I want to ask a question the answer to which likely influences your view on the Colts imminent coaching hire. How much blame should an organization take when a team fails? Or maybe the better question is, how do you divvy up the blame appropriately?
When we talk about the Cleveland Browns, dysfunction at an organizational level is something every NFL fan understands is a part of the problem. A laundry list of coaches have gone through that organization with varying degrees of failure. Bill Belichick, one of the most prolific football coaches of all time was one of them. There is no hesitation when discussing the Browns, to attribute failure not just to the coach, but to the front office in terms of creating a culture, bringing in the proper talent, and providing both stability and vision to move forward.
Additionally, we understand that the players are ultimately responsible for winning football games. Even the most incompetent coach can be buoyed by a supremely talented cast of players. One elite quarterback can keep a coach who is over his head employed for at least six years, as Colts fans know all too well.
None of these ideas are irrational or foreign to us. We understand them and they make sense. It is important that teams have organizational stability, an inflow of good talent, a vision for what the team needs to be, and a winning culture. They also need coaches who are strong leaders, have great game management ability, can put together a great staff, and know how to develop players.
Yet when Josh McDaniels’ time spent in Denver as the head coach is discussed, we tend to drop all the weight of blame directly on him with all the nuance of an argument about politics on Twitter. McDaniels certainly failed. That fact is not up for debate. Any Broncos fan will tell you, some very heatedly about all the areas he went wrong.
The argument I would like to make is that his failure was not as spectacular as it is made out to be. I would also argue that the Broncos share equal, or perhaps even greater responsibility for that failure than McDaniels himself. That is a lot to unpack, so let’s get started.
To begin, we have to point out what this Broncos team was. Mike Shanahan was the coach at the helm and did something truly special in his time with the team. With John Elway as his quarterback, he led the team to win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998. That cannot be discounted.
After Elway’s retirement following the 1998 season, the team won just 1 playoff game through 2008. Reminiscent of the Jeff Fisher Rams, this was a team that was thoroughly mediocre. They won the division just once in that time, and while they had fielded a relatively potent offense during the 2008 season, their defense was aging and ranked by Football Outsiders as the 32nd in DVOA for the season. (That defense would finish the first season under McDaniels ranked 10th.)
Owner Pat Bowlen decided that the young offensive coordinator who had helped take the Patriots to an 11-5 season with Matt Cassel under center was just what the team needed to lead them forward. He hired 33-year-old Josh McDaniels and handed over total control of the personnel to him.
This was a major mistake by the Broncos. No first-time head coach should have that kind of power in an organization until they prove they can do the primary job they are hired to do. Coaches and general managers both fill different roles and allowing one person control over all aspects removes needed perspective for any coach, especially a young one. Add to that the fact that GM Brian Xanders was a rookie in his position as well, and you have a recipe for issues.
The next perceived misstep by McDaniels was in the handling of Jay Cutler. To me, this argument is a non-starter. Rumors surfaced during the lead up to the draft of a 3-way trade involving the Broncos, Patriots, and Buccaneers. The trade would have brought Matt Cassel in to work with McDaniels, which would have made sense given the success they had experienced the prior year. History proves that Cutler was to be a locker room issue in his later years and had more success winning division titles for the Packers than the Bears as a quarterback. That is not the kind of leader you want on a team in need of a culture change.
Regardless, when Cutler heard the rumors and confronted McDaniels about it, McDaniels denied them. This angered Cutler, who was already upset about losing his quarterback coach Jeremy Bates, who was fired when McDaniels brought in his own staff. He demanded a trade and McDaniels obliged. In hindsight, the Broncos did relatively well in the trade considering how little Cutler would accomplish with the Bears. At the time, fans were enraged.
This is the point where we see the disconnect between ownership and McDaniels. It quickly became clear that Bowlen did not establish any kind of vision when sitting down with McDaniels. He wanted the flashy coach but did not understand how flawed his team really was.
McDaniels had spent his whole coaching career working with a coach who did not simply expect excellence, he demanded it. The Patriots have not often had the most talented roster in the league during Belichick’s tenure. But the players on the roster buy in and work hard to pull their weight. Entering an organization mired in mediocrity was probably like being doused with cold water for McDaniels.
