By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
New England Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo made a phone call to Mack Wilson after the team traded for him this offseason. And to be clear, Mayo isn’t just a linebackers coach. His job responsibilities, shrouded in some mystery, are far more essential to New England than that of the typical position coach. But with the title of linebackers coach, Mayo extended an invite to his new linebacker for a dinner out in Foxborough. Wilson accepted.
They met, with Wilson bringing his girlfriend Kayla Williams and son Mack Jr. and Mayo bringing his wife Chantel Mayo. That served as Wilson’s welcome dinner. He was officially a Patriot. Mayo was Wilson’s boss — but not in a traditional way.
“The conversation we was having — first of all, it wasn’t just all about football. He really got to know me as a man. He got to know my family, my girlfriend. He wanted to know about my son,” Wilson told FOX Sports. “And it was just — the vibe was just right. You can sit down and talk to a guy, and it’s just eye contact, and you can just feel everything, like all the emotions and all you can feel like the love and the attraction towards somebody when it’s serious. And that’s what stood out to me most.”
There’s no coincidence that Mayo has a gravitational pull. There’s no coincidence Wilson called Mayo “the greatest coach I’ve ever had in my life at the position.” Everyone around Mayo seems to care what he thinks about them. Mayo takes care with every bond he forms. It’s a part of why he can ask so much of the people in his orbit.
“I think all the players know that I’m competent, as far as X’s and O’s and things like that. But it’s always warmth before competence, right? The person has to know that you really care about him, before you really start to explain X’s and O’s,” Mayo said recently on a video conference call. “I think they understand that I care about them as men as individuals, first and foremost. And then we’ll get to the football thing, and hopefully win a bunch of games. So that’s just my approach.”
Mayo knows what football costs. He knows the rigors of an NFL season. And he knows what it’s like to play under Bill Belichick. Mayo was an inside linebacker for New England from 2008 to 2015. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year before earning a pair of Pro Bowl nods. He also won Super Bowl XLIX and served as a captain starting in 2010.
FOXBORO, MA – JANUARY 13: Jerod Mayo #51 of the New England Patriots knocks the ball away from Owen Daniels #81 of the Houston Texans during the 2013 AFC Divisional Playoffs game at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
“He understands the monotony of training camp and the grind of football and the football season,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “And every day, he finds a way to make the room fun, make watching film fun, make going over corrections [and] going over your mistakes fun and bright. And that’s hard because he’s sitting there telling you. ‘Well, you did this wrong. And this is why you did it wrong. And this is what we need it to be.’ But it’s not in those words. How he does that is amazing.”
As much as it’s common for players to transition into coaching roles, particularly in New England where the big boss (Belichick) has been around long enough to hire his favorite players when they’re ready to move into coaching, Mayo’s ascent hasn’t been typical. He has made a habit of exceeding the social boundaries of men with his standing. For example, as a rookie in 2008, Mayo walked into Belichick’s office and asked the coach if he’d grant the team an unpadded practice, taking down the workload tremendously from a contact workout to a walkthrough-style session.
Of all people, Mayo decided to approach Belichick. When Mayo was a rookie in 2008, the Patriots had the following stars in the same locker room: Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Randy Moss, Vince Wilkfork, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour. Mayo was the one who mustered the courage to ask Belichick for that day off.
And guess what? Mayo got it. He returned to the locker room to tell his older teammates that Belichick had awarded them with a rest day.
“The reason I gained the respect of the players is because I would go in there and Bill was on the computer and ask them, ‘Hey, the guys are tired. We don’t want to be in pads today.’ No one really wanted to go in there, because Bill is a tough guy. And so for me, I was always raised that the worst thing someone could say to me is no. Then go ask,” Mayo said during a podcast appearance with Patriots.com.
“And so I would go in there. I was always joking that I was batting .300 at the time — .250, .400. Sometimes the request would be granted. But there were other times where he would say: ‘Hey, get out of here.’ But I would go into the locker room and tell people we’re not in pads today, it was like a celebration. They were literally picking me up on their shoulders, like ‘This guy went into the fire, went into the dragon’s layer and asked for something and got it.'”
Mayo builds relationships and tests them. And not in an insidious or manipulative way. He’s trying to bring the best out of everyone.
“He expects greatness out of everyone. And he understands that greatness is only achievable for a day — or only achievable for a minute,” Judon said.
Mayo is trying to manage complex social dynamics to optimize performance during work hours. That’s what great professional leaders do.
He was such a good leader that, in my opinion, Belichick kept the linebacker around the team much longer than he would typically for a player in decline. Mayo finished his final three NFL seasons with season-ending injuries, and in 2018, his final year, the Patriots prioritized playing time for Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Belichick is infamous for getting rid of players years early rather than a year too late. He did it with Tom Brady. He also did it with Mike Vrabel, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Shaq Mason, Rodney Harrison and so many others.
But not Mayo.
“Jerod was probably the best communicator on defense we’ve ever had here,” Belichick said of Mayo’s playing days.
