Commentary

How will losing Bill O'Brien affect Pats?

Updated: January 9, 2012, 8:36 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A touchdown's worth of thoughts on New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's agreeing to become head coach at Penn State:

1. Could this be a distraction to the Patriots? If any team is equipped to handle it, it's New England. The Patriots have been through something similar before, when Charlie Weis was hired as Notre Dame coach during the 2004 Patriots season. While few of the same players are still around, the same structure is in place and Bill Belichick, with few exceptions (e.g., the 2009 season), has mastered the ability to keep players focused. Spend a week in the team's locker room, and one might come away thinking one just spoke with 53 different Belichicks. It's uncanny.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady, Bill Belichick
David Butler II/US PresswireIt looks like Bill Belichick, right, will have to find a new offensive guru to replace Bill O'Brien, center, and work with Tom Brady, left, next season.

2. Local guy hits it big. O'Brien was born in Dorchester, Mass., and raised in Andover, so this is a story of a local guy striking it big. He's a Brown graduate who is considered a stand-up guy, and his profile as an NFL coach rose in New England this season, in part because of his fiery demeanor on the sideline and because he held a weekly conference call with reporters. O'Brien and his wife, Colleen, have two sons, Jack and Michael, and the town of Medfield's loss will be State College's gain.

3. Another compliment for Belichick. One might say this development speaks highly of Belichick's knack for recognizing talented young coaches. Belichick hired O'Brien as a coaching assistant in 2007 after O'Brien had spent two seasons as Duke's offensive coordinator. This is an often-overlooked aspect of Belichick's tenure, how he selects and grooms coaches in the team's system, preferring that route over established coaches who might be more set in their ways. O'Brien obviously has a lot of things going for him, but working under Belichick surely didn't hurt his chances of landing the Penn State job.

4. Another blow for Belichick. The coaching drain continues for Belichick; it's been a challenge for him to retain top coaches and groom bright young assistants over the years because of other teams poaching them. In 2009, when Josh McDaniels left to become Broncos head coach, Belichick initially was more involved with the offense, but over time, as O'Brien grew into the job, it allowed Belichick to gradually let go and focus on other things. Now Belichick could be tugged back in that direction, unless McDaniels (who currently is under contract to the Rams) becomes available and returns. It's one thing to coach the players, but in many ways, Belichick often coaches the coaches. Thus, the turnover can be draining. If Belichick stays in-house, tight ends coach Brian Ferentz (four NFL seasons) and receivers coach Chad O'Shea (nine NFL seasons) are potential candidates.

5. Effect on Brady. O'Brien and quarterback Tom Brady had developed a tight bond over the past three years, a recent reminder coming after the Dec. 24 win over the Dolphins when their families shared an embrace outside the team's locker room. Brady took it hard when Weis left, before eventually generating a special rapport with McDaniels. Then when McDaniels left, Brady had to do it all over again with O'Brien. It can take time to develop that type of trust and working relationship. That's why McDaniels would be a natural to return, if he's ultimately available.

6. Double duty for O'Brien. By most accounts, O'Brien has expertly handled the responsibilities given to him, but this might be his most challenging -- finishing out the team's playoff run with the same type of sharp focus he's consistently exhibited while also beginning the process of laying the foundation for his new job at Penn State. Weis balanced something similar in 2004 (Patriots and Notre Dame) and New England went on to win the Super Bowl, so there is precedent. From limited experience with O'Brien, it's hard to imagine he'd allow anything to compromise the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes, given all the hard work that already has been put in to this point. But that's a situation in which it could be easy for a coach to be torn.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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