The NFL is increasingly thinking outside the box when it comes to hiring new head coaches, something that could help New England Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo earn the title this offseason.
Instead of simply hiring the top offensive or defensive coordinators, NFL teams have expanded their search to include positional coaches, special teams coordinators, or even — in the case of Josh McCown and Jeff Saturday — former players with little to no professional coaching experience.
He is a qualified candidate, though. After playing a big role in crafting the third-best defense by points per drive and second-best by EPA per play, he’s on a lot of teams’ radars. It also helps that he developed or got the best out of players like Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
If he does find a head-coaching job, he’d be following in the footsteps of former Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores. He’d join Flores, Zac Taylor, Dan Campbell, and David Culley as position coaches that moved directly into a head-coaching position.
In doing so, he’d build on the already impressive legacy he’s left behind in college and the NFL.
Jerod Mayo the Player Was an ‘Old Soul’ Ready To Lead
Mayo was well-recruited as a linebacker, ranked as a four-star by some services and three stars by others. As an outside linebacker prospect, he generally ranked 10-15th in the country. He had a long list of schools he could go to, and ultimately chose Tennessee for a number of reasons — it was a winning program, had excellent facilities, and would allow him to go up against SEC competition. But primarily, he knew that Tennessee was pumping linebackers into the NFL.
He redshirted in 2004 and then played on occasion in 2005, which turned out to be one of the most disappointing Tennessee seasons since the 1980s. Coach Phillip Fulmer identified team culture as the reason they missed a bowl game for the first time since 1988; the program ranked third in the AP preseason poll and ended unranked. They also lost to in-state rival Vanderbilt for the first time in 22 years.
Over the course of 16 months, 20 Volunteers had been involved in offseason incidents, often ending in arrest — three of them were assaults requiring medical intervention, including surgery. Players were often unfocused on the task at hand and more concerned with the NFL than the upcoming season, a problem that started well before 2005.
In 2006, the linebacker room was gutted with all three starters headed to the NFL and the only veteran with experience suspended indefinitely (later returning after striking a deal with prosecutors). Mayo, a redshirt sophomore, was thrust into a starting role and took on a de facto leadership role — one that turned from de facto to de jure when he was named co-defensive captain in 2007.
While Mayo was one of the players implicated in one of Tennessee’s many off-field incidents in the leadup to the 2005 season, his name was cleared by prosecutors when it was determined that it was a case of mistaken identity and another player stepped forward.
Mayo had been a part of restoring Tennessee’s team culture, a big reason why they returned to bowl relevance in 2006 and the SEC Championship Game in 2007. Mayo left early for the draft but not before earning his degree in December of 2007
Mayo had a wide range of potential draft slots to go, with most projecting him going in the first round. He was picked a bit higher than many anticipated at 10th overall. The Patriots were in part swayed by the knowledge that Mayo was both a locker room leader and a film room junkie, often finding ways to watch film longer than the coaches or quarterbacks.
In perhaps the most Norman Rockwell moment of Mayo’s career, he was only able to take the call from the Patriots because he was taking a break from raking the leaves in his mother’s yard – an extension of the work he did throughout his childhood for his grandfather renovating rental units, whether it was yardwork, landscaping, demolishing, or digging up concrete.
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As a Patriot, Mayo quickly earned the respect of head coach Bill Belichick and the attention of the rest of the league. He started immediately and earned near-unanimous votes for the 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, with one of the 50 votes balloted for someone else (Keith Rivers, the one linebacker in the draft taken ahead of him).
Once again, Mayo took on a leadership role as a first-year starter. It was the rookie who was tasked with the role of speaking for the team when approaching Belichick, even making requests like asking for an unpadded practice when the players were tired — requests that Belichick would sometimes grant.
Players had already called Mayo an “Old Soul” as a 22-year-old rookie. To emphasize that fact, linebacker Gary Guyton joked in 2009 that “[Mayo] was born with facial hair. Only guy I know that was born with facial hair.”
It’s not a shock that in just his second year with the team — a team with defensive players like Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Tedy Bruschi, and Adalius Thomas — he was elected as a team captain by the players.
His role as a captain was significant, and Belichick dropped rare praise for him in 2014 during training camp after Mayo returned from an injury that ended his season the prior year. He said of Mayo, “I think he’s as well-respected as any player in the locker room and I’d say one of the best overall team leaders, players and kind of a glue chemistry guy that I’ve been around.”
