Josh McDaniels is the anti-Mangini, an ex-assistant who hasn’t been excommunicated. The prodigal play-caller has been welcomed back into coach Bill Belichick’s football home with open arms, a waiting headset, and his old job - Patriots offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.
“Obviously, it’s great to be here and great to be back here,’’ said McDaniels, speaking Friday at the team’s rookie minicamp, his first meeting with the media since being rehired in January. “I look forward to doing everything I can to help us win.’’
A coaching prodigy when he left Belichick’s side in January 2009 to become head coach of the Denver Broncos, a little more than three months shy of his 33d birthday, McDaniels has returned after striking out on his own and just plain striking out.
The son of a revered Ohio high school coach, the NFL apprentice of the game’s preeminent coach, and coordinator of the record-setting offense of the 2007 Patriots, McDaniels was the can’t-miss coaching kid. He won his first six games as Broncos coach, including a win over his hooded mentor. Then he lost 17 of the next 22 and his job, pink-slipped with four games left in the 2010 season.
Last year, McDaniels joined the St. Louis Rams as offensive coordinator, the quarterback guru who would take Sam Bradford, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, to the next level. But the lockout didn’t allow McDaniels time to install his intricate offense. With Bradford, who missed eight games, bruised and confused, St. Louis finished last in the league in points (12.1 per game), second-to-last in yards per game, and third-worst in passing yards per game on its way to a 2-14 season.
Everyone knows McDaniels can be successful as Patriots offensive coordinator, even if Tom Brady is not the quarterback (see: 2008). So, why would he return to a place where he has nothing to prove as a coach and little to gain in reputation across the league?
“I think it’s more about what I have to learn,’’ said McDaniels. “This is a great environment for a young coach to learn, and as old as I might feel, I’m still really young and have so much more to learn and understand. There is not a better teacher than Coach Belichick and Mr. [Robert] Kraft.’’
McDaniels is a shrewd offensive coach. But anyone who has followed the Patriots the last couple of years knows the offense hasn’t been the problem.
Under Bill O’Brien, both McDaniels’s successor and predecessor, the Patriots still piled up passing yards and points like a critically-acclaimed HBO series does Emmy nominations. The Patriots scored 518 points in 2010, second only to the ’07 season, and last year they averaged 32.1 points per game and ranked second in total offense 428 yards per game.
But where McDaniels can help the Patriots is as a confidant for Belichick, an accomplished assistant coach with head coaching experience who can and will challenge Belichick when necessary. He has been in Belichick’s chair and his shoes, in charge of the big picture and the little details.
McDaniels brings a fresh set of eyes to the entire operation, not just the offense. He acknowledged he’s not the same coach Belichick worked with in 2008.
“I think I’ve had some experiences that have really taught me some things about me as a person, and certainly as a coach I’ve learned a lot of things just about different ways to do things,’’ said McDaniels.
“I’ve been around a lot of different people who had different philosophies. Some I thought were really interesting, and some I learned maybe some of what I don’t want to do. I think you learn both of those things as you meet new people and experience new things. I’m just trying to take the best from all those experiences and apply them to what I do every day and be a better coach.’’
Life away from Fort Foxborough has left McDaniels hardened and humbled.
When he was asked about the Patriots’ addition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, a pedestrian pass catcher until he was married with McDaniels’s offense in Denver, then St. Louis, and morphed into a dynamic receiving threat, McDaniels downplayed his role as the Lloyd Whisperer.
“I had an opportunity to form a relationship with him as a player,’’ said McDaniels. “He is a guy that took to our system and gave us an opportunity to do some good things. The players are the people that really deserve the credit. It’s not our system. They really are the ones that make it successful. He has had some success in it. We’ll hope that he can continue that.’’
That’s a long way from when McDaniels clashed with Denver quarterback Jay Cutler and at the 2009 owners’ meetings in Dana Point, Calif., referred to him as “the player.’’
Don’t underestimate Belichick’s legacy in bringing McDaniels back, either.
The collective coaching failures of his apprentices for the most part only serve to enhance the legend of Belichick, but it’s also a badge of honor for a coach to have his disciples go on to success, as those of Paul Brown, Tom Landry, and Bill Walsh have. A football historian like Belichick knows all the great houses of football lore. He also knows his coaching tree has yet to really bear fruit.
Former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is getting a second chance in Kansas City, but McDaniels, still just 36, might be the best bet to be the torchbearer for the House of Hoodie.
Belichick, who compiled a 36-44 record with just one winning season in Cleveland, is proof that even the most brilliant coaches can stumble the first time they’re put in the captain’s chair.
McDaniels’s losses the last three years should be the Patriots’ gain.