For the past two offseasons, the hottest name in coaching searches has been the same one. Josh McDaniels. Talking heads toss his name out as the most in-demand coaching prospect out there. Last season he interviewed with several teams before ultimately deciding to stay with the Patriots for another season. It is not hard to understand why he gets the attention of team owners. The NFL is a copycat league and McDaniels has spent thirteen years as a part of a Patriots organization that has run roughshod over the rest of the league since the turn of the century.
Is his success the product of his legendary head coach? Is he the brilliant offensive mind he is portrayed to be? The Colts coaching search is not officially underway, but make no mistake, a change is coming. We will take a look at what McDaniel’s career has looked like since his firing from the Broncos nearly seven years ago and I will leave it for you to decide if he would make a good fit with the Colts.
When McDaniels was hired by the Broncos as their head coach back in 2009, he was the youngest head coach in the NFL at just 33 years old. He had spent his entire time in the NFL working with Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. First as a personnel assistant, then working as an assistant with the defensive backs, then as the quarterbacks coach before becoming the offensive coordinator.
Given that background, it should not have surprised anyone when he got his chance at a head coaching job with the Broncos and immediately set out to remake them in the image of the Patriots. It was all he knew. It also is not hard to understand the logic. He had been a part of a team that had won three Super Bowls while he was there. Why wouldn’t you want to build a team that operated that way?
The Broncos gave him nearly as much power within the organization as was afforded Bill Belichick. It took Belichick 25 years of coaching to become the guy who led the Patriots to their success. McDaniels wasn’t near ready for that kind of power.
By all accounts, he came into the organization and attempted to take on much of the persona of his mentor. There was an immediate conflict with quarterback Jay Cutler with rumors swirling about a potential trade. Cutler got upset, said he could not trust the new head coach, and before the dust had settled, found himself traded to the Bears. At the time, this did not look good. Cutler was still an unknown, and his upside was still very high. Now we can look back and see that maybe losing Cutler was not really a significant loss.
D.J. Williams talked about the disconnect for players with McDaniels and his approach back in 2016 on a BSN Denver podcast saying:
“It’s like taking a course in school—it all depends on the teacher, it could be the easiest class or the hardest class. If this professor wants to give you pop quizzes randomly and essays, this is going to be the hardest class. If your professor is that professor that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to give a quiz on Friday, we’re going to talk about the subjects on Wednesday and Thursday,’ it’s smooth. Josh was the type of guy that, to me, made football tougher than it had to be.”
While changing the culture of a team is never an easy thing to do, if you cannot find a way to get your veterans to buy in, it is nearly impossible. After an 8-8 first season, Spygate 2.0, a shouting match on the practice field with Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams, and a loss to the Chiefs that brought the Broncos to 3-9, McDaniels was fired in the middle of his second season.
He took the offensive coordinator job in St. Louis the next season before ultimately making his way back to the Patriots as their offensive coordinator when Bill Obrien was hired by Penn State. Since that time, his work has been pretty impressive.
Since his return to the Patriots, their offense has never been ranked below 4th in the league in points scored. He has creatively run their offense in such a way that they have seemed to be unaffected by even significant losses to injury. Many would point to Tom Brady as a large part of this, and they would not be wrong. However, you cannot claim that Brady is the only the greatest system QB ever (which many Colts fans do) without also acknowledging the effectiveness of those who put in place the system.
Another undeniable trait of McDaniels that has been proven in his tenure with the Patriots is his ability to develop young backup quarterbacks. As ugly as the Colts season has been, without the acquisition of Jacoby Brissett it would have been even worse. Jimmy Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers to be their franchise quarterback. This is not insignificant. Neither of those players is Andrew Luck. But the ability to evaluate and develop young quarterbacks is not something every team has and is worth noting.
McDaniels has helped the Patriots do it consistently. They have been able to trade away backups and get something in return for Ryan Mallett, Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garappolo, and Jacoby Brissett all under McDaniel’s watch. Don’t forget that it was McDaniels at the helm of the offense in 2008 when Brady tore his ACL, who guided Cassel to a 10-5 record as a starter.
Plenty of questions still remain, however. While they were not as dominant during his first stint with the Patriots as the second, McDaniels has always had a knack for the offense. What reason might we have to think he would not fail again when taking on the broader challenges of a head coach?
To answer that we have to dig into the path he took after losing his job in Denver. According to a piece written by Dan Pompei, his first and perhaps most significant advice came from his father:
"You need to write down everything you would do differently if you ever get a chance to be a head coach again," Thom told him. "Do it while everything is fresh in your mind. Over time, add to it."