Belichick didn’t stop there and added more praise about Mayo’s leadership. “I think he means a lot to our team. I’d say he’s really the guy that the team probably revolves around more than any other player,” said Belichick. “Not that there aren’t other players that are instrumental in that, but I think he touches pretty much everybody, not just the defensive players but all the guys — not just the older guys, but the younger guys. Even when he was captain in his second year, he had a relationship with the older guys.”
He didn’t just reserve his praise for the offseason or for players coming off of injury. With the playoffs for the 2009 season just about to begin, Belichick said of the second-year linebacker, “He’s the defensive signal-caller and one of our best players and one of our most prepared players and one of our most productive players. All that leadership and that role on the team of being in the middle of the defense on every play, run or pass, calling the signals, he’s emerged into the real leader on the defensive side of the ball.”
He added, “His leadership is outstanding, and [so is] his ability to be the guy that’s the bonding glue for the whole defense.”
Belichick wasn’t alone in that praise, either. After Jerod Mayo hit injured reserve again in 2014, safety Devin McCourty said, “Mayo is kind of the heart and soul of not just the defense, but really the team. He gets everybody going. Being able to watch him, he’s a special leader; energy level is always high.” He added that Mayo was “one of the best leaders that I have ever got a chance to play with.”
His maturity and intelligence helped develop his teammates. Dont’a Hightower remarked right before the 2015 playoffs that playing next to Mayo was humbling, adding: “I thought I was a smart football player. But, I mean, that dude could be a defensive coordinator right now.”
Hightower might have been one of the smartest linebackers in football, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that Mayo has asked Hightower to follow in his footsteps as a coach.
What might have helped is that Mayo’s penchant for early or late film work in Tennessee followed him to New England, where he would commandeer the film room on player days off or even during the offseason, sometimes described as someone who would “haunt” the film room.
Mayo suffered significant injuries nearly every other year of his career, with his initial 2006 campaign at Tennessee cut short by injury and several NFL seasons ending on the injured reserve list. The seasons he didn’t end on injured reserve sometimes still had substantial injuries, like the MCL tear that took him out for a few games in 2009. That, along with patellar tendon tears, pectoral tears, and shoulder injuries, all contributed to a broken-down body that forced a somewhat early retirement.
Mayo Might Be the Fastest-Rising Coach in the NFL
After retiring, Mayo took time in the corporate world, earning his stripes in board rooms as an angel investor and executive, serving as a vigorous advocate for boardroom diversity, primarily at Optum, a healthcare services company formed by UnitedHealth. He joined the Boston Medical Center’s board of trustees to help raise millions of dollars for Boston Medical Center Pediatrics.
Belichick pestered Mayo with coaching job offers nearly every year that Mayo was away from football. Still, Mayo didn’t return until Brian Flores left the inside linebackers job in New England for a head-coaching gig in Miami.
Mayo was immediately offered the job as the inside linebackers coach, becoming the first position coach in Belichick’s history to be hired outright instead of spending time as a quality control coach, assistant position coach, or as a position coach elsewhere in the NFL or college.
This made Mayo the fastest-rising coach in the Belichick system — a system so particular that Belichick often would rather bring back veteran coaches familiar with how he operates than train too many new coaches at once, which is a reason that Joe Judge and Matt Patricia are essentially co-offensive coordinators this year despite having a combined two years doing any offensive coaching in the NFL.
As a coach in New England, Mayo has seen his responsibilities expand over time, even if his official title hasn’t changed. In many ways, Mayo plays co-defensive coordinator with Steve Belichick, the outside linebackers coach, with the younger Belichick calling plays on game day and both of them designing the defensive game plan and implementation throughout the week.
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He was officially offered the title of co-defensive coordinator last year, and turned it down. According to the Boston Herald, he intends to pursue opportunities for a bigger role, whether that’s as a defensive coordinator or head coach. According to the report, Mayo believes he’s done more of a defensive coordinator’s job than Steve Belichick has and wants to expand his responsibilities even more.
If he had accepted the role, the Patriots might have been able to block him from leaving for another team, as it would be a functionally lateral move — from co-defensive coordinator to defensive coordinator. As a position coach, he cannot be blocked if he wants to take a job as a coordinator.
For what it’s worth, Mayo doesn’t think this would be a surprising jump for him. He’s already indicated that he’s ready to be a head coach and has interviewed with three teams for the job — the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders this last offseason and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2021.
Mayo Is a Student, and Teacher, of Leadership
His history of leadership might make that an appealing quality for some teams. He’s made his leadership philosophy well-known in interviews and podcasts. Mayo has developed theories on leadership informed by research and personal experience, often drawing on names in the business and football world to guide his steps.
