Sometimes it can be instructive to look back in order to look ahead. And if you look back a ways, you can find a situation in which it was hazy -- at least to those outside One Patriot Place -- as to who was running Bill Belichick's offense.
That's of course how things look at the moment in Foxboro. Hazy.
During a recent practice open to Patriots reporters, Joe Judge looked like a quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator. Matt Patricia looked like an offensive line coach and run-game coordinator. And Belichick himself appeared to be relaying plays to Mac Jones during certain 11-on-11 periods.
During a press conference ahead of that workout, Belichick didn't rule out the possibility that he would call plays for the Patriots in 2022. Judge and Patricia indicated to media members earlier this offseason that a decision on the team's play-calling plan hadn't yet been decided. And Belichick echoed those thoughts this week saying that the Patriots were "months" away from needing to develop defined game-planning and play-calling responsibilities.
The last time it seems as though the team entered a season when the public was unsure of who was going to lead the offense was back in 2005.
Since Belichick's arrival as head coach, 2005 was the team's first season without offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. There was no named replacement. And even when the year had ended -- when quarterbacks Josh McDaniels was promoted to the coordinator role for the upcoming 2006 season -- McDaniels was still getting questions about whether or not he'd been the one calling plays for the Patriots in Weis' absence.
"Bill's responsible for what play is called," McDaniels said when asked if he called the plays in 2005, according to the Hartford Courant. When asked about the 2006 play-calling, McDaniels said, "There's a lot of people who will have a say in that."
The Patriots have obviously seen turnover at offensive coordinator since then. Bill O'Brien took over as quarterbacks coach and play-caller in 2009 when McDaniels left to be the head coach of the Broncos. But at that point, it was clear O'Brien was calling the plays even if he didn't have the offensive coordinator title until 2011.
But to get a little more clarity on how that unique 2005 season shook out offensively, we checked in with Matt Cassel, who'd been drafted by the Patriots in the seventh round that year.
How did it actually work that year, and might that season lay out any sort of path for how this upcoming season could go?
"Without the title," Cassel said, "Josh was running the offense. He was the guy in Tom's ear. But it was interesting being on the sidelines. Bill would say on the headset, 'We want to run the ball here, what do you like?' It might be [offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia] who would chime in on the headset and suggest something. There was open communication on the mic. But when it came to getting the gameplan organized, meeting with the quarterbacks, discussing preferences with certain plays, openers, things of that nature, it was Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady."
Cassel added that the game-planning process was a collaboration with a variety of assistants chipping in on a specific aspect of a given plan. That has remained the case throughout the years in Foxboro with certain assistants taking point on the two-minute plan or the red-zone plan. Scarnecchia or other offensive line coaches have been heavily involved in running-game and pass-protection plans.
"It's definitely a collaboration," Cassel said. "It's not one guy who's totally in control. Josh was for sure the point man, but everybody had a say for their specialty, if you will."
Cassel explained that back in 2005, practices had some similarities to what reporters saw during New England's recent open OTA practice. During 9-on-7 running-game periods, Scarnecchia would lead the way (as Patricia appeared to during a run-game period Monday). McDaniels and assistant Brian Daboll ran the 7-on-7 work (as Judge appeared to on Monday).
What interested Cassel was to hear that Belichick appeared to be relaying signals to Jones late in the practice -- even at this early stage of the offseason.
"That's way different than how we approached it," Cassel said. "The plays, even at practice, would come in from McDaniels. With Bill, if he sees something -- maybe it's in two-minute or some other specific situation we might be working on -- he'd come over to discuss. But it was more big-picture stuff as opposed to, 'Hey, this was your read. Why did you do this?' That was Josh."
Cassel said he believed that the team's play-caller would be obvious to practice observers in relatively short order. (Belichick gave some indication this week that by training camp the play-calling process would be ironed out.)
"You're going to see it, whoever is going to get plays in," Cassel said. "You've got to be fluid, you've got to get the cadence, you've got to be on top of, 'We have this check-with-me run or check-with-me pass.' It's a craft. You can't all of a sudden say, 'He's going to do it or he's going to do it.' They have to make a decision and get to that point where you can say it's efficient, it's effective and you can get in and out of the huddle ...
"Maybe he's using these OTAs to see who's gonna be that guy? It's going to be rapid fire for whoever it is. It's first and 10 and you get blown up, now what are you doing on 2nd and 8? If you get a good gain and it's five yards, it's much different. Do you want to run it again? Are you going to throw it? Every sequence matters, you have to have multiple calls ready to go. Third down is a little different, you have your top-five on 3rd and 3, for example ... But on first and second down, anything can happen."
One point Cassel raised that would be interesting to follow as it relates to this year's Patriots coaching staff is whether or not the game-day play-caller ends up being the coach who spends the most time with Jones and other Patriots quarterbacks. That looks as though it will be Judge.
"Usually that's the case," he said. "There's the most communication in those individual meetings as a quarterback group. If your OC isn't the one there, they can miss communication. They can miss how a quarterback is seeing certain things, suggestions taking place. I've never been in a room where there isn't a coach in that room calling plays. Seven teams and 14 years, there's never been a voice on that phone that hasn't been in that room."
Perhaps eventually we'll find out whether Patricia is in every quarterback meeting as well as every offensive line meeting. Maybe Belichick will be with the quarterbacks on a daily basis along with Judge, as Judge gets accustomed to a new role.
It's not new for the Patriots to go into a season without an obvious play-caller. But maybe what happened in 2005, when a young assistant took over for a three-time Super Bowl-winning play-caller, can give us some kind of window into how they'll eventually go about their business in 2022.