McDaniels took that advice to heart. During his time with the Rams, his family did not make the move with him. His kids were still in school in Colorado and that left him on his own at the office long after the rest of the staff had left. That gave him plenty of time to reflect on how things had gone in Denver:
"I was by myself—just me and my thoughts," McDaniels says. "I had very little interaction with other people. I had time to go back over everything we did in Denver, the decisions we made, step by step. I could slow it down."
One of the most important things McDaniels did during that time was to reach out to people he trusted to advise him. While he is often characterized as arrogant, he sought out different perspectives to help improve himself as a coach, showing the kind of humility necessary to learn from past mistakes. One of the people he talked with was former Colts coach Tony Dungy.
He had some long talks with Tony Dungy, his one-time rival with the Colts. Dungy told him he needed to self-reflect every year, whether he was fired or won the Super Bowl. They talked about the importance of being yourself and trusting instincts. Having fun is not a bad thing. Dungy stressed that a head coach's consistency with a team really mattered. They talked about the formula that makes a good coaching staff. Dungy gave him some ideas about keeping his faith at the center of his life as his coaching world turned.
"I could relate to where he was at the time, having been fired myself," Dungy says. "He's a very smart guy, and we just talked about finding the next spot—the one that would be best for him."
Dungy’s advice about finding the best spot for him was taken seriously. McDaniels’ name has been brought up for several openings, but he has been notoriously choosy about where he will go.
McDaniels also talked about how he sometimes let his emotions get the best of him. He cited his decision to trade Cutler as being too reactive, too emotional. That is something that comes with the territory in many younger men and it was something he reflected on a lot.
"I don't know that I was as patient as I needed to be in most situations, whether it was game-planning, on the sidelines, preparation for the draft, personnel moves, whatever," he says. "There is an element of this game that tests your ability to slow down and make a good decision. I was allowing the way I felt at the moment to make the decision."
New head coaches can be overwhelmed with the vastly increased need to communicate with and work in conjunction with their staff. While coordinators may be content to be tunnel-visioned about their individual tasks, that doesn’t work as a head coach. McDaniels recognized that as a major flaw in his stint at Denver. He admitted that he preferred to take care of things himself rather than relying on his staff. The end result was that he ended up putting himself on his own island. That is not something he would repeat.
"I've had an opportunity to truly understand the value of interpersonal relationships and the feelings people have in the building, coach to player, player to coach, person to person," he says. "I don't know that I ever considered that before. As much as we are on the same staff, we don't all think the same," McDaniels says. "That's OK. Before, I might have been frustrated with that. Now I feel that's a healthy thing."
One of the most significant things for McDaniels after returning to New England was his renewed perspective of Bill Belichick. Having worked with him from 2001-2008 it was not as if he did not know the man. However, having been a head coach and understood what that responsibility entailed, he could see just how great Belichick did the job. Everything from how he approached preparation to the way he engaged and cared about his staff were things that had not been on McDaniels’ radar before.
What is certain is that McDaniels will not approach the next head coaching position he takes in the same way. The passion of a 33-year-old; brash and arrogant, with plans to take the league by storm has been replaced with the passion of a 40-year-old. He listens a great deal more. By doing it the wrong way, he learned that you cannot simply demand your team’s respect. Screaming at your coaches and players will not make them want to work hard for you.
The results for Josh McDaniels have spoken for themselves. He is one of the most creative and impressive offensive minds in football. He even drew up a play on the fly against the Texans after overhearing their defenders talking. The question has always been if he could fix the problems that clearly existed for him as a coach on his first time out.
Personally, I believe he can and will. Many of his mistakes were of the exact kind you would expect to be issues for a very young and rising star. Few failed head coaches get to go back and work for one of the best head coaches of all time with a renewed perspective on the position. McDaniels has had that chance.
Would he be a good fit for the Colts? That is a tougher question. It is clear both from what the Colts have experienced as well as the issues around the league we have seen play out that it is critical for the general manager and the head coach to be on the same page. He may prefer to go to a team where he can bring along a general manager of his choosing, which would eliminate the Colts.
If McDaniels has truly grown as a coach and is willing to work alongside Chris Ballard rather than being set on total control, the two could be a formidable pair.
For a deeper dive into Josh McDaniels’ comeback check out Dan Pompei’s great story The Redemption of Josh McDaniels, which I pulled from heavily for this one.
Would you like to see Josh McDaniels as the Colts’ next head coach?
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