The New England Patriots have started their search for a new offensive coordinator. Following the departure of Bill O’Brien, the team has either held or scheduled interviews with three candidates so far: Zac Robinson and Nick Caley, who both spent the 2023 season as with the Los Angeles Rams, as well as the Cincinnati Bengals’ Dan Pitcher.
Besides being still relatively young — Caley is 40, Robinson and Pitcher are 37 — the three men also have something else in common. All of them have a background in the so-called “Shanahan system” named after former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan.
Robinson and Caley both were familiarized with the system under head coach Sean McVay in Los Angeles.
Robinson, a former Patriots seventh-round draft pick, started out as an assistant quarterbacks coach in 2019 before being promoted to his most recent role of pass game coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2022. Caley, who previously spent eight years in New England primarily working with the tight ends, coached the same position group for the Rams last season.
Pitcher, on the other hand, worked closely alongside ex-McVay assistant Zac Taylor in Cincinnati. He initially served as assistant quarterbacks coach and later quarterbacks coach under Taylor — himself a QBs coach in L.A. — for the last five years.
The origins of the “Shanahan system” can be traced back to the Denver Broncos of the 1990s. However, it became increasingly popular and productive in the late 2010s when McVay and Mike Shanahan’s son, Kyle, started implementing their variations with the Rams and San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
The offense itself features a considerable commitment to outside zone and wide zone concepts, bunch formations and compressed looks, and play-action. Considered a quarterback-friendly offense due to its relative simplicity, its basic goal is to scheme up space for dynamic playmakers such as Cooper Kupp or Deebo Samuel to exploit.
The Patriots offense for the last 24 years, meanwhile, looked drastically differently and was much more reliant on players making the correct reads based on formation, call, and defense. This modified version of the Erhardt-Perkins scheme proved to be highly successful, but proved itself notoriously challenging to learn and implement.
With the right personnel on the sidelines and on the field, it can be one of the most difficult offenses to defend. That is due to its adaptability to every situation: if a team plays a certain defense, the conceptual details embedded into the system are flexible enough to change on a snap-by-snap basis.
However, finding the personnel capable of running the system has proven itself to be a challenge for the Patriots even when Tom Brady was still running the show at quarterback. Since his departure after the 2019 season, New England has struggled to field a competitive offense.
The Patriots did attempt to modernize their offense under Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in 2022 by incorporating more Shanahan-style elements. The results, however, were disappointing.
Two years later, it seems New England might be fully committed to change.