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A work in progress

Departures force Belichick to rebuild staff

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 16, 2009
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The Patriots will be in rebuilding mode this offseason, but it has nothing to do with their 11-5 season.

While there will be player personnel matters for the Patriots to address, coach Bill Belichick must reconstruct a coaching staff that lost three of its 10 assistant coaches (not including coaching assistants or the strength and conditioning staff) from 2008.

Josh McDaniels, who held the titles of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was introduced as the head coach of the Denver Broncos Monday. Special teams coach Brad Seely left to become assistant head coach/special teams coordinator for the Cleveland Browns under head coach Eric Mangini, a former Patriots assistant. Dom Capers, whose addition last season as special assistant/secondary coach was seen as a coup, also is parting ways.

The staff turnover will be the most since the Patriots' last Super Bowl title season, 2004, after which offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel departed to become head coach of the Browns, and assistant offensive line coach/tight ends coach Jeff Davidson followed Crennel to Cleveland.

That talent drain cleared the way for the rise of precocious assistants McDaniels, who ran the offense sans the offensive coordinator title in 2005, and Mangini, who ascended to defensive coordinator. It was evidence that the Patriots' philosophy of building a team and developing talent extended to the coaching staff.

Since becoming coach in 2000, Belichick has usually preferred to look within his staff to find key replacements. With that in mind and vacancies at offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, special teams coach, and secondary coach, let's look at the members of the coaching staff.

OFFENSE

Bill O'Brien, wide receivers coach - The 39-year-old O'Brien is the most likely internal candidate to take over the offense. His promotion to wide receivers coach in 2008 may have been to groom him to succeed McDaniels. Much like McDaniels in 2005, O'Brien could call the plays without having the title of offensive coordinator. An Andover native and graduate of St. John's Prep, O'Brien joined the Patriots staff in 2007 as a coaching assistant after spending 14 seasons as a college assistant coach at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Duke. O'Brien spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Duke (2005-06), and held that title with Georgia Tech in 2001 and 2002.

Pete Mangurian, tight ends coach - The 53-year-old Mangurian joined the Patriots in 2005. He has 17 years of experience as an NFL assistant and was the head coach at Cornell from 1998 to 2000. Mangurian has experience as an NFL offensive coordinator, doing it for Dan Reeves in Atlanta in 2003. However, that season Atlanta was 29th in total offense (273.2 yards per game) and 20th in points per game (18.7).

Dante Scarnecchia, assistant head coach/offensive line coach - The 60-year-old Scarnecchia has been a member of the Patriots staff since 1991 and in two stints (also in 1982-88) has spent 25 seasons with the team. Affectionately known as "Scar," he is one of Belichick's most trusted assistants. Under Scarnecchia's tutelage, the Patriots' offensive line paved the way for 2,278 yards rushing, the sixth-highest total in team history.

Ivan Fears, running backs coach - The fearsome Fears is a no-nonsense instructor with a long history in New England. The 54-year-old was the team's receivers coach from 1999 to 2001 before switching to running backs. Fears, an 18-year NFL coaching veteran, also coached receivers for the Patriots in 1991 and 1992 under Dick MacPherson. With injuries at running back that left undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis starting three games, Fears was still able to coax a 4.4-yards-per-rush average out of his group in 2008, the team's highest since 1983.

DEFENSE

Dean Pees, defensive coordinator - The avuncular Pees has been the Patriots' defensive coordinator since 2006. Despite a suspect secondary, Pees's unit finished 10th in the NFL in total defense (309 yards per game) and eighth in points per game (19.3). His defenses have finished in the top 10 in both categories in all three of his seasons, and in 2006 the defense set a franchise record by allowing just 14.8 points per game. Still, the defense's failure to stop opponents with the game on the line - the 2006 AFC Championship game loss to the Colts (38-34), the 17-14 Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants, and this season's 34-31 overtime loss to the New York Jets - has brought criticism of the 59-year-old.

Matt Patricia, linebackers coach - Patricia may be the next in the procession of coaching prodigies nurtured by Belichick. The 34-year-old joined the Patriots staff in 2004 as a coaching assistant and has been a quick riser. After one season as assistant offensive line coach, the former Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute offensive lineman became linebackers coach in 2006. This season, when Pees spent two games in the coaches' booth, Patricia was on the sideline relaying the defensive calls. Patricia also received credit from inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year, for spending extra time in the classroom with Mayo.

Pepper Johnson, defensive line coach - The 44-year-old Johnson had a 13-year NFL career as a linebacker, earning two Pro Bowl berths and winning a pair of Super Bowls as a member of the dominant Giants defenses that Belichick coordinated. The excitable Johnson joined Belichick's staff in 2000 as part of the NFL's summer coaching fellowship. In 2001, he was the team's inside linebackers coach. Belichick switched him to defensive line coach in 2004.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The loss of Seely is not insignificant. This season, the Patriots were third in the NFL in kickoff return average (25.2 yards per return), ninth in the league in punt return average (10.3 yards), and 10th in kickoff coverage (22.3 yards), although they allowed two touchdowns on kickoff returns. Only the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears had better average starting field position following a kickoff. Also, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski earned his first Pro Bowl berth, leading the league in points (148) and field goals, with a franchise-record 36. Belichick seems to have a suitable replacement lined up in veteran NFL special teams coach Scott O'Brien, who was Belichick's special teams coach in Cleveland and spent the last two seasons in Denver.

COACHING ASSISTANTS Promotions on the staff could clear the way for one of the team's three coaching assistants - Josh Boyer, Brian Flores, or Shane Waldron - to be elevated. Boyer has spent the last three seasons in Foxborough and coached defensive backs at Bryant University in 2004. Flores, a former Boston College linebacker, spent the previous four seasons in the personnel department before becoming a coaching assistant. Waldron was an offensive graduate assistant for three seasons at Notre Dame.

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