When Mayo did retire, he went into finance, serving as an executive-in-residence for Optum, the technology division of UnitedHealth Group. It’s not often that you see the CEO of a company deliver a statement for someone with Mayo’s title. The statement itself was fairly boilerplate — “Jerod exemplified hard work, integrity, intelligence and commitment to the success of his teammates and the team” — but Mayo, of course, is different. Mayo eventually left Optum to join sports media as an analyst on NBC Sports Boston. Then he jumped from that role to the Patriots staff.
As usual, he made a remarkable leap. In his first year, he essentially skipped two grades in Belichick’s School of Coaching. Mayo was the second coach in the history of Belichick’s Patriots tenure to earn a positional coaching job without any prior coaching experience, as noted first by The Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan. The obvious prerequisite was that Mayo was essentially a coach in 2008 when he stuck around past what Belichick typically considered the expiration date for most top-level players. Now, Mayo splits running the defense with Steve Belichick.
Photo of Bill Belichick and Jerod Mayo: Mark Brown/Getty Images
The team doesn’t have a defensive coordinator in terms of job titles. They seem to have de-facto co-coordinators on defense, with Steve and Mayo working on the game plan with the rest of the staff. On gameday, Steve calls the defensive plays while Mayo manages defensive personnel on the sideline. While Bill Belichick had a major hand in the defense last year, the coach has focused his attention on the offensive side of the ball as Matt Patricia and Joe Judge take over leadership duties. That has made Mayo’s leadership even more valuable to the team.
Mayo is also a goofball. When the coach comes up, it’s not just about how much love and admiration his players have for him. It’s also about fun and joy. In the locker room this year, Mayo somehow put his mother on the phone with Judon for reasons even Judon couldn’t explain. When Mayo is sitting in meetings with his players, he has been known to drop hilarious jokes at the exact wrong moment — when Belichick is fiercely upset with the team — to see whether they can hold in their laughter. When captain Matthew Slater and Mayo were rookies together, Slater was a little behind the times in fashion. So he was wearing a set of baggy, rigid cowboy jeans.
“I came in [into the locker room] wearing Pistol Pete starched jeans, and Jerod lit me up — him and Ty Warren. ‘Look at that man with starched jeans on.’ They were crying laughing and I know for me since that day, I’ve never again worn starched jeans,” Slater said with a smile.
I suppose that, even before he was technically a teacher, Mayo was a teacher.
He set the example, whether it was with fashion or football fundamentals. And he gently nudged his peers and superiors in the right direction. He was doing that as a player. He’s still doing it as a coach.
“Coach Mayo is someone I model not just in football but just, like, life,” linebacker Josh Uche said. “I don’t have too many role models but coach Mayo does everything — that’s what I aspire to do as an African American in this country, as a football player, the way he carries himself, his intellect and just his compassion for people.”
There are a few more leaps Mayo can take in his career. He could earn the official defensive coordinator job somewhere. That would be the natural order of things. In the NFL, coaches graduate from positional coach to coordinator to head coach — if they don’t drop out along the way. But as mentioned, Mayo is accustomed to skipping grades. He has already interviewed for head coaching positions around the NFL. That seems like a potential next step for the coach.
If — and maybe when — he finds a landing spot, he would join the small group of minority coaches. The league added three minority coaches this offseason, bringing the total to six of 32. Roughly 60% of the NFL’s players are Black, per the Washington Post.
During this offseason, Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, filed a lawsuit alleging that teams in the league falsely interview candidates to appease the Rooney Rule, which requires franchises to interview minority candidates before making their final hire.
There are many deserving candidates to become NFL head coaches, and as such, nobody knows if Mayo will end up leading his own team. But make no mistake: He’s one of those deserving candidates.
“We need more of that [a Black leader in coaching]. We need more representation in a league that’s predominantly Black in terms of players,” Slater said. “You’d like to see the leadership be a little bit more diverse. I mean, that’s no mystery, right? But in saying that, there are plenty of qualified candidates. We don’t want to just hire a Back coach because he’s Black. Jerod is a Black coach. He’s a Black man, but he’s very qualified. I don’t care what — he could be Asian American, White American, he’s qualified, and he’s gifted and he’s ready to lead in that capacity. So I certainly hope he gets the opportunity. He represents us as Black people very well. But he represents himself and the profession of coaching very well and I’m excited for what the future holds.”
The Patriots defense — and team as a whole — seems to be in a state of flux, with quarterback Mac Jones dealing with an injury and the team falling to 1-3. But they did make the playoffs last year after starting with the same record. New England has a habit of allowing its team to fail in the opening stages of the season to see what it does well. The team then charges through the important phase of the season with a strong sense of its strengths and weaknesses.
It remains to be seen whether that’s possible for this year’s squad. But there’s no doubt that Mayo has the trust and admiration of his defense — and of Belichick. Mayo should play a huge role in helping this defense elevate much quicker than is typical, just like he has done so often during his career.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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