FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. O'Brien impact: Quarterback AJ McCarron played for new Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans in 2019 and 2020, and so he has a good feel for what Mac Jones is about to experience this year.
He summed it up in what might be the four most important words of the Patriots’ season: “A quarterback-friendly offense.”
The 32-year-old McCarron was in the midst of preparing for his XFL debut Sunday -- his St. Louis Battlehawks visit the San Antonio Brahmas (3 p.m. ET, ABC) -- when he entertained questions on what O’Brien’s presence might mean for Jones.
McCarron sees promising possibilities in part because of the enjoyment and personal growth he experienced in O’Brien’s system as a backup to Deshaun Watson.
“OB is a wonderful coach; very intelligent, and he gets guys to play hard. I think he’s going to do an excellent job there,” McCarron said.
McCarron’s reference to “a quarterback-friendly offense” relates to something Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a Fox Business interview in the days leading up to the Super Bowl: “We’re blessed to have a great, young quarterback in Mac Jones. I’m a strong believer in him and his development.”
What Kraft didn’t say, but seems obvious by the team’s actions this offseason, is that coach Bill Belichick’s 2022 plan to streamline the offense, not name an official coordinator, and make significant changes to offensive-line protections was closer to a quarterback-unfriendly offense.
It contributed to stunting Jones’ development in his second NFL season, which Belichick often cites as the year players commonly make their biggest leap. Now, for the 8-9 Patriots to return to the playoffs and position themselves to win their first postseason game since beating the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, they need to provide better infrastructure around him.
McCarron, who like Jones, played in college at Alabama, sees O’Brien as a difference-maker in that regard.
McCarron spent the first four years (2014-17) of his NFL career with the Bengals, who ran a West Coast offense with longer playcalls, the center making the run-blocking line calls and the quarterback handling the pass-protection calls.
His eyes were opened after signing in 2018 as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills, who, under former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll, ran a “New England-style offense” in which all calls went through the quarterback and one word could mean everything from the formation, protection and playcall.
After being traded to the Raiders later that season, McCarron ultimately landed with O’Brien’s Texans the following two seasons and said: “What helped me grow a ton as a player was going to Houston. … I dove into that offense and, ever since, I’ve wanted to know everything -- run-blocking schemes, pass-blocking schemes, it’s the quarterback getting us in the best situation possible.”
In the ideal Patriots world, Jones will have a similar experience this year.
2. Judon on Super Bowl: What stood out to Patriots outside linebacker Matthew Judon about the Chiefs’ 38-35 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII? “The Chiefs’ O-line protected beautifully,” he said on “The Jim Rome Show.”
“They kept [Patrick] Mahomes upright. He had the injured ankle and he really wasn’t touched. He could stand in and deliver the ball, and they also did a great job of getting the ball out of his hands quick and getting it to the playmakers.”
Judon’s point highlights something relevant to the 2023 Patriots.
How the Chiefs built their O-line after losing to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV -- trading for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., signing left guard Joe Thuney in free agency, drafting center Creed Humphrey (second round) and right guard Trey Smith (sixth round), and developing right tackle Andrew Wylie (2017 undrafted free agent) -- shows that a team weakness can quickly turn to a strength.
3. Tag opening: The window for teams to assign the franchise tag and transition tag on players begins Tuesday and ends March 7, but it would be a surprise if the Patriots use any tag. Receiver Jakobi Meyers is their top free agent, but a franchise tag at $19.7 million and transition tag at $17.9 million seems rich unless it were used as a placeholder to buy a few extra days of time to strike an extension.
4. Tyquan in town: Patriots receiver Tyquan Thornton, the 2022 second-round pick from Baylor, was among the players in town last week. It’s early in the offseason, with the official start to the team’s voluntary program not until mid-April, but Thornton (50% of the snaps; 22 catches, 247 yards, 2 TDs) was staying sharp by running routes and fine-tuning his craft. As someone close to him relayed: “He knows how important Year 2 is.”
5. McCourtys’ grace: Longtime Patriots captain Devin McCourty has conducted hundreds of interviews over his 13-year NFL career, but none of them was as courageous and graceful as one that he and his wife, Michelle, were part of earlier this month. The McCourtys were guests on The TEARS Foundation's podcast to discuss their stillborn daughter, Mia, from May 2020. The hope was to be a light for others. “I never thought I could come to a point where I could talk about it and not burst into tears,” Michelle said. “Hearing other people that went through it, it helps.”
6. Mayo, Slater assist: The Vikings introduced former Patriots assistant Brian Flores as their defensive coordinator last week, and head coach Kevin O’Connell shared that New England's up-and-coming assistant Jerod Mayo and longtime special teams captain Matthew Slater had rave reviews that played a role in the decision to hire Flores. “The way they speak about the impact he had on them … that mattered to me, what people I really respect had to say,” said O’Connell, who entered the NFL in 2008 as part of the same draft class as Mayo and Slater in New England but didn’t have as much contact with Flores himself.
7. Ticket increase: The Patriots informed their season-ticket members last week that they were making their first stadium-wide price increase since 2008. Whereas some teams annually increase ticket prices, the Patriots have done it less frequently. Since the last stadium-wide increase in 2008, 41% of sections had two increases, 44% had one increase, and 15% had no increase. The announcement last week came in concert with changes to parking, which includes one innovative option in which fans are paid to park if they are willing to wait 75 minutes before departing after the game to reduce traffic on Route 1.
8. Caley’s decision: The Rams haven’t officially announced their full coaching staff, but former Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley has already begun work in Los Angeles as the team’s new tight ends coach. Caley spent the past five years in that role in New England, after two seasons as a coaching assistant, and was passed over for the team’s coordinator job in 2022 and 2023. So he makes a lateral move and will now be working in Sean McVay’s system, where perhaps the path to a coordinator’s job is a bit more open for him.
9. XFL flavor: Patriots fans tuning in to the XFL’s opening weekend of action will recognize some familiar names on rosters of the eight teams, perhaps none more than Seattle Sea Dragons wide receiver Josh Gordon (2018-19). And followers of New England college football will note Boston College linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley (Arlington, Texas) and Stonehill College receiver Andrew Jamiel (Orlando). Almost everyone in the XFL is chasing a dream, to which Battlehawks head coach Anthony Becht said: “I see NFL players on my roster.”
10. Did you know? The Super Bowl was decided by three points for the second consecutive season, which is the first time consecutive Super Bowls have been decided by three points since Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX – Patriots over Panthers, and Patriots over Eagles.