HENDERSON, Nevada. It wasn’t the most poignant or poignant metaphor to offer Josh McDaniels the lessons he’s learned over the years, but it still hit him to the core.
On Thursday, the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders took shelter in the shade to escape the 106-degree heat after the team’s first practice at training camp. As he began explaining the importance of learning to subtract from your coaching plate throughout your career, the visitor uttered an awkward, half-forgotten proverb.
“I remember someone once said that in improving your picture, you need to learn to understand what should not be in it,” said the visitor.
McDaniels’ eyes lit up.
“That’s right – that’s a great way to say it,” McDaniels said.
With his second head coaching position (or third if you take into account McDaniels’ work with the Indianapolis Colts), he has no illusions about what should be removed from his post. Or more specifically, after his season-ending ouster from the Denver Broncos in 2010 after coaching the team for less than two seasons. When this happened, he was 34 years old. Now he is 46. And a lot has changed in his mind since then.
What does he know now that he didn’t know then? That he doesn’t want to be the general manager; doesn’t expect everyone in his staff to recreate the New England Patriot experience; wants to focus on his own design, rather than copy the design created by Bill Belichick; and would rather be good at a few jobs in his building than micromanage himself into the abyss.
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He doesn’t waste that second chance trying to fit into the image of a head coach that he was initially uncomfortable copying.
“It’s been 12 years since I left [head coaching] the first time, and sometimes you hear people say that it took them a while and they tried to figure things out,” McDaniels said. “For each person it means different things. For me, what I was trying to do was, let me really stop and reflect on what I did, which was obviously wrong? It’s humiliating. You have to really drop your ego and say to yourself, “Dude, I stank of that. It was a very bad decision.” Or, “I didn’t treat that person the way I always wanted to.”
At one point, McDaniels summed up Denver’s experience as succinctly as possible: “It was crazy, I was young and all that.”
Josh McDaniels isn’t shying away from the lessons of the Denver fiasco
Having left New England this off-season to take a job with the Raiders, he has been expansive and unassuming in this part of his career. He doesn’t treat it as a sore subject or some kind of setback he’d rather avoid in conversation. That means something, given that most coaches are left with psychological scars after being fired from their first head coaching position.
Instead, he brings that memory closer, talks about what he learned playing from 11 to 17 years old over those two seasons. History mostly remembers the aftermath and trade of quarterback Jay Cutler and the numerous run-ins with star Brandon Marshall. McDaniels describes it as a general struggle with not knowing how to navigate people and not understanding himself and what trying to recreate a patriotic culture would take out of him. His results screamed bad imitation, not organic innovation.
In a way, that’s how he was forced to start recreating himself. After a year-long stint as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the St. Louis Rams in 2011, McDaniels began a ten-year reevaluation process during his second tenure as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. A period of reflection that helped him jump confidently into a new job with the Raiders, an opportunity many predicted would never come after he backed out of an agreement to become head coach of the Colts in 2018.
“Go back to New England and watch [Belichick] to run such an incredibly first-class organization, and he made it work the way he wants, I was able to verify this for the second time, ”McDaniels said. “But Bill O’Brien is gone. [Matt Patricia] left. [Brian Flores] left. Joe [Judge] left. So I got a chance to see [other New England coaches] from afar, as you process some things that you would do differently.”
Here’s what he learned from it.
“What’s really important to me and to anyone who’s getting out of there is that you can take a lot of football philosophy and a lot of strategic stuff that applies to winning and losing on Sunday, but I think the interpersonal work of every relationship in every organization is going to be different,” McDaniels said. “This is something I have learned the hard way. Now I’m trying to make a concerted effort to get it right as much as possible.”
Why the McDaniels Colts fiasco deserves a deeper look
In hindsight, much of the failure in Denver was due to McDaniels running into Cutler in his first couple of months on the job and selling him shortly thereafter. This initial oversight is more like the failure of two young and stubborn people who still had a lot to grow up.
Even if McDaniels’ diehard critics are willing to admit that his Denver hiring was too early and too early, they won’t let him go so easily because of what happened to the Colts. The fact remains: he hired three assistant coaches, changed the trajectory of their lives… and left. History will also remember that one of those coaches was defensive coordinator Matt Eberfluss, who was one of the best coordinators in the NFL for the last four years before taking over as the Bears’ head coach during the off-season.
There are a few more layers to the Colts situation that haven’t been properly considered either. Andrew Luck missed the previous season due to shoulder surgery and suffered a lot during his short career. The McDaniels also had no experience with general manager Chris Ballard and they got to know each other during the courtship process. Even when it looked like a trifling job, McDaniels was bothered by it. And when Patriots owner Robert Kraft felt he had an opportunity, he jumped at it to bring McDaniels back for another four seasons.
The fallout from this decision, and the criticism that followed, ultimately made the creation of the McDaniels-Raiders alliance possible. He knew that if he ever left the Patriots again, not only would there be no going back, but he would have to be accompanied by Dave Ziegler as general manager. Former teammates at John Carroll University and best friends, what this is who McDaniels wanted to hook up with. Because who needs to worry about being a grandmaster when that role is filled by your longtime friend and confidant? And can you form a human resources department that knows exactly how to find the coaching staff they work with?
Raiders can benefit from wiser McDaniels
This is what the Raiders are working for them now. Not only has the dynamic tension (often friction) between former head coach John Gruden and former general manager Mike Mayock disappeared into the firewind of Las Vegas, it has been replaced by two leaders who go hand in hand in every single decision. And they are supported by an updated carrier structure.
Perhaps for the first time under Mark Davies, departments are now fully streamlined and staffed at every level, from business to football to administration. Conditions for more aggressive lineup building have been loosened. Even Davis makes himself more accessible to McDaniels and Ziegler than any previous regime, and cedes to the tandem all the power to create a football organization of his own choosing.
That’s how you get the 2022 edition of the Raiders, which has a completely shuffled coaching and staffing line-up but loaded with expensive veterans like Davante Adams and Chandler Jones rather than a rebuild. Because McDaniels and Ziegler believed it, gaining Davis’s trust to sign the contract.
Even with all these changes, many successes and failures will depend on the culture of the raiders. And the culture will come down to whether McDaniels can live up to his drive to focus more on people, micromanage less and trust his functional design, rather than trying to recreate a Stalinist patriot blueprint that is already outdated. never was successfully reproduced outside of New England.
“I turned it down,” McDaniels said. “I just realized over time, in fact, at the end of the day, you have to give people a great opportunity to do their job. And sometimes that means you have to accept something else. And I think some of us who left the Patriots were at times frustrated that things weren’t the way I remember them in New England. And you know what? It will not happen. This will never happen. I came to this conclusion and, frankly, I’m so peaceful about the way we do everything, although I understand that everything was done wrong there.
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