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Josh McDaniels, Future Head Coach?

A deep dive into Josh McDaniels, where he comes from, what he does with the Patriots offense, and his prospects as an NFL head coach.
Josh McDaniels head coach

Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Up next in the series of Bears head coaching candidates is Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Previous reviews include:

Who is Josh McDaniels?

Josh McDaniels is 45 years old and currently serves as the offensive coordinator and QB coach for the New England Patriots. He was born in Barberton, Ohio, and went to high school in Canton, Ohio. Football is in Josh’s blood. His father, Thom McDaniels, is a legendary high school football coach in the state of Ohio.

Photo: Mile High Report

Photo: Mile High Report

After high school, McDaniels went to John Carroll University and played wide receiver for the football team.  Despite playing quarterback in high school, he was quickly beaten out by teammate and current Texans GM Nick Caserio for the position. In his time at John Carroll, McDaniels was also teammates with London Fletcher (former NFL LB), Brian Polian (LSU ST coordinator), Jerry Schuplinski (NYG QB coach), and Tom Telesco (LAC GM).

Josh McDaniels’ Background

Early Coaching Career 

Josh McDaniels Coaching Career

Josh McDaniels Coaching Career

After graduating from college, McDaniels joined Nick Saban’s 1999 Michigan State coaching staff as a graduate assistant. He was able to make this happen by leveraging his father’s relationship with Saban. While at Michigan State, McDaniels worked alongside an undergraduate assistant named Adam Gase. After his first season coaching, McDaniels moved to Cleveland and got a job as a plastic sales representative.

In 2001, McDaniels seized an opportunity to join the Patriots as a personnel assistant. He was able to climb the ranks in the following years, serving as a defensive assistant in 2002 and 2003. By 2004, he had worked his way up to QB coach. After the 2004 season, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left the Patriots to become Notre Dame's head coach. Although the Patriots did not have an offensive coordinator in the 2005 season, McDaniels served as play-caller. In 2006, he was promoted to offensive coordinator.

Throughout the next few seasons, the Patriots boasted one of the top offensive attacks in the NFL. McDaniels began to garner head coaching consideration but withdrew his name from all 2007 job openings. In the 2008 offseason, Bill Belichick gave McDaniels a report detailing what it takes to be an effective head coach and run a winning organization. Throughout the 2008 season, the two coaches would meet to prep for head coaching interviews.

"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… That was kind of like my bible."

– Josh McDaniels

Broncos and Return to New England

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After the conclusion of the 2008 season, the 32-year-old McDaniels accepted the head coaching position for the Denver Broncos. Despite early success in 2009, McDaniels' time in Denver was marred with controversy. His relationship with QB Jay Cutler was strained just weeks after being hired, leading to a trade with the Bears.

After alienating most of his locker room and fellow coaches, few were willing to fight for him. Ultimately, his issues in Denver came down to power. Despite his youth, he was given complete roster control. He got caught up in instilling his views and ignored the way his actions impacted relationships in the building.

“By 2010, McDaniels’ second and final season, his message and vision had ultimately fallen on deaf ears because of how he treated people. My guess is that he’s matured over the years, and hopefully has learned from his mistakes in Denver.”

– Chad Jensen, Editor-in-Chief at Mile High Huddle

After being fired by the Broncos, McDaniels spent the 2011 season as offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams. The Rams went 2-14 and head coach Steve Spagnuolo was fired at the end of the season. McDaniels was once again a free agent.

For the 2012 season, McDaniels chose to return to New England. He has served as the offensive coordinator for the Patriots since then, winning three Super Bowls in that time. Following the 2018 season, McDaniels accepted the Colts head coaching job but later reneged on the acceptance. Instead of taking over as Colts head coach, McDaniels returned to New England to continue his work as offensive coordinator.

Building a Coaching Staff:

Josh McDaniels Coaching Network

Josh McDaniels Coaching Network

In this graphic, notable active coaches that McDaniels has coached with are listed. I broke this down into offense and defense. Assistant coaches he has worked with who are over the age of 65 were not included.

Having the likes of Saban and Belichick included in your network instantly expands the possibilities due to the sheer number of secondary connections. Additionally, McDaniels' father has many coaching relationships that breach the NFL level and likely expand his coaching network more than this graphic can do justice.

In addition to his network, we can draw on McDaniels' previous hirings in Denver and his three hirings in Indianapolis.

Josh McDaniels previous hires as Head Coach (Red signifies that McDaniels later fired that coach).

Josh McDaniels previous hires as Head Coach (Red signifies that McDaniels later fired that coach).

I am surprised by how little experience McDaniels had with most of the assistants he hired as head coach. The respect his name garners around the league is evident through his ability to hire experienced assistants that he has never worked with. In addition, he shows an ability to identify and attract young talent in the coaching ranks like Don Martindale, Jay Rodgers, and Matt Eberflus.

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Josh McDaniels’ Offense

Offensive Performance

Josh McDaniels Offensive Performance

Josh McDaniels Offensive Performance

First, what do the stats say? I was surprised to see that the Patriots have really been a run-heavy team every year since 2018. While I am not surprised to see that in 2020 (Cam Newton) and 2021 (Rookie Mac Jones), I was surprised by 2018 and 2019. The numbers show a gap running scheme that has found success in power situations (3rd/4th and short). That running scheme has consistently ranked within the top half of the NFL in EPA per rush and adjusted line yards.

So power and gap discipline from run blockers seem to be a key for the rushing success. Basically, that is the ability to move people and be disciplined in being in the correct gap. This rushing offense does get stuffed at a higher rate than most, which could either be schematic or talent-based. That is tough to determine based on stats.

