What Alex Van Pelt brings to Patriots as new offensive coordinator originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
For what was shaping up to be one of the youngest coaching staffs in the NFL, led by the second-youngest head coach in the league, it made sense for the Patriots to covet experience in their offensive coordinator hire.
For a team without a clear answer at the quarterback position, with the No. 3 overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft representing an opportunity to bring in a gifted young passer, it made sense for the Patriots to covet an offensive coordinator with a lengthy track record as a quarterbacks coach.
For a coaching staff that was at times beset by in-fighting and an utter lack of communication over the course of the last two seasons, it made sense for the Patriots to covet an offensive coordinator with a personality they felt would be immune to those types of issues.
In that sense, Alex Van Pelt makes sense for the Patriots as the person to lead their offense moving forward. Let’s dive a little deeper on the former Browns offensive coordinator, who has been in and around the NFL since he was an eighth-round pick of the Steelers back in 1993.
Where has he been?
Van Pelt has almost 30 years in the NFL, having spent the bulk of his playing days in Buffalo from 1994-2003. After some time spent in radio as a member of the Bills Radio Network, he joined the Frankfurt Galaxy as a quarterbacks coach and then made his way back to Western New York to work on the offensive coaching staff.
In 2009, Van Pelt got his first taste of play-calling under head coach Dick Jauron and interim coach Perry Fewell, who took over when Jauron was fired mid-season. They were 28th in points per game and 30th in yards per game that season. Starting in 2010, Van Pelt was hired by the Bucs and worked under coach Raheem Morris as quarterbacks coach for two years. From there he went to Green Bay, crossing over with Patriots director of scouting Eliot Wolf, and coached running backs and quarterbacks for coach Mike McCarthy for six years.
Van Pelt has connections to other current NFL head coaches, having worked in their offensive systems. In Cincinnati, he spent a year with Zac Taylor, who was fresh off a run as one of Sean McVay’s top offensive assistants.
Then in Cleveland for the last four years, Van Pelt worked under head coach Kevin Stefanski, who runs his own version of the Gary Kubiak offense after they shared time together in Minnesota. Stefanski never worked with Kyle Shanahan, but Kubiak and Mike Shanahan worked together for years and Kyle Shanahan worked under Kubiak when Kubiak was head coach of the Texans.
As one league source put it, “[Stefanski] is about as close to Shanahan as you can get without being in the Shanahan tree.”
What will he run?
The future of the quarterback position is hazy in New England, making Van Pelt’s experience in multiple pro systems a potential benefit for his new employer.
He’s spent 14 years as a quarterbacks coach for five different teams, with perhaps his most recent performance in that role being among his best. The Browns went 9-2 with Joe Flacco and Deshaun Watson as their starters, but Van Pelt also had to get rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, PJ Walker and Jeff Driskel ready to start games as the position was decimated with injuries.
One element to Van Pelt’s approach to coaching quarterbacks is that he teaches his players to stagger their stance with their left foot forward in the shotgun to help with the timing and rhythm of play-calls as passers make their drops. It can be a change for some players, but it’s not viewed as a major technique quirk.
“People will make a big deal out of that,” said one source who’s worked with Van Pelt. “But it’s really not. [Van Pelt] just feels it helps guys time up their footwork with the routes that are called to help them get into a good rhythm and make good decisions.”
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When a source close to Van Pelt was asked whether or not he would prefer one quarterback over another at the top of this year’s draft for scheme-based reasons, the source said, “No preference. We all want someone who can throw from the pocket. Anything a guy does outside of that athletically is a bonus. (Van Pelt) has his beliefs. But if they go that direction, and I imagine they will, he’ll just want the best player and he’ll tailor things to whatever that guy does best.”
Sources who’ve worked with Van Pelt assumed that his time in Cleveland — and New England’s apparent desire to move to a Shanahan or McVay-like system, based on their interviewees for offensive coordinator — would allow him to roll with principles from that scheme in his new gig. But his time with McCarthy could influence how he designs the Patriots offense, too.
With 10 years in the league as a player, one source indicated, Van Pelt will understand that an ability to be multiple to mold an offense to his quarterback will be critical. Additionally, as another source put it, “He played for a decade. He’s been with McCarthy. He’s been with Zac Taylor. My guess is he’ll lean on the Stefanski system. But at the end of the day everyone is running the same [expletive]. No one’s reinventing the wheel here.”
What does he like?
One of the benefits to hiring Van Pelt — going beyond his varied background and quarterback coaching experience — is his demeanor, sources believe. He’s been described to NBC Sports Boston as “salt of the earth” and “a phenomenal culture guy.
For a team that had instances of behind-the-scenes dysfunction — including a report saying that Jerod Mayo had rubbed people the wrong way last season, to which he publicly responded — Van Pelt is thought to be someone who can help a staff come together.
“He’s as loyal and as team-oriented and as easy to get along with as anyone in the NFL,” said one source who has worked with Van Pelt. In this business, there are ups and downs. It’s a climb. You hit bad times. When you have people with loyalties everywhere and they lose faith in the message, or they don’t even really want to be somewhere, it chips away at what you’re trying to accomplish. …
At some point, establishing a good culture and having good people in your building is important. That’s AVP. I’m rooting like hell for him.”
What’s the biggest question mark?
While Van Pelt is widely-respected for his offensive IQ, he doesn’t not have a massive amount of experience as a play-caller.
Since running the Bills offense early in his coaching career, the number of times he’s been the voice inside a quarterback’s helmet have been few and far between. He called plays in two games as offensive coordinator for the Browns, both of which came with Stefanski ruled out due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
The first came at the end of the 2020 season, with Van Pelt calling a Wild Card Round game that resulted in an offensive explosion for the Browns. Baker Mayfield threw for three touchdowns and no picks in a 48-37 win over the Steelers. Van Pelt called a loss to the Raiders the following season, 16-14, when Cleveland had a dozen regulars out due to COVID, forcing backup Nick Mullens into the game as the starting quarterback. Van Pelt also called plays at times during preseason action while with the Browns.
The NFL has seen inexperienced offensive play-callers take on that role and see immediate success. Bobby Slowik in Houston, Ben Johnson in Detroit and Miami’s Mike McDaniel — who never called a play before becoming head coach of the Dolphins — are examples of that phenomenon.
But as would be the case for any play-caller with a relative lack of experience, it’ll be worth paying attention to how the game-day operation functions with Van Pelt running the show in Foxboro. Adrenaline and emotions need to be managed, information needs to be processed and adjustments need to be made in real time.
Van Pelt is thought to have an excellent feel for the game, but how he handles the play-calling part of his job — particularly with a young potentially taking on the starting role — will be a storyline we track throughout the 2024 season.