This week, leading into the opening round of the NFL playoffs, an annual tradition will take place: The Patriots will be on bye, and their assistant coaches will conduct interviews for head coach openings around the league.
Josh McDaniels, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, currently has plans to interview with three teams who will be hiring new head coaches: The Bears, Colts and Giants. Team brass will come to him, traveling to New England, rather than the other way around. He and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, also an in-demand candidate, will be balancing a busy interview schedule with preparation for the Patriots’ divisional round game the following weekend.
McDaniels, 41, has been through this multiple times. Last year he interviewed with three teams—the 49ers, Rams and Jaguars—during the playoff bye and remained a leading candidate for San Francisco until he removed himself from consideration for the job the week of the AFC Championship Game. The question now: Is this the year McDaniels will leave New England?
McDaniels has faced other questions, too, since his first go-round as a head coach ended after just 28 games. Namely, what will be different the second time around? He’s spent the past seven years rebuilding his résumé after a failed Broncos tenure that included Jay Cutler asking to be traded just weeks after McDaniels was hired, drafting Tim Tebow with the No. 25 overall pick, strained relationships with his players and staff and an 11-17 record. After he got fired 12 games into the 2010 season, he spent one season as the Rams’ offensive coordinator and returned in 2012 to his previous job in New England, guiding the highest-scoring offense in the league over the past six seasons.
Perhaps the most important thing McDaniels has done since then, however, is face head on that question of what he’d do differently. After getting fired in Denver, he went on a self-flagellating fact-finding mission that many in his line of work might be too proud to do, interviewing numerous people about what he’d done wrong. Nothing was off limits.
Last fall, veteran NFL writer Dan Pompei chronicled for Bleacher Report some of McDaniels’ efforts to learn from his mistakes with the Broncos, including his creation of an Excel spreadsheet entitled “lessonslearned.xls” that McDaniels has steadily added to over the past seven years. Among those lessons, Pompei wrote, were to be a more patient decision-maker, listen better and spend more time showing your players and staff that you value them. It’s also a fair bet this time around that McDaniels will avoid the criticism that came from hiring his younger brother, who mainly had high school coaching experience at that point, to his Broncos staff.
In New England, where McDaniels began his NFL coaching career in 2001 after a season as a grad assistant on Nick Saban’s Michigan State staff, he has learned at the hip of a boss whose success in the NFL has come on his second opportunity. One player who has worked with McDaniels in New England calls him “the biggest extension of Bill Belichick.” He’s as detail-oriented as Belichick, has shown his creativity in making the most of the Patriots’ rotating cast of offensive skill-position players and, while Tom Brady served his Deflategate suspension during the first four games of the 2016 season, proved he can win games with quarterbacks not named Brady.
McDaniels as a potential head coach of the 49ers last year was a move strongly considered by both sides. When he withdrew his name for consideration, he cited both family reasons and wanting to focus on the playoffs. The Patriots went on to win their fifth Super Bowl. The previous season McDaniels had no head coaching interviews; in early 2015, he met with the Falcons and the 49ers, and he pulled out of the Browns’ search after interviewing in January 2014.
“You have to do all your research, and you have to vet the whole situation out, and this is the decision for me that’s really about what’s best for my family and my career at the same time,” McDaniels said last February, withdrawing from the 49ers’ search. “I absolutely would love the opportunity to take on that challenge again, at the right time, but it would have to be the right time for me, the right place for me.”
Will that be this year? When McDaniels says he’ll only leave for the right opportunity, that means he will not take a job unless two things are in place: 1) a quarterback he likes, or the opportunity to draft one; and 2) a good partner as GM. As far as the first criterion goes, the Bears have Mitchell Trubisky, last year’s No. 2 pick; the Colts have Andrew Luck, though the true status of the shoulder injury that kept him out all season is an important consideration; and the Giants have the No. 2 pick in this year's draft, with which they could draft their next potential franchise quarterback to succeed Eli Manning.
McDaniels has the luxury of being picky, because he’s in a good situation in New England, where he has a real chance to win a championship every year, and his work with the most successful quarterback in the league will keep him in demand. The possibility of McDaniels staying in New England as a coach-in-waiting to succeed the 65-year-old Belichick, whenever he decides to retire, is something that, at least externally, has been the subject of speculation. Asked about that possibility, a few days before Super Bowl 51, McDaniels brushed it off, saying, “I never considered that, honest to God.”
As he did last year, McDaniels should have options this hiring cycle. Will this be the year he takes one of them?
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