Under-the-radar coach might be the most important for Patriots this season

Could the guy nobody is talking about be the Patriots' most important coach? 
Jun 2, 2022; Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams special teams assistant coach Jeremy Springer during organized team activities at California Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 2, 2022; Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams special teams assistant coach Jeremy Springer during organized team activities at California Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to recover from losing 13 games in one season is to clean house and get rid of everyone involved.  

The Patriots have instead decided to take a new and potentially revolutionary approach: fire the GM and head coach, jettison the quarterback to keep the fans onside and promote someone whose official job title last season was “inside linebackers coach” to the top job. Jerod Mayo has become the youngest head coach in the NFL—he’s one month younger than Sean McVay! 

But everyone already knew that, and you knew there was a new offensive coordinator who was also the Packers' running backs coach in 2013.

You also knew there was a new senior offensive coordinator who was the Packers' quarterback coach in 2013, right?

But what you probably didn’t know is that there’s a new special teams coordinator. The only time he coached in Green Bay was in Week 9 last year when his Rams lost 20-9. 

Under-the-radar coach might be the most important for Patriots this season

So, who’s the new guy?

Jeremy Springer is three years younger than Mayo but not the youngest special teams coordinator in the league. That honor falls to the Eagles' Michael Clay, who is only 32, and I bet you thought it was just police officers who were getting younger.

Springer arrives in New England after two seasons as the Rams assistant special teams coach. Like Mayo, the Texas native is a former middle linebacker and a big guy. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds! Springer might have to dust his pads off if the Patriots 2023 injury bug reappears this year. 

New England averaged just 23.8 yards per drive in 2023, only the Jets were worse. The Patriots' average time of drive (2:21) was even worse, ranking 32nd in the league. What has all this got to do with having a new special teams coordinator, you ask?

The easiest way to turn a 23.8-yard drive into points is to start that drive from your opponent's 23-yard line.  

That might be practically impossible, but theoretically, at least, that’s the plan. If you can only move the ball a short distance, you need to play on a short field to maximize your chance of scoring. When your defense can only manage 18 takeaways (like the Patriots did in 2023), kick and punt returns are the only way to achieve that.

Injuries caused havoc with every facet of the Patriots’ team last year, and the return game was no exception. Four different players returned punts, and four different guys returned kick-offs. Myles Bryant was the only person to try both, but he’s a Houston Texan now. If Springer is lucky, he will have more stability in 2024. That will make it easier to put his new plans in place. 

All teams will have to adapt to the new kick-off rules. Kicks that bounce into the endzone will result in a 20-yard touchback instead of the 30-yard touchback balls kicked into the endzone on the full will incur. With two men back to return the kicks, it’ll be tricky to bounce them across the goal line, but they’ll figure it out eventually. Until they do, there will be opportunities for returners to seize. 

At first glance, the rules they’ve borrowed from the UFL appear to guarantee most drives will begin at the 40-yard line. That will be a positive for teams that have offenses like the Patriots. They only have to move the ball 15 yards to get into field goal range.

The rule should put defenses behind the eight ball from the off, though. One roughing-the-passer penalty puts the offense in a position to score. But that’s a discussion for another time. 

The new guy will have a tall task ahead of him to improve the special teams unit

The rules on punt returns haven’t changed, though; that’s good news for Springer. The Rams punt return unit he coached averaged 7.3 yards per return in 2023. That wasn’t great, but it was a full yard better than the Patriots unit, which ranked 31st in 2023. 

Another work-on for Springer is the number of punt return yards the Patriots allow. Only four teams conceded more punt return yards than New England in 2023. Unfortunately, Springer’s Rams were one of them! Even more alarming is that the Patriots punted 35 times more than the Rams!

The Patriots averaged 4.5 yards per return compared to the Rams’ 8.0 yards! He’ll be glad he’s working with better defensive players this year. The Patriots only missed 89 total tackles in 2023 compared to the Rams who missed 104! 

Punter Bryce Baringer was one of the Patriots' best 2023 draft picks. He averaged 46.9 yards per punt and ranked 19th. They didn’t do so well with the kicker they drafted, though.  

Chad Ryland ranked dead last with his 64% field goal accuracy. His 65% touchback rate on kick-offs was much better though, that ranked him 30th of the 60 eligible players. 

Special teams' coordinators don’t tend to spend much time working on kicking technique, though. New England signed Joey Slye in free agency to compete with Ryland; Slye’s touchback rate was the fifth-best in the league last year at 88.9%. But his field goal success was only marginally better than Rylands. Slye ranked 29th after only kicking 79.2%. 

The final kicking option on the roster is Canadian Vincent Blanchard, who was invited to the Patriots minicamp. Blanchard made 88% of his attempts at Laval University in Quebec. He’s an interesting prospect, with one scouting report claiming he has 60-yard-plus range and is also an excellent punter. 

The wildcard option would be to follow the Cowboys’ 2023 lead and sign someone who has performed well in the UFL. In 2023, Brandon Aubrey kicked 94% of his total attempts after being a back-to-back USFL champion with the Birmingham Stallions.  

This year, the standout kicker in the UFL, John Parker Romo, has signed with the Vikings, but 31-year-old Donny Hageman has kicked a 59-yard effort. He's made 86% of his attempts from inside 40 yards (9% more than Ryland did in 2023) for the St. Louis Battlehawks. It wouldn’t hurt to have someone used to the new kickoff rules, even if they’re on the practice squad. 

Why is all of this important, though? Despite having a very clunky offense in 2023, the Patriots lost four games by just three points. Taking those games to overtime would have allowed the team to double their 2023 win total.  

But that’s not all, they lost seven other games by seven points or fewer. With better starting field position, or maybe even more return touchdowns it would have been a very different season. 

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