Tales from the SunnySide: McDaniels and Belichick, Part II

McDaniels and the Broncos

Growing up in Canton, Ohio as the son of the high school coach is an invitation to a tough adolescence. Josh McDaniels didn't mind the added scrutiny. After all, he would later be the quarterback of the McKinley High School team anyway, as his brother, Ben, would after him. The scrutiny just went with the territory. Even at that age, it rarely seemed to bother him.

People out there will never understand the pressure Josh was under his whole high school career," said Jack Rose, who coached against the McDaniels' McKinley High School while coaching Massillon Washington High School. "The people of McKinley were tough to play for. I'm going to tell you right now, that Cutler guy never went through what Josh McDaniels went through in high school. He was really a good player, had a great winning record at McKinley, and people were always (complaining) about him. It toughened him. It made him stronger for what he's facing today. How he handled it back then, it's not surprising how he handled what's been going on out there now.

Tough is one thing; death threats are another. When Josh and his younger brother Ben took the bus to school, there was a time when police cruisers had to follow the bus. Thom McDaniels had received a death threat and one that had mentioned kidnapping this sons. It didn't stop Thom, it didn't stop his boys, and life went on. Signs were planted on the lawn of the McDanielses' large, A-framed house, making more threats. Nothing changed. The family went about its business. In his typically understated way, Josh referred back to those days this year.

"I wasn't the most well-liked person in Canton," he said. "I was a coach's son who played quarterback. It was tough at times."

It didn't stop either son. Ben would QB the school to back-to-back state championships. They learned that with responsibility comes criticism. They learned that you don't take it personally and you don't ever let it stop you. You accept it, you make changes if they're warranted, and you move on.

As far as his personal history, Josh McDaniels saw much of what Bill B saw. He saw, growing up, the respect that was and is given to his father. He saw the way that the concepts that BB had based his team upon worked and decided to use the things that did. He saw, in NE, that effect that a team-first attitude will convey. He learned to analyze film and break down players, positions and schemes at an early age. He grew up on the sidelines. He studied mathematics to BB's economics. They were, in many ways, kindred spirits.

McDaniels played college football as a wide receiver at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland. He went on to serve as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State and he even worked out of football (selling plastics, in fact) for a year. It didn't take long, though, before Josh knew that he needed to return to football and that his eventual role as a head coach required moving into the NFL ranks. He got an interview with BB and was added to the staff. in 2001. The two men quickly took a liking to one another. After a few years, he was promoted to the position of offensive coordinator in 2006 (He'd already been calling the plays for a year by that time).

When he first came to New England, in 2001, he had to learn their defense first. Every coach under Bill Belichick did. BB wanted them all to know both sides of the game and to all be aware of how the defensive scheme would work. From there, BB tried to place them in roles that fit their preferences, skillsets and the needs of the team. It's worked for the Patriots and it's worked for their coaches.

When McDaniels started calling the plays in 2005, Belichick got to see how closely McD's skills in the film room and his obsessive interest in coaching and winning resembled his own, and that of Ernie Adams. They soon developed a very good relationship. McD continued to be a major force in working with Tom Brady, something that Brady himself has commented on many times. Despite his age, exactly as had been the case for BB in his youth, no one seemed to spend much time on his age. They were busy following his ideas, approaches and concepts. McDaniels had no compunctions about hiring the best. The best would give him the best odds of victory, and that was always his constant and singular goal. All else was just a means to an end.

At the beginning, I underestimated McDaniels because of this period in Belichick's life. I thought it likely that McDaniels would need some time to settle in as a head coach and to make the mistakes that seem to happen to young first-time head coaches. What I didn't know then was the reason that McDaniels would skip several of the intermediate steps and go right to winning. McDaniels grew up believing that he wanted to become a head coach. He set up his life with that goal in mind. His family never doubted him. He never doubted himself and Bill Belichick would encourage him - when it was time, he should have his own team. McDaniels studied no one as much as he did his own boss and mentor and he would avoid many mistakes because he saw others making them. After the 2007 season, some opportunities came up, but McD didn't see them as the right situation. He was content to wait for that situation.

And, he had Bill Belichick's assistance at getting ready to be a head coach, according to Jim Trotter at SI.com:

"I had been talking to Bill for a few years about being a head coach, and after I didn't do any interviews during the bye week in the '07 playoffs he said, 'I will help you in any way I can to get you ready for all the other things that go into the job,'" McDaniels said. "Just being around him every day was going to help me from a football standpoint because I could see what he did and how he did it. But he was saying he would help me with some of the things that you won't really get a chance to witness or understand or become knowledgeable about until you're in that position.

