The writing was on the wall, and on Thursday it finally happened: the New England Patriots and Bill O’Brien got together for an interview about their vacant offensive coordinator position. The two sides are, of course, familiar with one another given that O’Brien already filled that role back in 2011.
12 years later, it seems there is a realistic chance that he returns to his old stomping grounds. In light of that, let’s take a closer look at O’Brien and find out why the Patriots see him as a coach worth pursuing.
Who is Bill O’Brien?
Playing background: O’Brien played linebacker and defensive end during his time at Brown between 1990 and 1992. His active career did not extend any further than that, though.
coaching background: Immediately after the end of his college career, O’Brien moved into coaching. He started out as tight ends and inside linebackers coach at his alma mater, before moving to Georgia Tech for the next eight years. Originally starting out as a graduate assistant, he moved up the ladder and by 1998 was named the Yellow Jackets’ running backs coach. Three years later, head coach George O’Leary moved him to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Following the 2002 season under Chan Gailey, O’Brien left Georgia Tech to join Ralph Friedgen’s staff at Maryland as running backs coach. He moved back into a coordinator position in 2005, when he was hired by Ted Roof as his new OC and QB coach at Duke.
After two seasons with the Blue Devils, O’Brien made the next jump — joining the Patriots as an offensive assistant in 2007. Originally working under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, he moved to wide receivers coach in 2008. After McDaniels’ departure to Denver, he took over his previous role as quarterbacks coach while also effectively serving as coordinator without the title. By 2011, he was officially named New England’s OC.
O’Brien spent just one year in the position, leading the Patriots’ third-ranked scoring offense to a Super Bowl appearance. After the season, however, he took over as head coach at Penn State. Two years and a 15-9 record later, he was on the move once more.
Returning to the NFL, O’Brien was hired as Houston Texans head coach in 2014. He spent six full seasons with the team before his firing following an 0-4 start in Year 7. Until that point, however, he proved himself a successful coach: Houston finished with a winning record in five of his six Years at the job, won the AFC South four times, and won a couple of playoff games.
Ultimately, however, he was dismissed during what was a turbulent 2020 campaign for the team. O’Brien reemerged in January 2021, joining the University of Alabama under head coach Nick Saban as the new offensive coordinator.
Why do the Patriots see him as a potential offensive coordinator?
In order to assess this question, we touched base with Josh Chatham of SB Nation’s Alabama blog, Roll ‘Bama Roll. The answers below give some insight into O’Brien’s time at the school, and what it might mean for a potential return to the Patriots.
How would you assess the job O’Brien has done at Alabama? “For me, assessing any coordinator under Nick Saban comes with the caveat that Nick is a bit of a control freak where scheme is concerned. Mac Jones reportedly worked to get O’Brien up to speed on Alabama’s playbook when Bill first arrived in Tuscaloosa. That said, if I’m being frank the majority of Alabama fans want to see him gone.
While the offense has been outstanding the past couple years in terms of ranking, there has been a drop-off in production since 2020. O’Brien has coordinated the offense since then and thus tends to get an unfair share of the blame. Bill inherited an offensive unit that had lost nearly all of its receiving production from the transcendent 2020 squad, plus three starters off of one of the better offensive lines college football has seen in the last decade. There were some growing pains as a result, but it’s tough to argue with the 41 points per game we saw this season. Alabama fans are used to seeing the team at the top of the heap and can be notoriously hard to please.”
Do you think he is ready to become an NFL offensive coordinator again? “I’m not sure that he wasn’t ready to coordinate an NFL offense as soon as he was fired in Houston. Saban was quite pleased to land him, and has been nothing but complimentary of his offensive acumen. My impression of O’Brien at the NFL level is that he was a solid enough head coach but a horrid GM.”
What did his offense at Alabama look like, and which elements could he bring to New England? “As mentioned above, every game plan runs through Saban. Nick prefers to take advantage of the college rules that allow downfield blocking on balls completed in the backfield, and allow ineligible players to wander three yards downfield on passes beyond the line of scrimmage, by utilizing a zone running scheme that allows for heavy RPO usage. Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith were utterly devastating on the RPO slant in 2020, and having Najee Harris as the run option in those RPOs didn’t hurt. With the emergence of Rhamondre Stevenson in the backfield, the Pats are only an elite WR way from having that kind of combination. RPOs aren’t quite as effective in the NFL thanks to the tighter rules, but we’ve seen teams executing them at that level.
“Interestingly, Saban mentioned that the RPO game wasn’t necessarily a strength of the 2021 team. Bryce Young is a smaller QB who doesn’t seem to see the slant all that well, but he’s phenomenal at extending plays and making highlight reel plays down the field. For that reason, we saw a few more slowly developing passing concepts. Nick has said that he would like to get back to the RPO game next season. Of course, O’Brien’s roots are in the Erhardt-Perkins system, so I’d say he’s probably pretty versatile.”