Three weeks ago, a majority of SB Nation's football writers were polled for the annual Mid-Season Studs and Duds. For Mid-Season Stud Coach, almost all the SB Nation writers picked Denver Broncos head Josh McDaniels, including myself. At the time, McDaniels had coached the surprise Broncos to a 6-0 start despite all the off-season controversy surrounding the Broncos attempts to trade for Matt Cassel, the Jay Cutler trade, and the Brandon Marshall theatrics during training camp. After Denver's improbable win over the Patriots, which featured a very animated McDaniels fist-pumping along the sidelines, and their win over the Chargers, McDaniels was a lock for Mid-Season Coach and seemed a lock for 2009 Coach of the Year.
Then, the Broncos lost to the Ravens, badly. It's been downhill ever since.
Denver has lost four games in a row since starting 6-0. Currently, they are out of the playoff picture. If they lose to the Giants on Thanksgiving Day, I believe they will become the first team in NFL history to start the season 6-0 and then lose 5 straight.
During this four game skid, McDaniels has seemingly lost control of both himself and his team. As Yahoo!'s Michael Silver wrote about yesterday, players seemed to quit on McDaniels during their 32-3 beat down at the hands of the San Diego Chargers this past Sunday, a team the Broncos had beaten by double digits six weeks prior. Also, prior to the game, players said they saw McDaniels trash talking with Chargers players, apparently saying "We own you," to the Chargers. The Chargers players used McDaniels pre-game taunts as motivation:
The ugliness began during pregame warmups when McDaniels, the Bill Belichick protege who does not want for self-confidence, engaged in some brash banter with San Diego’s linebackers. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, McDaniels said, "We own you" as he passed the San Diego players on the field.
"I’m not surprised," Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips(notes) told the Union-Tribune after the game. "He’s a little cocky [expletive]. It’s all good, all fun and games. We didn’t look too much into it. As a coach, I hope he has that mindset. But to say he owns us? I mean, you beat us one time. What has he really done in this league? He had a team 6-0 and now he’s looking up at us from second place."
Small side note: If McDaniels had done this in Indianapolis as the Colts head coach, he'd have been fired on Monday. There is a way to conduct yourself both on and off the field, and for a head coach to trash talk an opponent prior to a game pretty much defines the term "unprofessional." Coaches are held to a higher standard than players. When coaches start acting like unruly children, which is what McDaniels strikes me as being, it's time to consider taking the toys away from the child and sending him to his room.
With McDaniels seemingly losing control of both the team and his mental faculties, it's now pretty much a given he won't win Coach of the Year, even if Denver manages to make the playoffs. This means that, right now, the two guys who most deserve CotY consideration are the Saints Sean Payton and the Colts Jim Caldwell. Obviously, I am going to be biased towards Caldwell, but even with my bias I think he deserves the nod over Payton.
As many writers noted going into the season, no rookie coach was under more pressure to win than Jim Caldwell. No one expected the Broncos to start hot, and while the Saints were considered a playoff caliber team, very few considered them the elite of the NFC. Jim Caldwell took over a team of stars. He succeeded a legendary, likely first ballot Hall of Fame coach in Tony Dungy, arguably the most respected man in pro football. Yet, despite all this pressure, he has produced the best start for a rookie coach since the NFL merger. The last rookie coach to do what he has done was prowling the sidelines in the 1930s. Caldwell subtle changes on defense and special teams have improved both areas, allowing the Colts to seem more balanced than in years past.
Obviously, anything can happen between now and January. But regardless of what does happen, Jim Caldwell has done one helluva job as a rookie head coach, and I don't think enough people are giving him the credit he so rightly deserves.