"I remember when we first came back after our break, that very first day, that very first morning, he brought me into his office and he gave me five pages, typed, of all the topics and things that he felt like I needed to be educated about to become an effective head coach. I'm thinking to myself, here he's got 10 or 12 days where he can do whatever in the hell he wants to do -- we've just come off a season where we were 16-0 and lost in the Super Bowl -- and the very first day back he gives me this? That was kind of like my bible."

In 2008, McD had played the Broncos. New England, Brady, BB and McDaniels tore them apart, 41 to 7. McD knew this team, and he knew why they were losing. He also put in a lot of time, figuring out how they could win. This is what mattered to him. Analyzing, dissecting and destroying the other team, using their own film and their performances against them, is his greatest joy out of the many that make up a coach's season. Was it then that he began to consider the Broncos as the right place for him to go next? We'll never know, but it's impossible not to consider it. By the time Mike Shanahan wore out his situation in Denver, Josh McDaniels knew that this was the right time and the right organization. It didn't take him long to prove it to Joe Ellis, Pat Bowlen and Jeff Goodman, either.

What is it that defines the McDaniels way of thinking about the team? The factors are many and do not lend themselves to superficial analysis, but among them are these:

He studied the great coaches. He learned the work of Saban, Paul Brown, Joe Collier, George Allen, Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick and many others. He knew that those who fail to study history fail - period. And in this, Belichick left an advantage for McDaniels when it came to Denver.

Bill Belichick came to Denver in 1978, when Red Miller was the coach and Joe Collier was the defensive coordinator. Collier had moved the team to a 3-4 defense and was doing unusual things with it. The players were lighter than most, but they were smart, tough and versatile. David Halberstam wrote about this in this book, The Education of a Coach, and this is what he claims that Belichick saw:

"Every player was supposed to know where he was on each play. Everyone was to be very disciplined. Football was not about being a big star: it was about fulfilling your assigned role. You were supposed to do the things you were assigned even if you did not get the glory. There were some very big names in that defense: Barney Chavous, Lyle Alzado and Rubin Carter were the front three and Chavous and Alzado were unusually well known, but but it was very much the players whose names were not well know - Carter, who was the nose takcle, Billy Thompson the strong safety; and Swenson, the least well known of the linebackers -- who were critical, becuae they were always where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do, often forcing the play towards their more celebrated teammates.They were the ones who made the better-known players look so good each Sunday. The fans loved the stars, whose heroics were so obvious; but often it was the lesser-known players whom the coaches loved best; the guys who, day after day, made the defense work. "

After reading that, I believed that McDaniels had it written on the inside of his eyes. He never takes his sight off of it.

Choosing Players

From Day One, Josh knew how to choose great players. McDaniels, like his mentors, believed that the right player is not always the most talented player. That doesn't mean that he didn't look for the players who could be both. The way the roster of the Broncos today is filled with men like Ron Fields and Kenny Peterson, men who weren't considered good starters in the league, is a good way to see the difference in McDaniels' coaching from many other men's, such as Eric Mangini and Charlie Weis. McDaniels is part of the Belichick coaching tree, certainly, but he's a uniquely talented individual. His players know that. But, more on that soon.

Great communication

Both McD and his coaches know that different players learn differently - auditorily. Visual, experiential and cerebral learners all can play well, but each needs the material to be taught differently. It seems that every one of the coaches that are discussed in the media seems to be aware of that and to be concentrating on that. It matters.

"Some guys learn quickly from the mouth," McDaniels said. "Some guys need it on the board. Some guys need it on the board, on film, from the mouth, walkthrough and practice it twice, and then they have got it.

"That is just the way this game is. Every player is different, and I think that is part of being a good coach is figuring out, ‘How do I have to teach my players because they are not all the same guy?'"

McDaniels seems to have a knack for approaching the players on their own level and letting them know that they are wanted, needed, and will be prized for their contributions. A man who can communicate that can extract the best performances a player can achieve. I had to note that Correll Buckhalter wanted to win Game 1 for McD, and that other players said the same. They prize their coach, they protect him, and they want to give him back the level of effort that he gives them. It also speaks very well for how McD/Xanders will do in the FA market.

See if this fits (and I think that it does) -- McDaniels has done something that I've never really heard of before. After 4 years as the OC of NE, he took over the Broncos and promptly made a list of the players who have given him the most trouble, those the Pats needed to be aware of, or who created difficulties in scheming. Then, he hired all of the ones that fit his scheme. It's really a dastardly plot, when you think of it. I love it.

He had a lot of trouble going up against Renaldo Hill and Andre' Goodman - he stole them. Miami was misled enough to pay big dollars to Gibril Wilson, but we got the cream of that deal. Brian Dawkins drove him crazy - and Josh snatched him. their conversation didn't waste time on the idea that Dawkins was 'washed up' or 'over the hill' - McDaniels knew better. He knew that the defense had trouble with Buckhalter - score another FA coup. The list goes on.

