FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The way the New England Patriots' season ended made it clear what coach Bill Belichick's No. 1 priority needs to be when he looks ahead to 2022.
It's defense with a capital D.
That will surely come, but from a pure timing standpoint, there is something else that looms large: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' future and his integral role in the development of second-year quarterback Mac Jones.
There are currently eight head-coaching vacancies in the NFL, and the Las Vegas Raiders' opening is the main one to watch if McDaniels, 45, ultimately departs. The "tell" will be whom the Raiders hire as their general manager.
If it's Patriots director of player personnel Dave Ziegler, who interviewed in Las Vegas on Friday, the odds of a McDaniels departure likely increase. Sources have told ESPN that McDaniels has relayed to interested teams that aligning with someone he knows well on the personnel side is a top priority, and he brought Ziegler -- a fellow alum of John Carroll University -- into the NFL in 2010 with the Denver Broncos.
Belichick previously had paid McDaniels one of the highest compliments, comparing him to his longtime friend Nick Saban in terms of his understanding of what every player is doing on the field. And in his season-ending videoconference, Belichick noted the unpredictability of what's ahead with his staff.
"We have a lot of good coaches. It's not surprising that other teams would be interested in talking to them, or other staff members," he said. "If there's an opportunity for somebody that's at a high level that we can't provide here, I understand that they would have to consider that. So we'll see what happens on that."
At the same time, it's not like McDaniels is aggressively pursuing an exit from New England.
He made it clear how much he enjoyed working with Jones and other newcomers when he said in December: "This year's team has provided a lot of new energy. The ability to really pour into them and create a foundation for a lot of them in our offense and our culture here in New England -- and then see them take to it, adapt to it, and really grow and learn, how they fit into the bigger piece of the puzzle -- has been really a great experience for all of us."
In November, Jones said: "Josh is a great coach, and he's been close with me ever since I got here. He wants me to be the best player I can be ... and he's done a great job putting me in a position to lead the offense."
Building on that foundation in 2022 -- and possibly giving Jones a dynamic No. 1 receiving option like the Cincinnati Bengals did for Joe Burrow with Ja'Marr Chase this season -- would be a coup for Belichick and help him dedicate attention to the defense while also restoring the special-teams units to their once-dominant standing.
Among the bright spots for the Patriots' offense in 2021, with the rookie Jones at the helm, was scoring touchdowns on the opening drive more frequently than all but two teams in the NFL. They were also 11th in the red zone based on touchdown percentage (39 TDs in 63 trips), and fifth in explosive rushing plays (65 rushes of 10 yards or more).
A McDaniels departure could potentially stunt future growth, especially because there might not be a clear-cut successor on staff.
Tight ends coach Nick Caley and receivers coach Mick Lombardi are among those in the pipeline. Lombardi's thoroughness and intelligence were highlighted by McDaniels this season, who said Lombardi "sees the game very similarly to myself in terms of the passing game."
In a reflection of that, Lombardi was responsible for preparing the offense for the red zone as part of game plans this season, according to McDaniels.
Former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, set to enter his second season at Alabama, could be a target in the event McDaniels departs. But would that even be something O'Brien entertains?
It isn't overstating things to say the next week, or however long it takes the Raiders to finalize their GM/head coach decisions, has an added level of significance for the Patriots.