FOXBOROUGH -- Six years ago, the current offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots was a salesman in the plastics industry. It was the wrong business, in more ways than one.
Steel would have been a better choice, reflective of the young man's unbreakable focus and determined work ethic. But this wasn't about plastic vs. steel. It was football against everything else.
Josh McDaniels, one year removed from graduation from John Carroll University in Cleveland, and having worked a year as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State, knew he would be coaching football somewhere, and soon. Maybe it would be with his father, Thom, one of Ohio's most successful high school coaches. Or maybe it would be somewhere else, at a higher level.
After a year in the plastics business, the call came in 2001 from Gillette Stadium. Bill Belichick was entering his second season as Patriots head coach and had made a deal with one of his assistants, Brian Daboll. If Daboll could recommend a capable coach to take over his internlike duties, there was a chance Daboll could make the upward move from coaching assistant to position coach.
Daboll recommended McDaniels, whom he had worked alongside at Michigan State in 1999. McDaniels landed the job, and in a stunningly rapid rise, the 30-year-old now is running the Patriots' offense.
While the Detroit Lions' Mike Martz is probably the NFL's most well-known offensive coordinator, the result of his past experience as a head coach with the St. Louis Rams, McDaniels is at the other end of the spectrum. But some who have worked with him, and others who have been coached by him, believe he's an up-and-coming coaching star.
``He's one of the most knowledgeable men I've ever met in the game of football," said second-year backup quarterback Matt Cassel. ``He's a great motivator, and has a great sense of control over the offense, and how he wants to approach it."
That's an evolving process, especially after the events of the past week, with the team trading receiver Deion Branch and integrating new receivers into the mix. While the running game is off to a strong start, the passing attack sputtered in an opening victory.
So, how are the Patriots going to move the ball in the air with the current uncertainty at receiver? It's a question McDaniels works long hours at.
``One of the things we're not going to do is change things drastically or panic," he said in the days following the team's season opener, when the Patriots totaled just 163 passing yards. ``There are a bunch of new faces, and it's not something that you say, `Boy, it didn't work for one week,' and then change. The thing we have to do is coach like heck the people that are in there, get them comfortable with what we do, then evaluate it."
Young Josh watched his father coach the tradition-rich Canton McKinley High School team (Thom is the school's all-time winningest coach). The high school football scene was intense; McDaniels remembers his father receiving death threats. The young boy would tag along for scouting trips and sometimes join film sessions, much like Belichick did with his late father, Steve, at the Naval Academy.
So for those wondering where the philosophy of the Patriots' offensive coordinator was born, go to the fields of Ohio.
``I've been in and around football with my dad's life for 24, 25 years," said McDaniels, who also coaches the Patriots' quarterbacks. ``He's always been an offensive coach and I basically learned all the fundamental things about the quarterback position from being around him. Offensively, he was a big believer in being able to run the football and forcing people to defend the running game each and every week, and having certain core concepts that he believed in to carry into each game."
McDaniels played quarterback and kicker in high school, and was moved to receiver in college. When he was hired in New England, McDaniels's first job was in scouting.
``I think that was a good experience for Josh," Belichick said. ``It gave him a background in personnel, not just X's and O's but also the draft process, scouting players, player evaluations. I think that has helped even now as it relates to setting up game plans, and looking at strengths and weaknesses of opponents."
At the end of 2001, McDaniels was moved out of scouting and into Daboll's old post. Daboll, meanwhile, became receivers coach. For the next two-plus years, McDaniels worked mostly with the team's defense, breaking down films and helping the staff in scouting preparation. He kept charts and later worked with the defensive backs.
For a coach who had ambitions to be on the offensive side of the ball, these were formative years.
``That gave me an incredible amount of background, because it was all about what we try to do to stop offenses," said McDaniels, who had some impressive people to draw from in Belichick, Romeo Crennel (now the Browns coach), and Eric Mangini (now the Jets coach), among others. ``It gave me a different perspective and you can learn so much from the defensive aspect."