If the Broncos had just come off a season where they put up only 2 or 3 wins, it might have been easy for them to hear that they were a lousy team and needed to change everything about the way they did things. That message was not as well received by a team who had consistently been around .500. It did not sit well with many of the veteran players.
While McDaniels craved a culture change, much of the team, fans, and front office simply thought they were a scheme and a few good players away from the Super Bowl. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Jim Irsay had this exact same mistaken belief in the Colts team that Chuck Pagano took over. Like Irsay, Pat Bowlen and Broncos fans were wrong.
The team got out to a quick start, winning their first six games. The wheels had already started to fall off internally, though. Fans were angry about the loss of Cutler and having to deal with Kyle Orton at quarterback. The players hated the way McDaniels dealt with them. He screamed at them in meetings, on the sidelines, and in practice. The assistant coaches got a lot of the same treatment. They would only win 2 more games that season.
Relating his vision for the team, I believe, was truly McDaniels’ greatest failing. He did not understand how to get the team to buy in. He wasn’t sure how to win over his locker room veterans, and couldn’t tolerate people not working as hard as he thought they ought to. His attempt to abruptly change the culture of the team was likely as much a shock to the system as it must have been for him entering an organization so unlike the Patriots.
Had he shared a vision for the future of the team with both the owner and the general manager, they could likely have withstood the pushback from players and fans. If when he had arrived with the team, there was a core goal in mind as well as a realistic expectation for what that would take to accomplish, both in terms of time and of the type of players, perhaps things would have gone more smoothly.
I won’t attempt to argue in favor of McDaniels as a personnel guy. I do understand how a player like Tim Tebow would have appealed to him. As a second-year coach suffering from a roster devoid of leadership and full of players who were not working hard enough to suit him, it even sort of made sense, given his background as a winner throughout college. Tebow gets a little bit of revisionist history treatment sometimes and we forget how successful he was as a college player and how he exemplified the team-first mentality. It is obvious that from a talent perspective, however, this was a huge miss at a vital position, and not one that surprised most scouts.
The point I want to make is that the problems with this particular marriage began right at the outset. McDaniels was given too much control. There was not an understanding between the front office and the coach about how long the timeline should be, or what it would take, to turn the team into a perennial winner. The roster was filled with entitled veteran players who had received their Master's degrees in mediocrity from Shanahan University. There was no real understanding of how far the roster was from really being a contender, and the front office was not patient enough to find out.
Ratcheting up that kind of pressure fueled a lot of the other issues that cropped up. Screaming matches with players don’t happen on well-adjusted teams. Teams that are not desperate to get a win don’t videotape practices. This was more than just the failure of one person. It was a failure from the top down.
That should be hugely encouraging to you as a Colts fan. The Colts do not suffer from any of those problems. Chris Ballard runs the show with regard to personnel but wants to work closely with and get input from the coaching staff on personnel moves and how to build the roster into the kind of team the coaches can win with.
Owner Jim Irsay and Chris Ballard have a clear understanding of what it will take to turn the Colts into a contender, and Ballard has repeatedly said it will take time. There is no illusion that they are one player away from being a force of unstoppable dominance. Also, they plan to build it with young talent who can be brought in and developed in the kind of culture they want for the team.
As to that culture, Chris Ballard has already been hard at work reshaping it. There are no aging veterans who are set in their ways and unwilling to work hard. Those who take that approach will find themselves on the chopping block in short order. Ballard has shown he is not afraid to send a player packing if they are not going to put in the kind of work needed to win, or if they make themselves a distraction.
McDaniels has to show that he has improved on getting a team to buy in to his vision for them. That task is helped when the vision is already partially in place and coming from the top. What is more, he will be gifted with a generational talent in Andrew Luck, who can bring the offense to life with a wholly uncreative offensive mind, let alone one of the better ones in the league. That is a far cry from Tebow and Orton.
While the idea that the Broncos failed exclusively because of Josh McDaniels is a common one, it just isn’t accurate. It is a narrow and simplistic view of a complex situation. There are certainly some areas he has to improve to be a successful head coach. However, the 2009-10 Broncos were from the standpoint of finances, personnel, staff, and leadership, all flawed. Simply writing the situation off as a McDaniels problem is just lazy analysis.
Can Josh McDaniels be as successful as his mentor in a head coaching role? We can only speculate. But let’s dispense with the idea that he alone ruined what was otherwise a good team. That argument just doesn’t hold up.