What he wants in a player is simple: smart, tough, physical, versatile. Those are the building blocks of success. Unless the player is willing to give a little more than the man across the line of scrimmage from him, this system could not work. But it does.

Film and its usage

Some martial arts teach you how to use an athlete's strengths against him. That can work in football, too. If a player is a great pass rusher, you can throw into the area they like to vacate. If they are a great run stopper, you can use the fact that they will tend to stay at home against them. This is the man who loves to sit and break down film, and to plot and plan. In this, he is a kindred soul to Bill Bellichick and Ernie Adams. His plans have been doozies. Those who doubt that need look no further than the Dallas game from last weekend. The overpowering Dallas running game become too often predictable. Our players seemed to know how to move before the Cowboys players did. That's been a hallmark of BB, Ernie Adams and Josh McDaniels and it has nothing to do with illicit videos. It's in the preparation.

Degrees

Josh has a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics from John Carroll University, where he also played football as a receiver. Math studies, proofs and theorems have certainly influenced McDaniels' career just as Bill Belichick's background in economics influenced him. While McDaniels likes to leave the contracts and econ theory to Brian Xanders, his training in mathematics is a constant benefit.

"What math does is it teaches you how to think, the process of thinking," he said. "My last two years (in college), I didn't deal with numbers ever. It's all thought processes and proofs and theorems and analytical thinking. If you get to an end and it doesn't give you the answer you're looking for, then you need a process to go through another avenue."

Perhaps this is part of why he finds the process of analysis and scheming so interesting and enjoyable. To Bill Walsh, former great in the coaching world, the players were roles in a production, and he was the stage master. McDaniels, on the other hand, seems much more accessible and much more effective at interacting with his players and showing them his vision, how it works and how they have a necessary role in it. As a former student, former teacher and someone who ran small businesses, I know the power of getting people excited about your vision and convincing them that it will work and will work for them. It's a powerful thing and he does it well.

Communication, again, and More.

McD is a teacher by nature and a winner at heart. He is capable of communicating that desire to win and he is capable of communicating his plan to make that happen. He is also a man who leads by example - he's always at the office, works long hours and seems, so far, to not only handle it but to thrive on it. Note that Walsh, for all of his strengths, was still exhausted by the demands of his job. Many coaches just aren't emotionally and psychologically suited to the rigors of the job. Josh is, and he's also able to communicate his enthusiasm and to get people to buy into his way of thinking. Not every coach can do that.

Again - it's the ability to communicate with people who have different modes of learning, whether audio, visual, experiential or intellectual and to bring each of them into your overall plan and to get them excited about it that is rare. It's a remarkable thing to watch.

Preparation

His love of analysis leads to his skills at preparation. This team knows that the coaches will put them in the best possible position to win. They trust that, they prepare in massive detail, and they approach each game as if it is the only one that they will ever play. If they continue to do so, they will continue to win.

"The attention to detail is definitely something that's way more prevalent here than other places I've been to - and that goes to all positions," said backup quarterback Chris Simms, "The attention to detail is really scrutinized day in and day out. That's the one that jumps out to me, compared to other places."

Brandon Stokley also commented,

"Sometimes you prepare for one thing and, all of a sudden, you go to the game and (the opponent) has switched up everything and you don't know what to do. That's not a good feeling to have. Every game we've played, I feel that we've been prepared for everything we've seen. That's a compliment to the coaching staff. I think we are a very prepared team."

McDaniels' Perspective:

"You don't win Super Bowls with individuals," McDaniels said. "If there's teams that individuals are more important than the team, they're not playing at the end of the year." That's hard to argue with. It's working, which is the final test of every hypothesis.

"Some guys learn quickly from the mouth," he added, "Some guys need it on the board. Some guys need it on the board, on film, from the mouth, walkthrough and practice it twice, and then they have got it.

"That is just the way this game is. Every player is different, and I think that is part of being a good coach is figuring out, ‘How do I have to teach my players because they are not all the same guy?'"

Final Thought

When Josh McDaniels was growing up, like most boys, he wanted to be like his father. Now, he carries a clipboard, blows a whistle, and is treated with respect, just like his father. It's coming full circle. Defensive lineman Kenny Peterson, a couple of years older and from an earlier class in high school, played high school football for McDaniels' father, Thom, and the lineman says father and son seem to coach a lot alike...

"It's kind of scary, especially the mannerisms and the things he says," Peterson laughed. "When he points his finger, it's a spitting image of Thom McDaniels."

Somehow, that's not a surprise. Like his father and his mentor, all that Josh McDaniels wants to do is win. Unlike a lot of men who want the same thing, this is one guy who knows how to achieve it.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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