New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been considered one of the NFL’s top head-coaching candidates for the past few years.
McDaniels, of course, has been in this position before. He was considered the hottest coach on the market when the Denver Broncos hired him seven years ago after the 14-season Mike Shanahan era. McDaniels was just 32 years old. His tenure in Denver was short and disastrous. It featured a public dispute with and subsequent trade of young quarterback Jay Cutler, a Spygate-like controversy and an 11-17 record before he was fired in early December, 2010.
After the Denver debacle, McDaniels returned to his roots and his role as the offensive coordinator in New England. McDaniels is a perfect fit with the Patriots and their engines, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who are both headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
McDaniels is definitely a step below Belichick and Brady on the Patriots’ scale of importance, but for the first quarter of this season McDaniels arguably has the most important role in the organization.
Now 40, McDaniels can all but solidify himself as the league’s hottest head-coaching candidate again if he can find a way to keep the high-caliber New England offense humming during Brady’s four-game NFL suspension (his punishment for the nearly 2-year-old Deflategate saga).
With Brady out, the Patriots offense is now in the hands of his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo. The 24-year-old Garoppolo was a second-round pick in 2014. He has thrown 31 career passes during the regular season.
Success with perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time is one thing; if McDaniels can make it work with Garoppolo, it will be noticed.
“If Josh can get Jimmy ready and go beat Arizona in Week 1 in prime time (it’s a Sunday night game), that would be quite a statement,” former NFL scout and current San Francisco radio host John Middlekauff said. “That would open eyes around the league and set the tone for these four games. I think it could happen.”
McDaniels has been challenged to win in New England without Brady before, and it has worked out well. After Brady tore the ACL in his left knee in Week 1 of 2008, the Patriots turned to backup Matt Cassel. With minimal playing experience, Cassel threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns, leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record. The work parlayed Cassel into a starting job in Kansas City. He never duplicated his work with McDaniels, who turned the Cassel magic into the Denver gig.
If the preseason statistics are any indication, the McDaniels-Garoppolo pairing may have a chance. Garoppolo has completed 36 of 54 pass attempts for 406 yards, 1 touchdown pass and no interceptions.
But will it work in the regular season? It depends on who you talk to.
Former NFL running back and current ESPN analyst Merril Hoge believes McDaniels will have a tough task until Brady returns. Hoge thinks Garoppolo is nowhere close to running Brady’s playbook and McDaniels will have to be conservative against the Cardinals and then in three straight home games against Miami, Houston and Buffalo.
“There’s no way McDaniels can just go and pretend that Brady is out there,” Hoge said. “I think there are a bunch of issues. I just don’t see any confidence shown by Garoppolo. McDaniels is going to have to develop that confidence quick.”
Hoge said he sees McDaniels’ biggest challenge being in the red zone, based on what he has seen in the preseason. He said the Patriots have been very “vanilla” in the red zone; yes, even for the preseason. Hoge said if the Patriots run safe plays like screens and zone reads in the regular season, they will have a difficult time getting the ball into the end zone.
“I just see a lot of hesitation in the red zone,” Hoge said. “You can’t have that uncertainty.”
Hoge said he saw Garoppolo make crucial mistakes on simple throws in the middle of the field last month. He said those types of throws will turn into interceptions next week against the Cardinals if they aren’t addressed.
In addition to getting Garoppolo’s confidence up, Hoge said McDaniels must take advantage of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett and establish a consistent ground game featuring LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots have had success with double-tight end sets in the past and Gronkowski is considered perhaps the biggest coverage mismatch in the NFL because of his striking combination of size and speed.
“They got to get Gronk going,” Hoge said. “They have to do play action, feed off the ground game and rely on Gronk. That’s how Josh is going to try to win in the first four games.”
Longtime NFL scout Matt Williamson thinks Belichick and McDaniels will be prepared once the regular season starts, and that they will make it work with Garoppolo. Williamson said he expects to see McDaniels take advantage of Garoppolo’s legs.
“Jimmy G does move much better than Brady, so I could see a lot more designed QB movement with bootlegs and maybe more designed QB runs,” Williamson said. “McDaniels has a grasp of his personnel. It’s not ideal without Brady, but I think they should be OK.”
If McDaniels’ offense rolls with Garoppolo, we may see McDaniels get his second chance at being a head coach.
“I want to be a head coach at some point in my life,” McDaniels said Wednesday. “I’ve learned a lot over the last few years. Hopefully, gained a lot of wisdom. If and when that time comes, I’d look forward to doing it again.”
The next four games could be the difference for McDaniels, depending on how he handles the challenge of working without Brady.