Under O’Brien, Patriots special teams delivered
By Michael Whitmer
FOXBOROUGH — Of the 15 assistant coaches listed by the Patriots, only one was on Bill Belichick’s staff when he was a first-year NFL head coach, in 1991 with the Cleveland Browns.
Scott O’Brien worked for Belichick all five seasons in Cleveland, then spent time with four NFL organizations (Ravens, Panthers, Dolphins, Broncos) from 1995-2008. Since 2009, he has been with the Patriots, reunited with Belichick and dutifully making an impact guiding the special teams, his specialty.
There are other strong examples from years past, but this season might be O’Brien’s best work. His group includes a kicker who missed just three field goal attempts and led the NFL in points, a rookie punter, the player who had been the league’s career leader in punt-return average, and one of only two special teamers voted into the upcoming Pro Bowl.
When LeGarrette Blount scampered 83 and 62 yards on key kickoff returns in last Sunday’s regular-season finale against Buffalo, it gave O’Brien yet another opportunity to gloat about how impressive the Patriots special teamers have been this season. But he didn’t.
O’Brien, like almost all of the Patriots assistant coaches, is hardly ever made available to the media during the season. He declined a request to be interviewed for this story, so others will have to do the talking for him.
Which they were glad to do.
“I think that the hard work and the perseverance … it’s paid off throughout the year in different areas,” said Belichick. “We’ve certainly seen it the last few weeks with big plays in many different areas of the kicking game. Contributions of field position and points and turnovers and onside kicks.
“It’s just situational plays. You never know when some of those situational plays are going to happen, but being able to execute them at critical times, like in the Cleveland game, it’s vital to being able to win in those situations.”
Across the board, the Patriots have had their moments on special teams this season, one of many reasons they went 12-4, won the AFC East, and earned the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs. They earned a first-round bye, and will play an undetermined opponent (the Bengals, Colts, or Chiefs) in the divisional round Jan. 11.
In nearly every statistical category, the Patriots had the edge over their opponents on special teams. Stephen Gostkowski was 38 for 41 on field goals, didn’t miss an extra point, and had the second-most kickoff touchbacks in the league. The Patriots averaged 10.8 yards per punt return (with a season long of 43), and allowed 7.6 (long of 24). Thanks to Blount on Sunday, they averaged 24.0 yards per kickoff return (long of 83), compared with 20.8 for opponents (long of 50).
They didn’t score any special-teams touchdowns, but didn’t give up any, and pulled off a last-minute recovery of an onside kick — one of the rarest plays in football — that helped them beat the Browns.
Players make the plays, but how much of the special teams credit this season should go to O’Brien?
“I think a lot more than he gets, because he’s putting guys in the right position, he’s helping guys understand how we’re being attacked or how we want to attack,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain.
“So often, people look at special teams and they just think it’s a kamikaze mission without much thought involved, that it’s just big, fast, dumb guys running down there, but that’s not the case. It’s as much of a mental game as it is physical, and he really helps us in that regard.”
Slater, and others who play on special teams, use the same words to describe O’Brien, 56, who has been a special teams coach since 1983, when he joined the staff at UNLV: Detailed. Thorough. Passionate. Energetic.
“For being one of the older coaches, he’s got a lot of energy,” said Nate Ebner, who had 11 special-teams tackles this season. “He understands every aspect of special teams, so I try to learn as much as I can.”
Nobody has learned more from O’Brien than Slater, who has turned into one of the best special teamers in the NFL. O’Brien joined the Patriots in Slater’s second season. Considering how Slater’s first season went, it was the right coach at the right time.
“My rookie year was rough, to say the least, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in what I was doing out there,” Slater said. “He brought a confidence to me and my game, he made me think about the game differently. It became more of a craft, more of a science.
“It was understanding schemes. It was footwork, it was hand work. This guy was just so detailed in how he prepared me and the things that he wanted me to be thinking about as a player, and he really made me believe that I could be good, that I could survive in this league. I can’t say enough positive things about him and the time I’ve spent with him.”
Slater has been named to the Pro Bowl each of the past three seasons. He had 14 special-teams tackles this season, second on the team to Dane Fletcher’s 15. But Slater missed four games early in the season with a broken bone in his hand.
It hasn’t only been Slater. Julian Edelman averaged 10.7 yards per punt return, a number that actually lowered his career average to 12.3 and bumped him out of the league’s all-time lead. Punter Ryan Allen has been steady as a rookie, and learned to hold for Gostkowski, who has had the best season of his eight-year career.
Gostkowski set a franchise record for points in a season (158), and made 5 of 6 field goal attempts from 50 yards and longer. He probably should have joined Slater as a Pro Bowl selection.
Gostkowski has said on occasion this season, after making a big kick in difficult conditions (Sunday’s downpour comes to mind), that he and the other specialists are sent out by O’Brien no matter the weather conditions.
Reading between the lines, perhaps Gostkowski and the other specialists would rather not be subjected to such harsh elements. But he knows that O’Brien, who is assisted by Joe Judge, is simply preparing his players to succeed the best way he knows how. Based on the results, it’s hard to argue with the approach.
“He’s been around a long time and he definitely knows a lot about every situation. You just trust they know what they’re doing,” Gostkowski said. “Just like we wouldn’t be in this league this long if we didn’t perform, the coaches wouldn’t, either.
“He has his own way of getting guys to play, and I think he does a good job of it.”
According to the Patriots’ media guide, O’Brien’s players have combined for 38 special teams touchdowns in the 21 NFL seasons in which he’s coached special teams. He was named the league’s Special Teams Coach of the Year in 1994 while with Belichick and the Browns.
Perhaps O’Brien was destined for good things from the very beginning. He was, after all, born and raised in the northwest Wisconsin city of Superior.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.