Through the air, the offense has not been overly dangerous since 2018. Their EPA per dropback fell off in 2019 when Tom Brady lost some weapons. In 2020, the Patriots' QB situation was difficult. But there is more hidden in the 2021 numbers. Considering they are starting a rookie QB in Mac Jones, the EPA per drop back figure of 0.074 is well above expectation.

Although their efficiency may have fluctuated heavily in recent history, their play-action and screen usage have not. The Patriots have remained in the top half of the NFL in play-action usage and screen usage over the past four seasons.

Offensive Scheme

Photo: California Golden Blogs

Photo: California Golden Blogs

McDaniels' offense has shown to be unpredictable, diverse, and adaptable over the years. This is because the Patriots' offense changes week-to-week, tailoring to each specific opponent. You do not get the constant approach with McDaniels that you might when looking at Stefanski, Roman, or Shanahan. Here are a few different examples from the last few seasons:

Bills vs. Patriots - Week 16, 2019

On the Patriots' second possession of the game, they elected to use a fullback for seven of the 11 play-calls. Five of the first six play-calls were runs, along with one play-action pass. On all six of those plays, including the play-action pass, TE Matt LaCosse was used to block OLB Lorenzo Alexander from an in-line position. On the seventh and final play to include the FB, LaCosse lined up against Alexander again. Once Brady was able to identify man-to-man coverage using motion, he knew that he was likely to have a mismatch in LaCosse.

Off the snap, LaCosse started to block Alexander before taking off on a delayed route. Because Alexander had seen this look and personnel grouping many times on this drive, he let his guard down just enough for Brady to drop the ball on a back-shoulder throw to LaCosse. That is a perfect example of marrying the pass and run game through personnel, blocking, and play-calls.

Patriots vs. Bills – Week 13, 2021

The Patriots ran the ball all but two plays in this game, largely due to poor weather conditions. But they averaged 4.0 YPC on their way to a 14-10 victory. How did they pull that off? I am glad you asked. To open the game, the Patriots called seven different run concepts on the first seven snaps.

Over the course of the game, New England called at least 12 unique run concepts, the most effective of which was “G-Lead”. The Patriots had not put “G-Lead” on tape much before this game, so it was a look Buffalo had not scouted. Although this may not be the most opportunistic example of McDaniels' creativity, it speaks to his ability to coach up and perfect a run concept the team has not used heavily.

Browns vs. Patriots – Week 10, 2021

Myles Garrett is a game-wrecker, and with a rookie starting at QB, you need to create a scheme that helps him go up against game-wreckers. McDaniels did just that, using screens, cut blocks, chips, draw plays, end-arounds, and reverses to slow Garrett down. The Browns struggled to defend misdirection, and New England threw misdirection at them all game on their way to a 45-7 victory.

The Patriots asked Jones to get the ball out fast on short throws, but he also was able to get some deeper shots in because of the complementary game plan that kept the Cleveland pass rush on their heels. The power run attack kept the pass rush honest, while the misdirection and play-action made them hesitate. In addition, offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn was rarely asked to hold up one-on-one against Garrett, which always helps.

Josh McDaniels’ Player Development History

Players drafted and developed under Josh McDaniels

Players drafted and developed under Josh McDaniels

McDaniels' history of developing drafted talent is spotty. Although, this could speak more to the Patriots' shotgun approach to the draft than McDaniels development abilities. While the numbers do not look great overall, he has shown a strong ability to develop QBs (Cassell, Garoppolo, Brissett, Jones). McDaniels has also had success with drafting offensive linemen. 13 of the 25 offensive linemen drafted under his tenure rank in the 50th percentile of draft picks or better. His trouble with the WR position is evident though, with only three of 15 draft choices ranking above the 50th percentile.

The chart shows a breakdown of the players drafted when McDaniels served as QB coach or offensive coordinator. When he was QB coach, I only included QBs drafted in his tenure. For his seasons as coordinator, I included all offensive players drafted in his tenure. When he was head coach, all draft picks were included. Percentiles are based on AV share for every player drafted from 2001-2020.

Josh McDaniels Summary

Pros:

  • Extensive network to build a strong coaching staff.
  • History of QB development.
  • Ability to sustain offensive success with backup QBs in New England.
  • The adaptability of offense to the talent he has available.
  • Super Bowl pedigree, having won six titles.

Cons:

  • Has he learned the importance of relationships and communication since his time as head coach in Denver?
  • Fair to question his level of commitment after reneging on the Colts in 2018.
  • How does behavior in Indianapolis impact his ability to recruit and build a coaching staff?
  • How much power does he require, and how much power can you entrust to him?
  • History of second-chance head coaches.
2nd Chance Head Coaches. Green signifies HC who was above 0.500 in both stints.

2nd Chance Head Coaches. Green signifies HC who was above 0.500 in both stints.

Final Words on Josh McDaniels

One nugget I found interesting is the history of Patriots disciples being hired as head coaches. Among the seven coaches to jump from the Patriots to a head coach position, only two have been on the offensive side of the ball, Josh McDaniels and Bill O’Brien. The other four coaches were all either defensive or special teams coordinators.

Recent Head Coaches hired by an NFL team immediately after serving as a coach in New England.

Recent Head Coaches hired by an NFL team immediately after serving as a coach in New England.

Overall, Josh McDaniels is about as polished as a head coaching candidate comes on paper. What is not on paper scares you, however. His shady dealings with players and coaches when he was head coach in Denver. The bizarre change of heart after accepting the Colts job. The potential desire for roster control without having earned the right as a head coach. All of those things are scary.

His results in New England with developing QB talent and fitting his offense to the talent he has rostered is clear as day. But being a head coach is about so much more than that, and McDaniels has already struck out once. Did he learn from his mistakes? If he did, and he is all in on this job, then I cannot think of a better candidate. The question, though, is whether he would be all in on this job and whether you can trust what he is telling you.