Dougherty: Josh McDaniels biggest boom-or-bust candidate for Packers

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the field prior to an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

GREEN BAY - Josh McDaniels is the biggest name on the list of Green Bay Packers coaching candidates we know of so far, and in some ways he has the most impressive resume.

But in other ways, he sets off the loudest alarms.

The resume is self-explanatory: McDaniels has worked two stints of a combined 10 years as Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and play caller with New England and finished in the top four in scoring eight of those seasons, including the last seven. No one in the league can come close to that.

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But he also had a disastrous two-year run as the wunderkind (33-year-old) coach and de facto general manager of the Denver Broncos in 2009 and ’10. That included getting in trouble with the NFL for failing to report that a subordinate had videotaped part of an opponent’s practice in London, which hastened McDaniels’ late-season firing in Denver.

He also badly damaged his credibility last year by accepting the Indianapolis Colts head-coaching job while the Patriots still were in the playoffs and then backing out when it was time to sign after the Super Bowl.

McDaniels’ reputation as a creative offensive mind and long partnership with Brady surely have to intrigue Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst, who are scheduled to interview him Friday morning.

But the possibility that McDaniels and Aaron Rodgers would be a combustible mix has to give them pause, as well.

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Of the known candidates the Packers have or plan to interview, McDaniels looks like the biggest boom or bust. From their three- to four-hour meeting Friday, Murphy and Gutekunst will have to determine what the 42-year-old McDaniels (who has no other reported interviews scheduled) learned from coaching the Broncos, whether he can ease off his excessively controlling ways when he was last in charge, whether a Rodgers-McDaniels match is a good idea and whether McDaniels will be OK accepting a head-coaching job where he doesn’t have final say over personnel.

One NFL assistant coach I talked with this week debated with himself for a couple minutes, then predicted a Packers-McDaniels pairing would work out.

“Of all those names on the (Packers’) list, that’s a great choice,” he said. “But it’s going to come down to, is he going to interact well with Aaron? I’d think after being with Tom (Brady) — Tom’s not exactly the easiest guy to get along with, very strong willed — I wouldn’t foresee that as being a problem.”

An NFL source who worked with McDaniels in Denver was more skeptical, mainly because he thinks the change from a West Coast offensive system to McDaniels’ scheme would be more difficult for Rodgers than might be imagined. He pointed to Brett Favre’s so-so play in his one season with the New York Jets and the decline of Peyton Manning in Denver after the Broncos changed his system with new coach Gary Kubiak in 2015.

“I don’t see that working out too well myself,” the source said. “… Josh is not going to change what he does. To his credit he does it very well, but Josh only knows one system. Aaron Rodgers knows one system. And they don’t know the same system. So which one is going to budge?”

McDaniels’ coaching past demands a hard look, that’s for sure. The failure in Denver (11-17 record after a 6-0 start) and breaking his word with the Colts warrant scrutiny as to his temperament and emotional intelligence. But there doesn’t seem to be much doubt about his coaching acumen.

“Football-wise, he’s as brilliant as they come,” said the source who worked with McDaniels in Denver. “There’s nobody, nobody I’ve been around, nobody had a better offensive mind or eye for detail than that guy. The way he game plans is phenomenal.”

Both sources also described McDaniels’ personality as take charge, so the job wouldn’t be too big for him. But that can cut both ways, as he found out in Denver, because players and staff won’t be motivated to come through for him if he can’t balance his demands with a human touch and open mind.

“He’s not afraid to tell it like it is,” said the former assistant coach who knows McDaniels a little and some of his colleagues well. “That’s one of the things that, if anything he’s too hands-on from what I gather. Micromanage.”

Said the former Broncos staffer: “Josh, it’s his way or the highway.”

Despite being only 32 when hired and 33 when his first season began in Denver, McDaniels was the de facto GM, and his tenure got off to a bad start in his first meeting with Jay Cutler. The quarterback had just gone 8-8 and played in the Pro Bowl in his third year in the league.

According to the source who worked for the Broncos at the time, McDaniels was blunt with Cutler about his shortcomings. He told the quarterback he wanted him to change his demeanor, body language, presence in the locker room and work ethic in the offseason. He also wanted to tweak his throwing motion and the way he read defenses.

As we know now, McDaniels had Cutler pegged. But if the goal was to make Cutler better, that know-it-all, sledgehammer approach bombed. Cutler’s take was that he’d just made the Pro Bowl and didn’t need fixing. When Cutler balked at extra offseason work and relations continued to deteriorate, he asked for a trade, and McDaniels obliged by sending him to Chicago for quarterback Kyle Orton plus first- and third-round draft picks. Orton ended his three years in Denver with a 12-21 record and 85.7 rating.

As a drafter, McDaniels’ greatest blunder was trading up to draft Tim Tebow at No. 25 overall in 2010.

“For 32 years old he had way too much power,” the former Broncos staffer said. “… There was no one in the building to tell him no.”

McDaniels ran the team on the Bill Belichick model but without Belichick’s ability to be demanding and ruthless while simultaneously showing respect for players and coaches. McDaniels ground down his staff and players and ran into a problem that has cropped up with other Belichick disciples by creating a dreary working environment.

It’s worth noting that of all the Belichick assistants who’ve become head coaches in the NFL, only Bill O’Brien has had anything approaching success, and he’s only 42-38 with a 1-2 playoff record in five seasons with Houston.

The former Broncos’ staffer said he personally liked McDaniels but that working for him “was complete misery.”

As for McDaniels’ backing out on the Colts last year, there’s no sugarcoating that he left several assistant coaches hanging by getting their commitments then backing out of the job himself. That could hurt his ability to build a staff if he accepts a job this year while the Patriots are still playing.

But I doubt that will be an issue in the end. He’ll need to shoot the Packers straight on his reason — I’m guessing he had misgivings about Andrew Luck’s injured shoulder and owner Jim Irsay’s eccentric personality. Regardless, I find it hard to believe McDaniels would accept a job and back out a second time. That really would be career suicide, and prospective assistants know it.

“I’d say no (it won’t impede him hiring a staff),” the assistant coach said. “If he were to do that again he would never be a head-coaching candidate again.” 

The fact is, there’s a lot to like about McDaniels as a football coach and offensive mind. He knows good quarterback play and has had a long and fruitful collaboration with Brady, the best quarterback ever.

The red flags need addressing, and if I’m Gutekunst, I’d be especially wary of McDaniels trying to push his way to control of the roster if the Packers’ front-office structure stays the same, with all principals reporting to Murphy, for a couple more years.

But much of it comes down to how long the Packers are committed to Rodgers, and whether they think McDaniels can help get Rodgers playing like an MVP again. McDaniels' sharp offensive mind and strong personality might stimulate the quarterback’s intellect and competitive personality even if there were some rough patches..

McDaniels appears to have done that with Brady, including having at least one very public sideline barking match, in a game against Buffalo in late 2017. While Rodgers and Brady are likely two very different personalities, they share strong wills and highly competitive natures.

But if McDaniels hasn’t learned from Denver, or if the way he operated there is just who he is, there’s also the real chance Rodgers would balk at his approach. It could be a disaster.

It’s a huge question for Gutekunst and Murphy. They’ll get three or four hours with McDaniels on Friday to make their best call.

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