Falcons' brotherhood helped assistant Mike McDaniel through alcohol issue
HOUSTON – Mike McDaniel can see it clearly now, the ways alcohol has interfered over and over during his promising young NFL coaching career.
He overslept a couple times before Gary Kubiak let him go in Houston. Mike Pettine found bottles of cheap vodka under his desk in Cleveland. Even when he wasn’t getting in trouble for drinking, McDaniel was having trouble with drinking, no matter how many excuses he made to himself about its effects on his creativity and personality.
“Everyone’s always said the same thing about me: how talented I am, how smart I am – but,” McDaniel told USA TODAY Sports this week during a break in the Atlanta Falcons’ preparations for Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots, referencing the inevitable hang-up that always seemed to follow. “And I wanted to figure out why I kept sabotaging myself and what I was missing.”
If there’s one story that illustrates the brotherhood the Falcons have talked about so much here, it may be what took place quietly about a year ago with McDaniel – the 33-year-old, Yale-educated offensive assistant who has spent much of the past decade as coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme-scrutinizing wingman and second set of eyes on game day.
Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL in catches when McDaniel was the Washington Redskins’ receivers coach in 2013, calls him “probably the smartest one” of the position coaches he has played for. Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins says he learned more from McDaniel in one season than any other coach. Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Chris Foerster, who worked with McDaniel in Washington, calls him “the ultimate sounding board and creative guy.”
But alcohol kept getting in the way after McDaniel followed Shanahan to Atlanta in 2015. A couple Falcons staff members confronted McDaniel about changes in his disposition. He smelled like booze on some Saturday mornings. McDaniel approached Falcons coach Dan Quinn after the season about getting help and met with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli. They connected him with a team psychologist, who set up McDaniel’s roughly three-week stay at an in-patient treatment facility. Doctors diagnosed him with depression, which led to a psychological dependency on alcohol to “check out” of reality.
“For the first time in my life,” said McDaniel, who grew up an only child raised by a single mother, “I had men stand behind me and say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone, dude.’ ”
McDaniel says he had his last beer on Jan. 4, 2016, and has “zero desire” to drink again. He continued outpatient treatment after leaving the facility. When he returned, McDaniel said, Quinn offered him a chance to take on a bigger role in generating game-plan ideas and ease the burden on Shanahan, whose offense has averaged an incredible 34.4 points a game this season.
“It was beyond admirable for a young coach who’s a very intelligent person and also understands in this league, you can set a tone and all of a sudden you have a stigma attached to yourself if you’re admitting certain things,” Dimitroff said. “When your brother’s struggling, you have to be there to help him and vice versa. I think that’s what we did with Mike.”
Part of the problem, McDaniel believes, is he couldn’t understand why he was so unhappy after achieving a lifelong goal. He recalls writing “You will be in the NFL” on the inside of his youth football helmet, even though he knew deep down he lacked the talent to play there. He’d bike from his home in Greeley, Colo., to Denver Broncos training camp, where he’d get autographs from dawn to dusk. He met the team’s assistant video director, who ended up marrying McDaniel’s mother, and became a Broncos ball boy through his teen years.
McDaniel’s hustle caught the eye of Shanahan’s father, Mike, who was Denver’s head coach at the time. In 2005, when McDaniel asked for a letter of recommendation after studying history and playing receiver at Yale, Mike Shanahan offered him an internship. He took on data entry and other odd jobs. Kubiak, then the Broncos’ offensive coordinator, fought to keep McDaniel on during the season and eventually took him along as a 22-year-old quality control coach to Houston.
That’s where McDaniel really got to know the younger Shanahan, who has brought him along to three other teams and perhaps a fourth soon) for a reason. But McDaniel was still partying like he was in college, contributing to his exit from the Texans after the 2008 season. He coached running backs for two seasons in the now-defunct UFL, then joined the Shanahans in Washington for three seasons before they all got fired. The low point probably came during the Browns’ slide down the stretch in 2014, when McDaniel began drinking in the office some nights, trying to re-energize his creativity and stay upbeat.
“I didn’t learn until I stopped drinking that people actually like me better when I don’t drink,” he said.
Things never got as bad in Atlanta as they did in Cleveland, McDaniel said. But he agreed when he was told there were things he needed to clean up. Now, he’s having the best year of his life, for multiple reasons.
“He’s like the big piece to this offense, man,” Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “He’s a smart dude and when something’s not right, he fixes it.”
Considering McDaniel says he owes his career to Kyle Shanahan, it’s a good bet he’d accept a role with the San Francisco 49ers if Atlanta lets him out and Shanahan makes an offer upon formally accepting their head coaching job.
But McDaniel says he’ll never forget what the Falcons did for him.
“It really was a life-changing process,” McDaniel said. “It was awesome, and that brotherhood that they talk about – that’s where it comes from. It’s real. Guys have each other’s back. That’s the one winning formula that will never leave me in this business, nor in life.”
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.
PHOTOS: Falcons' road to Super Bowl LI