Imagine being Josh McDaniels, just for a minute.
Sure, you’re a football coach by blood, but so are lots of people. How many of them wind up on the staff of a team about to embark on a dynasty, though?
Timing really is everything and in the case of McDaniels, that holds truer than for most. The son of a legendary Ohio high school coach joined the Patriots’ staff as a personnel assistant in 2001.
That year ring a bell?
Not such a bad season to make your NFL debut. McDaniels would make his way onto the field in 2002, spending two seasons working with the defense, specifically the secondary in 2003. But it was in 2004, when he made the move to quarterbacks coach and began studying at the altar of Charlie Weis, that things really got moving for him.
As great as the Patriots’ championship winning teams were and as special as Tom Brady became, those offenses were mostly rooted in ball control, running the ball, and short, sometimes sideways, passes. Weis brought Brady along slowly and the Pats’ offense didn’t crack the 400-point barrier until 2004, his final season and McDaniels’ first working with the QB.
That season marked the more figurative beginning of McDaniels’ NFL journey, which from a very early point has featured almost as many dizzying highs as wide receivers that have been unable to pick up his offense. With the Pats taking so long to get rolling on that side of the ball this season, plenty of fingers wound up pointing firmly in his direction over the course of the first four games. The team’s 43-point output and obvious improvement in last week’s win over the Bengals quieted some of the shrieking about what exactly is the matter with the Pats’ well-oiled attack. But while it will take more than one game to prove that the Pats’ difficulties on offense are indeed behind them, McDaniels’ body of work in Foxborough should at least warrant him a spot far down the list of candidates to blame.
When Weis left the Pats for the head coaching job at Notre Dame following Super Bowl XXXIX, McDaniels served out his one-year, Bill Belichick-trademarked season of serving as a coordinator without any public acknowledgement of the title, the same way Eric Mangini did after Romeo Crennel left to coach the Cleveland Browns, and Matt Patricia did when Dean Pees departed after the 2009 season, and Bill O’Brien did when McDaniels went to Denver. The Pats didn’t have anywhere near the 1,635 yards on the ground they got out of Corey Dillon in 2004 that season and the offense, while still ranked in the league’s top 10, took a bit of a step back. It was in 2006, when the team’s No. 1 receiver was the immortal Reche Caldwell, that McDaniels really started to turn some heads.
With the running game, featuring a platoon of the veteran Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney, guys like Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney were key cogs in McDaniels’ offense. That team finished seventh in the league in points and contributed to a 12-win season that ended one Caldwell drop from a fourth Super Bowl appearance in six years.
It was all a prelude to 2007, which goes down in history as simultaneously the greatest and most devastating Patriots’ season of all time. The Pats scored 67 offensive touchdowns and 589 points that year, Brady threw 50 TD passes and for many weeks, until one of the most unlikely catches in the history of the sport ultimately led to their demise, it appeared that they would become the greatest team ever.
That was McDaniels’ offense. The one that set all of those records and sent Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker into the stratosphere. And as impressive as it all was, you could make the argument that a year later, when Brady was gone before halftime of the season’s first game and Matt Cassel was all that remained, the job McDaniels did then was even better. It was his piece de resistance. The Pats had the fifth best offense in the league in 2008. With Matt Cassel at QB! If ’07 was incredible, ’08 was as close to a miracle as it gets in the NFL.
The self-discovery portion of McDaniels’ journey came next, with stops in Denver for his first head coaching job and a one-year layover in St. Louis. Despite a 6-0 start with the Broncos that included an emotional win over the Pats, these three years were, ahem… a struggle. But when he came back to New England, first as a special assistant during the 2011 postseason and then in his familiar role as offensive coordinator after O’Brien left to revive Penn State following the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants, everything was awesome for McDaniels once again.
He perfected the two tight end offense developed by Belichick and O’Brien when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez came aboard. He presided over Stevan Ridley’s 1,263-yard season. He coached the No. 1 offense in the NFL in 2012. And in 2013, despite the losses of Welker and Hernandez, Gronkowski’s multiple injury issues and trying to integrate three rookies and an underachieving free agent into the attack, he drew blood from a stone with the Pats still scoring 444 points, third most in the league.
The point of all this, of course, is that issues with the Pats’ offense thus far hardly should be pinned on McDaniels. It’s ridiculous to believe or even assume that he went from being so totally in command of what he’s doing to incompetent in the span of one offseason. The Logan Mankins trade and the subsequent constant shuffling of the offensive line, the underachievement of multiple skill players on the roster, even Brady’s age and overall health, all of those factors bear more responsibility for the offense’s struggles this season than McDaniels.
Is he perfect? Not at all. The Denver experience, while valuable, was a disaster on multiple levels. Even if the Pats explode on offense as the season progresses and post another Top 5 statistical year, there still may be too much stink on that portion of his career to make him an attractive head coaching candidate again any time soon.
But given his staggering success for so many years with this team, under this head coach, working with this quarterback in this particular system, Josh McDaniels deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Jeremy Gottlieb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jmg2776.