Patriots rookies report to training camp on Sunday. These players are young, inexperienced and unproven. That gives them something in common with the team's coaching staff.
If the Bill Belichick coaching tree once resembled a redwood, reaching to the upper echelon of the NFL, it is now a sapling replete with tree brace. That creates an interesting dynamic this season in Foxborough, where the Patriots are relying on a still-developing group of coaches to develop young players they need to perform in important roles like wide receiver, cornerback and outside linebacker.
Of the 12 assistant coaches, excluding strength and conditioning coaches, on the Patriots roster, eight are 40 years of age or younger. Offensive assistant Brian Ferentz, who will ostensibly coach the tight ends this year without the title, is 27. Veteran tight end Alge Crumpler is five years his senior.
While Belichick is searching for the next Ty Law or Deion Branch, he's also looking to develop the next Eric Mangini or Josh McDaniels, both of whom were precocious Patriots coaches who became coordinators and ultimately NFL head coaches. It was five years ago that Belichick had 34-year-old Mangini running the Patriots defense and 29-year-old McDaniels the offense (sans coordinator title) after the departure of Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis.
Going with such callow coaches now is clearly a gamble for the game's best coach. However, Belichick is more comfortable molding and educating his own coaches in his system rather than bringing in more experienced coaches from outside his school of thought.
After hinting following a second straight season without a playoff win that he would potentially be open to adding coaches to the staff that could provide more pushback, Belichick added one new coach, tapping 40-year-old Corwin Brown, a former Patriots player with three years of pro coaching experience.
Brown's role is to aid 33-year-old defensive backs coach Josh Boyer, who took over as defensive backs coach last season with no prior experience as a position coach. Not surprisingly -- but not necessarily solely a reflection on Boyer -- there were some cringe-worthy breakdowns in the back end last season, particularly Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson's 75-yard waltz to the end zone on a busted coverage.
When 60-year-old defensive coordinator Dean Pees left the team following last season, an official replacement wasn't named. The Patriots are officially going without offensive or defensive coordinators this year, a highly unusual step in today's speciously specialized NFL.
Unofficially those roles are being filled by 40-year-old quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, who was the primary play-caller for the first time last season, and soon-to-be (Sept. 13) 36-year-old linebackers coach Matt Patricia, who will have the benefit of Belichick's self-purported increased role in the defense.
Other members of Belichick Youth are 29-year-old assistant coach offense/special teams Brian Flores, called "the next Mike Tomlin" by one former Patriots football operations employee; defensive assistant Patrick Graham, 30, and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, 37.
Contrast the Patriots filling of the defensive coordinator void to that of the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins, who went out and got defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who has 12 seasons of NFL coordinator experience. Both of Miami's coordinators, Nolan and Dan Henning have been NFL head coaches.
The Patriots have stalwart experienced whistle-blowers in running backs coach Ivan Fears (20th season), sage offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia (29th season) and special teams coach Scott O'Brien (20th season). X's and O's acumen is not going to be a major issue for a Belichick staff as long as he's on it. But you do have to wonder if the wunderkinds can foster the development of their young players, something Scarnecchia in particular is adept at.
For all of the criticism of the Patriots drafting the last few years, with 2006, 2007 and 2008 the most notable examples, you wonder how much of the team's failure to assimilate young players is tied to incorrect talent evaluation and how much is the result of a lack of player development, a strength of the arch rival Indianapolis Colts.
The line between player evaluation and player development is blurred. They bleed into each other, and a deficiency in one area creates the appearance of one in the other.
What is unequivocal is that this is a franchise that once took guys like Hank Poteat and Earthwind Moreland off the street and turned them into passable NFL players, but is now struggling to get talents like 2008 second-round pick Terrence Wheatley and '08 third-round pick Shawn Crable on the field in contributing roles.
It's disheartening to watch a player like David Thomas, a 2006 third-round pick who was traded to New Orleans following the preseason last year, emerge as solid contributor for the Super Bowl champion Saints, while the Patriots start the season with two rookie tight ends and an aging veteran, Crumpler. Thomas actually played more snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus, at tight end for New Orleans than Jeremy Shockey (781 to 739) and recorded career-highs in catches (35) and receiving yards (356).
Belichick has displayed an aversion to young players, but he clearly doesn't have one to young coaches. Possibly, because he was one of them once.
He became special teams coach of the New York Giants at age 27. He was running the team's defense (without the coordinator title) at age 32 and became defensive coordinator at age 33. When he became a head coach for the first time, taking the reigns of the Cleveland Browns in 1991, he was 38 and the youngest coach in the league.
In the end, age is nothing but a number. It is not a predictor of success or failure. But if the Patriots coaching staff doesn't come of age this season to help its players do the same then New England's number could be up.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.