It’s Robert Kraft’s franchise. It’s Bill Belichick’s team.
But it’s Josh McDaniels’ offense — and he is the most important coach for the Patriots in 2020.
For years, the Patriots have been able to rely on the metronomic efficiency of Tom Brady. His complete understanding of the Patriots offense, his encyclopedic knowledge of every possible defensive scheme, understanding what plays to get into and out of, when to throw it away and fight another play, when to stand in and take the hit, situational football, clock management, all of it.
Brady’s interceptions and gaffes were so few over the years, the fact they are easily recalled speaks to the fact a Brady mistake was a noteworthy moment.
But he gone.
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If and when the NFL returns to business as usual, McDaniels will be charged with creating an offense around someone other than the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
And that won’t be easy.
The Brady-McDaniels collaboration did a tremendous job of masking how bad the talent/experience drain on the Patriots offense really was. From the 2017 Super Bowl through to the start of the 2019 regular season, the Patriots ran at a trade deficit.
Now? With no tight ends to help as either receivers or in the running game, a running game that spun its wheels most of last season, a wide receiver group the team hopes isn’t as impotent as last year and a promising quarterback in Jarrett Stidham who’ll be Zooming all tutelage for the foreseeable future?
There’s no free agent cavalry coming. There’s no draft day panacea. It’s McDaniels and Stidham/Brian Hoyer/whoever gets added in the draft.
And make no mistake, the offense is all McDaniels.
As Bill Belichick explained in NFL Films’ production of “Do Your Job III” after Super Bowl 53, “I give him a little bit of input, but 90 to 95 percent is his plan, his vision.
“Rarely do we see things that differently. But sometimes there will be things that I suggest. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I think that would be great,’ and sometimes he’ll say, ‘I don’t really think this is the right time for us to do that. Here’s the reason why.’ And he’s usually right.”
Obviously, after 45 seasons in the NFL, Belichick could coordinate an offense as well as just about anyone. But defense is Belichick’s bailiwick and that’s where he spends his time.
This excellent but perhaps overlooked story by Phil Perry in January illustrates the game-day division of power between Belichick and McDaniels. It was written after the Patriots' back-to-back losses to the Dolphins and Titans ending their season and detailed what game day on the Patriots sidelines looks like.
When it was written, there was a very real chance McDaniels could wind up with a head coaching gig. The Panthers, Giants and Browns were all in pursuit.
But McDaniels never got the chance to sit down with either the Panthers or Giants. He was tied up with end-of-season evaluations in Foxboro and when the Panthers made a quick move to hire Matt Rhule, the Giants moved quickly too and hired Joe Judge, who’d been liberated from Gillette to talk to Big Blue.
When McDaniels and the Browns agreed the fit wasn’t right in Cleveland, McDaniels was back with the Patriots.
Boon for them. An even bigger boon now that Brady is gone.
Losing Brady and McDaniels in the same offseason could have been disastrous. It’s arguably the best OC/QB collaboration in NFL history. Actually, since McDaniels has had so much offensive latitude given to him by Belichick, McDaniels/Brady can be compared to the Bill Walsh/Joe Montana-Steve Young, Mike Holmgren/Brett Favre partnerships even though McDaniels wasn’t a head coach.
The issue facing McDaniels — having to coach up a young player without having direct access to him or the chance to correct in the classroom or on the practice field — isn’t unique this offseason.
But the Patriots do have an edge. McDaniels was key in the development of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. He’s an excellent teacher and he’s got the ability to coach guys who have different styles.
McDaniels also got help last season from assistant quarterbacks coach Mick Lombardi, who worked extensively with Stidham all season to bring him up to speed.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have added longtime college and NFL assistant Jedd Fisch to the offensive coaching room. His role and title aren’t defined but he’s ping-ponged from the Ravens to the Broncos (where he was McDaniels’ wide receivers coach) to the University of Minnesota to the Seahawks to the University of Miami to the Jaguars to Michigan to UCLA to the Rams since 2004.
It’s logical to think Fisch may have appeal because of his familiarity with spread and read-option at the college level. So many quarterbacks — like Stidham and whoever else the Patriots may add — come into the league with that as their knowledge-base that Fisch could be an asset in that regard.
None of it matters much until the rules of coaching engagement for 2020 come down. When they do, if there’s an actual season to prepare for, the Patriots will consider themselves lucky that they only lost one hemisphere of their offensive braintrust.