In a titular sense, Bill O'Brien has elevated responsibilities this summer thanks to his promotion last February to offensive coordinator. But in reality the Massachusetts native is doing what he's done at this time of year for the last couple seasons in New England – overseeing the team's offense is it builds toward the regular season.
A year ago, when O'Brien was the playcaller and quarterbacks coach, New England led the NFL with 518 points. That was despite going through a midseason transition that saw Randy Moss exit, Deion Branch return and BenJarvus Green-Ellis take over as the Patriots lead running back.
That challenge now in the rearview mirror the rising coach has new hurdles this summer. He's working Chad Ochocinco into the system, an offense that was without its usual offseason passing camps, OTAs and mini-camps. Though his quarterback acknowledged on Friday that the group is quite obviously behind where it normally would be, O'Brien is simply rolling with the proverbial punches.
"I think every year is different. I would say that the difference in this year from last would be the offseason: the players weren't here. But other than that, I would say that training camp is going about as it would go at a normal pace for the situation that we're in this year," O'Brien said in his Saturday afternoon press conference at Gillette Stadium. "I think at this point it's going well. We're trying to be fundamentally strong in what we do and we're progressing. It's training camp – it's a grind. Like Bill [Belichick] always says, 'There's no light at the end of the tunnel.' Just keep grinding, put one foot in front of the other and go day-to-day and we'll see where we're at when the Miami game comes around."
The biggest story so far regarding the offense is the trade to add the former All-Pro Ochocinco. The veteran has had an inconsistent start to camp, seemingly alternating between impressive days and those in which he has too many dropped passes.
"I know from him being here that he has been very professional," O'Brien said of Ochocinco's progression over the last week-plus. "[He] works really hard in the meeting rooms and on the field. He's a competitive guy and he takes a lot of pride in it. I would say that about the whole group right now of receivers – I think there're 11 of them working right now. [They're] smart guys, competitive guys working hard and [Ochocinco's] fitting in. He's only been here I think [for] three or four days. This will be his third or fourth practice today, so I think he has progressed on a daily basis and just like everybody else, there're ups and downs at this time in training camp and he's just trying to be as consistent as he can be, just like everybody else out there."
While Ochocinco is learning the ropes on offense, O'Brien will clearly be counting on his second-year tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to be key parts of the passing attack. Both seem poised to build off impressive rookie seasons, especially Gronkowski who may be the Patriots most impressive player to date in training camp.
O'Brien talked about the youth at the position, now that veteran Alge Crumpler is no longer with the team.
"They've been working really hard," O'Brien observed. "Rob has had a good camp as have those other guys in different ways. Again, I've used this a lot so far, but you're 12 practices in – there's always been some ups and downs early in training camp. Every year is the same as far as that goes – ups and downs. That group is really trying to be more consistent in what they do. It's a good group of guys. It's a younger group of guys with [Gronkowski] and [Aaron] Hernandez being in their second year and then [Will] Yeatman, Lee Smith being in their [first] year now and you can put Carson Butler into that group. You've got five guys that are working at it. [They're] talented guys working hard every day, [have] been there every day and just need to really play as consistently as they can and that's what they're working to do."
And though Crumpler is gone, O'Brien thinks the tight ends are better off for a year with the veteran.
"Hopefully they learned from those things. Again, you can see signs of what they learned from him in these 12 practices that we've had – a lot of hard work, competition, getting better every day," O'Brien said. "With Aaron and Rob, I think you are looking at two really football smart guys, so they have come a long way with knowing their offense. Hopefully they can carry some of their work ethic that Alge taught them. It's a good group of tight ends. All five of those guys have different types of abilities and skill sets. They're all working at it and we're happy with that group."
In the coming weeks O'Brien will continue to polish and shine his offense, with Tom Brady at the controls of what should once again be one of the elite attacks in the NFL. It's the same job he did last year at this time. In fact O'Brien says nothing has changed for him, regardless of his promotion to offensive coordinator.
"We have a really strong staff as a whole, obviously led by Bill [Belichick]," O'Brien declared. "We have a really strong offensive staff that works very well together. We're all in it together. We each have different roles. I'm basically the guy that just collects the paper and puts it all in the right stack and gets us organized. It's a collaborative effort. We all work together and try to put together a good practice plan, a good drill, a good game plan and that's what we do. That's what it has been about since I've been here. Everybody has a role and we all work together pretty well."
That's been proven by the results on the field.