Then in 2004, McDaniels was named quarterbacks coach. Working under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for one year had a significant influence on McDaniels. The mix was perfect: McDaniels studied how to stop offenses from some of the NFL's best defensive minds, and now he was combining his Ohio offensive roots with the ideas of the dynamic Weis.
McDaniels is committed to keeping the Patriots' running game churning.
``You have to continue to hand the ball to those guys," he said. ``I think we have a lot of backs who can do good things with the football, bringing different styles, and our offensive line is so well-coached and playing well as a unit. The running game is like an attitude to me and I hope we can continue to develop that attitude, pounding the ball for four quarters so that others have to defend it every week."
When it comes to the passing offense, McDaniels said it naturally revolves around Tom Brady.
``I think it's important for quarterbacks to feel comfortable with what the plays are," he said. ``You can't come in with a brand new style of offense every week in the passing game and expect the quarterback to really feel comfortable with the timing of the routes and where the receivers will be -- that lends itself to problems on Sunday.
``I'd much rather use the things Tom is familiar with and practiced before, but maybe we just change something about the play, or the formation, or the personnel groupings that we do it from. We don't want to lose sight of the most important thing -- running the play and executing it well."
If Martz is known for his wide-open passing game, Seattle's Mike Holmgren is associated with the West Coast offense, Arizona's Dennis Green is known for the three-receiver package, and San Francisco's Norv Turner has favored pounding the ball and vertical passing, then where does McDaniels fall?
``I go back to what I learned when I was on the defensive side," he said. ``I understood what we were trying to do to stop people and why we were doing it. Now, being on the offensive side, I try to look at it by asking, `What are they trying to take away from us and what are they trying to make us do?' That's how I determine what we need to do to beat them with the way they're going to play us. There's no set pattern."
``I think Josh has a real good sense of player-coach relationships -- how much we can do and how much is too much where it's overloaded," Belichick said. ``I think it's hard for a guy as young as he is to be dealing with older or more experienced players, guys who have been in the league longer. But his maturity, and his background in coaching and football, makes him a lot older and mature than what the age is."
Never was that more evident than in the 2005 season, when McDaniels was leading quarterback meetings with a group that included 42-year-old Doug Flutie. Cassel described McDaniels as ``thorough and very precise" in those meetings and said he ``has a good feel, recognizing what we need at different times," from motivation to encouragement.
``I don't think the age has ever become an issue," Cassel said. ``People respect that everybody has to do a job, and he does his at a high level. That's the way you eliminate any problems when it comes to age. When you have players believing he can help us win, which we do, that's what matters."
McDaniels never considered age a barrier.
``I think you get the respect of your players by being well-prepared and teaching them," he said. ``If I tell any of these men anything that might help them get better, that will help us win, they respect it, listen, and do it . . . as long as you're doing the right things and trying to improve them, coaching them, they'll listen and respect you no matter how young you are."
McDaniels realizes that in 31 other NFL offices, there are some of the best football coaches in the world doing the same thing and ``you're trying to find a way to beat those people every week." That competitiveness is something he thrives on, and was first introduced to back in Ohio.
``The football was the most important thing in a lot of the communities, and growing up in that atmosphere hardened me," he said. ``It also made me love the competitive atmosphere. I always say, I learned more from being around the game of football than anything else in my life, personal and professional."
The best feeling is when the long hours of preparation yield a perfect game plan, with things ``unfolding just as you imagined it." Of course, it doesn't always happen that way; just look at last week's season opener, when the Patriots trailed the Bills, 17-7, in the third quarter.
But sometimes the best plans take shape at unexpected times.
After all, it was only six years ago that McDaniels was buying and selling scrap plastic with a buddy from college. McDaniels, who has two children (2-year-old Jack and 4-month-old Maddie) with his wife, Laura, remembers the 11-month gig as enjoyable and interesting.
But it pales in comparison to what he's living now.
``I absolutely love what I do," he said. ``I think it's a great challenge and I'm totally embracing the opportunity Bill has given to me, and the challenge it is to be in this position. It's a great place to be, a great place to grow as a coach. And I hope it only gets better."