HENDERSON, Nev. — It wasn’t the sharpest or most poignant metaphor to offer Josh McDaniels about the lessons he’s learned over the years, but it still struck a chord with him.
The Las Vegas Raiders the coach had taken refuge in the shade on Thursday, escaping the 106-degree heat after his team’s first full training camp practice. As he began to explain the importance of learning to subtract from his coaching plate during his career, a visitor tossed out a clumsy proverb he half remembered.
“I remember someone once said that to perfect your painting is to learn to understand what shouldn’t be there,” the visitor said.
McDaniels’ eyes lit up.
“That’s exactly – that’s a great way to put it,” McDaniels said.
With his second stint as head coach underway (or third, if you count the McDaniels scuttled Indianapolis Colts work), he had no illusions about what needed to be removed from his canvas. Or more precisely, since his dismissal at the end of the season from Denver Broncos in 2010 after coaching the team for less than two seasons. He was 34 when it happened. He is 46 now. And in his head, a lot of things have changed since then.
What does he know now that he didn’t know then? That he doesn’t want to be CEO; does not expect everyone on his team to recreate the New England Patriots experience; wants to focus on its own design rather than the one created by Bill Belichick; and would rather be good at a few jobs in his building than micromanage himself in an abyss.
In short, he’s not spending this second chance trying to fit into the identity of a head coach he was never comfortable replicating in the first place.
“It’s been 12 years since I left [head coaching] the first time, and sometimes you hear people say they took their time and 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 myself, what did I do that was clearly wrong? It’s humiliating. You really have to drop your ego and be like, ‘Man, I stunk that. It was a very bad decision. Or, ‘I didn’t treat this person the way I wanted to treat them all the time.’
At one point, McDaniels summed up the Denver experience as succinctly as possible: “It was crazy and I was young and everything.”
Josh McDaniels not afraid of lessons from Denver debacle
Since leaving New England this offseason to take the Raiders job, he has been expansive and humble about this part of his career. He doesn’t treat it as a sore subject or a type of failure he prefers to avoid in conversation. Which is saying something, considering most coaches end up with mental scars after being ousted from their first head coaching job.
Instead, he brings that memory closer together, talking about what he learned going 11-17 in those bumpy two seasons. History is best remembered for the fallout and trades of quarterback Jay Cutler and multiple run-ins with wide star Brandon Marshall. But McDaniels describes it as an all-encompassing struggle with not knowing how to navigate people, and not understanding himself and what an attempt to recreate Patriots culture would take away from him. Its results cried out that imitation failed rather than 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 decade-long re-evaluation process during his second stint as Patriots offensive coordinator. . A period of reflection that helped him take a confident leap into a new job with the Raiders – an opportunity many predicted would never come after he walked away from a deal to become head coach of the Colts in 2018.
“Go back to New England and watch [Belichick] running such an incredibly first-class organization and he’s made it work the way he wants, I got to see him for a second round,” McDaniels said. “But Bill O’Brien is gone. [Matt Patricia] left. [Brian Flores] left. Jo [Judge] was gone. So I had the opportunity to watch [other New England coaches] by far, because you treat some of the things you would do differently.
Here’s what he learned.
“It’s really important to me and anyone going there – you can take a lot of football philosophies and a lot of strategic things that apply to winning and losing on a Sunday, but I think the interpersonal workings Every relationship in every organization will be different,” McDaniels said. “That’s what I learned the hard way. Now I try to make a concerted effort to do everything the right way as much as possible.
Why McDaniels’ Colts fiasco deserves more thought
In retrospect, a big part of the failure in Denver was that McDaniels butted heads with Cutler in his first two months on the job and traded him soon after. This initial misstep feels much more like the failure of two young, stubborn people who had a lot of maturity to do.
But even if McDaniels’ staunch critics are willing to accept that his Denver hire was too young and too soon, they won’t let him go easy for what happened with the Colts. Still, he hired three coaches, changed the trajectory of their lives…and then walked away. But history will also remember that one of those coaches was defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who was one of the best NFL coordinators for the past four years before land a head coaching job with the Bears this offseason.
There are a few additional layers to the Colts’ situation that haven’t been sufficiently considered. Andrew Luck had missed the previous season with shoulder surgery and had been remarkably beaten in his short career. McDaniels also had no history with general manager Chris Ballard, and the two were getting to know each other during the courtship process. Even when it felt like a slam-dunk of a job, McDaniels was uncomfortable about it. And when Patriots owner Robert Kraft felt he might have an opening, he seized it to bring McDaniels back for four more seasons.
The fallout from that decision and the criticism that followed ultimately made the McDaniels-Raiders union possible. Because he knew that if he 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 John Carroll University teammates and best friends, this is the one McDaniels wanted to partner with. Because who needs to worry about being a GM when your longtime friend and trusted confidant fills that role? And can he fashion a personnel department that knows precisely how to research the coaching staff it works with?
Raiders should reap the benefits of wiser McDaniels
That’s what the Raiders are working for them now. Not only the dynamic tension (often friction) between former head coach Jon Gruden and former general manager Mike Mayock has disappeared in the wind from the Las Vegas blast furnaces, replaced by two executives who are neck and neck in every decision. And they’re backed by a revamped support structure.
For perhaps the first time under the ownership of Mark Davis’ team, departments are now fully streamlined and staffed at all levels, from business to football to administration. The purse strings for more aggressive roster building have been loosened. Even Davis makes himself more available to McDaniels and Ziegler than any previous regime, while relinquishing full authority to the tandem to build the football organization as they see fit.
That’s how you get a 2022 edition of the Raiders that has revamped the entire coaching staff and staff but loaded with expensive veteran additions like Davante Adams and Chandler Jones rather than rebuilding. Because McDaniels and Ziegler believed in it, earning Davis’ trust to sign.
Even with all of these changes, much of the success and failure of the Raiders will come down to culture. And the culture will come down to whether McDaniels can live up to his embrace of focusing more on people, micromanaging less, and trusting his own functional design rather than trying to recreate a Stalinist plan of the New -England who has never been successfully replicated outside of the Patriots organization.
“I gave up,” McDaniels said. “I just realized that over time, really at the end of the day, you have to give people a great opportunity to do their job. And sometimes that means you’re going to have to accept the difference. And I think some of us who left the Patriots sometimes got frustrated with, man, not everything is like I remember in New England. And you know what? This will not be the case. It will never be. I’ve come to this conclusion and honestly, I’m so at peace with the way we do things, while understanding that that’s not how everything was done there.