The Patriots had an opportunity last offseason to do what they have normally done when it comes to filling top assistant vacancies: promote from within.
After years in Foxboro, Josh McDaniels stepped into the role of top offensive assistant when Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame. Bill O'Brien was in New England for four years before he took over for McDaniels.
Matt Patricia worked as a position coach for six years before he landed Bill Belichick's open defensive coordinator gig. Brian Flores elevated to defensive play-caller after working under Patricia for years when Patricia left to become head coach in Detroit. When Flores left, Steve Belichick, working in New England since 2012, grabbed the defensive play sheet.
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But last year, when the Patriots realized they'd have to replace McDaniels again, they went a different route. Instead of promoting McDaniels' most experienced assistant, tight ends coach Nick Caley, they installed Matt Patricia and Joe Judge into the de facto offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach's roles, respectively.
Now that Caley's contract is expiring in New England, the Patriots have included him in their search for their next offensive coordinator, according to NFL Media. That means that after interviewing for the open Jets OC job earlier this week, Caley interviewed with the team that has had him under its roof as an offensive assistant and then tight ends coach since 2015.
No one would know better than Belichick whether or not Caley is prepared for a coordinator role, which makes this week's interview all the more intriguing. He's not under contract, remember, so the Patriots aren't obligated by any means to spend their time thinking about Caley leading their offense.
Why, then, the apparent change in course?
Caley wasn't elevated to the offensive coordinator role a year ago when the Patriots had a need, but he did enough in 2022 (a down year for just about everyone on that side of the ball in Foxboro) to warrant consideration this time around?
Caley's contract status could have something to do with it.
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According to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, Caley didn't re-up contractually with the Patriots prior to the start of last season, in part, because he didn't have much clarity as to his role moving forward. But for a head coach like Belichick, who is cognizant of the difficulties associated with a high rate of turnover on his staff, perhaps Caley's expiring deal prevented Belichick from giving his tight ends coach the duties of running his offense.
Caley is a coveted assistant. Along with getting interest from the Jets, I'm told he'll be in the running for the coordinator job in Houston if Eagles assistant Jonathan Gannon gets the head job there. He also could land in Las Vegas thanks to his strong relationship with McDaniels. And he's well-respected enough by Belichick for Belichick to spend time interviewing him now.
One can't help but wonder, though, if all of this -- the down year in 2022, the press release read 'round the world, the interview process -- might have been avoided had the Patriots simply opted 12 months ago to do what they're thinking about doing right now: Giving a long-term top assistant a shot to prove himself as the best person to lead this offense forward.