He’s cited leadership guru Simon Sinek to develop his models of leadership, something he thinks is a muscle that needs to be exercised and a skill that can be taught. He operates with an understanding of which risks carry a real cost and which risks only have perceived costs, like discomfort or awkwardness.
Before he ever met Seth Klarman, an investment manager with over a billion dollars to his name, he was already putting into place lessons that Klarman would teach — like that asking for advice is one of the strongest ways to build a relationship with someone. So, when he saw Klarman at Saratoga Race Course, he walked over to introduce himself and asked him for advice.
For him, his ability to understand leadership as a process that empowers others to act instead of making sure people do what he says has allowed him to earn the loyalty of the players he’s played with and the players he’s coached.
That’s why he’s developed a nuanced understanding of what team culture is and why he’s comfortable saying things like “motivation is fleeting,” instead preferring internal discipline so that people can take advantage of motivation.
As he put it on the World Reimagined Podcast, “Motivation, that’s the initial, ‘All right, New Year’s Eve, boom, I’m motivated to get into the gym the next day.’ Discipline is ‘All right, it’s March 1, and I’m still at the gym.’”
He acknowledges that “team culture” can be retroactively applied to teams that have won games and is intentional about describing what he thinks a “good team culture” means and how it defines a team’s decision-making, priorities, motivations, and actions. He’s said that while a good team culture is critical to a successful program or franchise, that “changing team culture is like trying to turn the Titanic.”
Mayo’s approach to these critical team-building questions are well-developed and thoughtful. And even if they turn out to be meaningless, it at least means he speaks the language of the types of people who own NFL teams and make hiring decisions.
Mayo Expected To Make $4 Million
It’s not often that we see new head coaches make more than $4 million, though there are examples here and there. The range is usually within half a million of that mark, but he could get a little bit higher if there are multiple offers. They can get substantially higher if there’s some other kind of leverage, like a broadcast deal.
Mayo is a hot name on the coaching market, but that doesn’t mean he has extraordinary leverage. He’s already interviewed with several teams without an offer. Though he’ll likely have more offers this time around, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to command a market that can break the bank among head coaches. After some time, he’ll have the ability to double or even triple his salary if he succeeds as a coach.
Teams That Could Target Mayo
When the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed Mayo, they were purportedly “blown away” by the interview, impressed with his intelligence, leadership, and ability to connect with players. Executives believe that Mayo will be a head coach sooner rather than later because of these qualities. Teams with a leadership or culture crisis will prioritize a candidate like Mayo.
He’ll have to overcome the track record of previous Bill Belichick assistants — Matt Patricia, Joe Judge, Brian Flores, Josh McDaniels, and on and on — as well as his short time in the NFL. But he’ll be looking to find a team that is hoping to hire him instead of a Belichick clone.
The Denver Broncos already interviewed Mayo for head coach once. General manager George Paton was impressed with what Mayo had to offer but went in an offensive direction — perhaps in anticipation that they would need to support whichever new quarterback they brought into the building.
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Certainly, they will need help to reinvigorate Russell Wilson’s career. However, they also need to make sure they can restore a broken locker room while rejuvenating a defense that couldn’t recover from the loss of Bradley Chubb.
Like the Broncos, the Texans were at one point interested in Mayo. If they decide to part ways with Lovie Smith, they could invest in Mayo. He has a relationship with Nick Caserio, a former Patriots executive. They’d be looking to rebuild the fractured team culture and recapture an AFC South that looks wide open. Not only that, he can mentor their young defense, full of exciting first- and second-year players.
The Texans and Broncos have cultures that need to be fixed, but no team seems to embody that more than the Washington Commanders, who have had issues from the top to the bottom impact their franchise at every level.
Having a strong personality with a well-developed understanding of how he wants a team to be run could be exactly what Washington needs. They certainly don’t lack talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Then again, that kind of coach sounds like the type of person Snyder would shy away from.
The Colts had two coaches this year — one that was an Xs-and-Os maven and another who had strong leadership skills. Both seemed to lack the complete package necessary to be a successful head coach, whether that was experience in an NFL building, the ability to build relationships with players, the capacity to evaluate what the team needed, or something else.
In either case, this could be a lesson for owner Jim Irsay. Their next head coach needs to be as well-versed in NFL management as they are in leadership, and they’ll need the Xs and Os as much as they need to rebuild a team culture.