, the buck stops with Bill, like most things in Foxborough. Former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said as much earlier this season. Pees, who spent most of the season in the coaches’ booth, wasn’t even in a position to communicate face to face with his defense after they came off the field.
Don’t blame Pees for the Patriots’ inability to close out games, their lack of success against high-powered passing attacks (Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Matt Schaub combined to complete 66 percent of their passes for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns against New England), or the inexplicable exile of cornerback Shawn Springs for four games in favor of second-year pro Jonathan Wilhite.
Not his fault. Just like nobody was crediting Pees when the Patriots went to the exotic, five-and-dime defensive front that had players milling around before the snap like shoppers at Patriot Place in a desperate - and successful - attempt to generate a pass rush against the Buffalo Bills. That was immediately hailed as another stroke of genius by the genius.
Regardless of who you are as a defensive coordinator, Belichick is going to cast a long shadow. It’s like trying to play Rock Band with Eric Clapton. Belichick might be the best defensive mind who ever scribbled an X or an O. Remember how he stifled Jim Kelly and the Bills in Super Bowl XXV? That defensive game plan and the red jacket Belichick wore for the game - which worked out decidedly better than the red hoodie he sported in Super Bowl XLII - are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Belichick has a way of playing defense that has worked for him for 25 years, but with Pees gone it’s time for some other voices and new defensive schemes to filter into Fort Foxborough.
The rote response to Pees’s departure is for Belichick to simply promote learned linebackers coach Matt Patricia to defensive coordinator, filling the vacancy from within. The 35-year-old Patricia, who played football at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and has been the team’s linebackers coach since 2006, is incredibly bright. He has an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering and a master’s in education from the University of Massachusetts.
Patricia also has his degree from what the late David Halberstam referred to as “Belichick University,’’ having joined the team in 2004 as a coaching assistant on offense. He is viewed as the natural successor to the Eric Mangini-Josh McDaniels role of precocious Belichick apprentice.
Belichick could justify Patricia’s promotion by pointing out that Mangini, then 34, was younger than Patricia is now when Belichick tapped him to replace Romeo Crennel as the defensive coordinator in 2005. Of course, then he’d have to refer to Mangini by name.
Anyone who saw Belichick and Patricia interact at the NFL Combine last year had the feeling that Patricia was the defensive-coordinator-in-waiting. Elevating Patricia is a seamless transition that ensures the status quo.
That’s the problem.
Patricia shouldn’t simply get the job out of abeyance like Bill O’Brien did after McDaniels left as offensive coordinator last offseason. There should be a real and legitimate search for a new defensive coordinator, with candidates who didn’t attend classes at Belichick U, have their own system of beliefs, their own point of view, and are not completely beholden to Belichick for their football careers.
The reliance on Belichick U hires has weakened the coaching staff the same way inbreeding weakens a gene pool. It’s time for some new blood.
That’s not to say Patricia shouldn’t be seriously considered. He has earned that much, but if Belichick is serious about considering the fact he isn’t called out enough by his current coaching staff, here is an opportunity to get a different and less insular perspective. Even if he hires from within, the feedback from the outside could prove invaluable as the team moves forward.
The feeling in Foxborough often is, “This is the way we do things around here.’’ At some point, it seems that people stopped asking the most important question of all - why? They stopped questioning Belichick’s motives and methods. It just became gridiron gospel brought down from above.
Somewhere along the line deference gave way to reverence. Now, Belichick has an opportunity to stop that by not just interviewing current coaches or former colleagues and friends for the job, but by doing an expansive search to find new ideas and thoughts. Maybe Belichick can find the next Belichick as a defensive coordinator, an innovative defensive mind who will leave a mark on the game.
It will be interesting to watch the defensive coordinator “search’’ play out because to solicit outside candidates, Belichick would have to be willing to bend a little bit on his beliefs, something he was not willing to do with Dom Capers, who might as well have been in the Witness Protection Program while he was here.
There is a difference between saying you want to hear another point of view and actually being open to it.