The media universe erupted last night with multiple reports confirming the worst-kept secret in football — that Patriots offensive coordinator/QB coach Bill O'Brien and Penn State University have agreed that he will take over the Nittany Lions football program.
O'Brien was not at Patriots practice Thursday, presumably to head to Happy Valley for his official interview with the school. It went well, according to those aforementioned reports, and O'Brien now appears set to take over one of the most storied programs in college football. As of dawn Friday, there has still been no official word from either Penn State or O'Brien and the Patriots.
Reports further indicate that if O'Brien accepts the job, he will remain with the Patriots until their season comes to an end. There is precedent for this in New England. You'll recall when Charlie Weis accepted the Notre Dame head coaching job in December 2004, he stayed with the Patriots through their successful Super Bowl run. So, O'Brien' s expected departure shouldn't be much a distraction to the Patriots, if any, during these playoffs.
In the meantime, it seems New England will be in the market for a new offensive play-caller. At this stage, the team's options are as follows:
Promote from within
The Patriots have done this before. Josh McDaniels and O'Brien both started out as coaching assistants with New England, then became quarterbacks coaches with play-calling responsibilities for a couple seasons before getting the OC title. If Belichick chooses to go this route, he could look to tight ends coach Brian Ferentz (soon to be 29), wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, or coaching assistant George Godsey. The latter was a quarterback at Georgia Tech when O'Brien was OC there and has been concentrating this season on working with the Patriots QBs.
Seek outside help
McDaniels' name is already being bandied about as a replacement for O'Brien. One sticking point — he's still got one year left on his St. Louis Rams contract. However, the Rams are in the market for a new head coach, meaning McDaniels' time as the St. Louis OC could be drawing to a close. Reports have already leaked that the Patriots and Chiefs have asked St. Louis for permission to speak with McDaniels. If Belichick wants to bring in a more experienced coach, he may look to former assistant Pat Hill, who was recently fired as head coach at Fresno State. Hill worked on Belichick's Cleveland Browns staff in the early/mid-1990s.
Obviously, someone will be calling plays for the Patriots in 2012. However, as we've seen, Belichick isn't afraid to take on a season without a named coordinator on either side of the ball. If history is a guide, the person who likely gets that responsibility on offense is the QB coach. Whoever gets that job would be the seen as being groomed for the offensive coordinator position.
One other point to keep in mind: If there's anything we've learned from studying Belichick over the years, it's that he often does what's least expected, on and off the field. Don't be surprised if he makes an unorthodox move to fill the expected void left by O'Brien.