In 2007, the Spygate scandal cost Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots three-quarters of a million dollars, a first-round draft pick, and a great deal of credibility. Belichick hadn't just skirted the line between winning within the rules and doing whatever it takes — he obliterated it. The extreme possibility that he was far from the only coach engaging in video subterfuge aside, Belichick was chastened to never skate around the edges again.
Josh McDaniels, who was Belichick's offensive coordinator at the time, got into his own bit of film-related trouble with the NFL when he was the head coach of the Denver Broncos. In November of 2010, video operations director Steve Scarnecchia filmed about six minutes of a San Francisco 49ers walkthrough practice and presented it to McDaniels one day before the two teams were to face off at London's Wembley Stadium. McDaniels failed to report the crime, and the Broncos were fined $50,000 for the error.
Why do we bring this up? Well, now that Belichick has brought McDaniels back on board as an offensive assistant to replace current offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien once O'Brien takes the head coach position at Penn State, it seems that the first team the two men will face together on their reunion tour is … those very same Broncos, who beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round for the right to travel to Foxboro. McDaniels coached the Broncos for the 2009 season and most of 2010 before he was fired; he spent one very disastrous campaign as the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams following that Mile High adventure.
So, we're not saying that the Broncos should be watching out for the "eye in the sky," but … yeah. It's a thing that bears some level of concern. While some have taken understandable issue with the legitimacy and timing of the McDaniels hire, and whether he should be allowed to help with the game planning, there's nothing in the NFL charter that prevents it.
And to those who think this isn't a big deal, we ask the following question: What if Steve Spagnuolo, the former New York Giants defensive coordinator who ate the Patriots' lunch in Super Bowl XLII and worked with McDaniels in St. Louis, was suddenly hired as a "consultant" by the Broncos?
"I think Josh is obviously a very good and experienced coach, both in the league and in our system," Belichick said on a Monday media call. "He's here to help us any way he can, whether that's with me or the offensive staff or anything else. [We are] glad to have him. I'm sure that he'll be an asset to our coaching staff and our team.
"Right now, it's just a one-game season, so whatever we can do to help ourselves this week we'll do. We'll worry about next week and next year later."
When asked if he could remember a situation where an assistant coach joined a staff under these circumstances, Belichick reverted to his standard "We're just looking forward to the next game" reply.
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Current Denver head coach John Fox seemed unperturbed by the whole thing.
"We just played [the Patriots] a month ago, so I don't view it much differently," he said of New England's 41-23 shellacking of the Broncos in Week 15. "I don't know Josh very well. I wasn't here so I'm not really that familiar. I just stay in my lane. Other people make those rules. It doesn't really matter what I think."
One thing McDaniels did before leaving the Denver organization was to draft the two main players in the overtime play that took the team past the Steelers — quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Demaryius Thomas. Asked if he had any specific emotions about facing the man who gave him his entry into the pros, Thomas said all the right things.
"I guess it's another coach. He drafted me and Tim. It'll be good to see him, but it's another game."
Thomas should be happier to see the New England defense — he had his career-best game against the Patriots, catching seven passes for 116 yards as the Broncos tried in vain to come back from a 27-point scoring frenzy the Pats went on in the second and third quarters.
One thing the Broncos can be expected to do differently is to let Tebow throw the ball with a lead. In the entire regular season with Tebow as the quarterback, Denver threw the ball just 15 times when they were ahead. In the wild-card win over the Steelers? Sixteen times. It's a sea change in philosophy that reflects the team's increasing confidence in Tebow's abilities as a passer. It's also a well-timed change against a New England team that can light it up at any time.
Belichick was very aware of that alteration. "They have a lot of different ways to attack you in the running game," he said. "That's definitely a problem. Passing game comes off the running game. Their play-action passes and getting you to commit to the run and being able to get the ball to their receivers — they've got some big receivers, strong receivers that are good down the field. When they've had to throw it, they've done a good job of that. Their two-minute drives and of course, Tebow has done a good job of keeping plays alive with his athleticism.
"He's able to get his eyes downfield and make connections for big plays in the passing game, that are improvised or come off a scramble or come after the play has already started to develop that he and his receivers do a great job of adjusting to, they made several of them yesterday against Pittsburgh and we all know what kind of defense Pittsburgh has and how good they were statistically in so many areas. It just didn't play out that way yesterday because Denver was able to execute very well against them. That will be a big challenge for us in all three areas of the game -- but offensively they looked very good yesterday."
Fox agreed. "We've been aggressive and there wasn't really much difference other than we executed better. There weren't any new state-of-the-art plays. This thing is about players making plays when you have success and we did it better yesterday than we did it the week before. That's why you practice, that's why you play the game. We had confidence that we could get better passing the ball and it was going to be paramount for us to go much further in this tournament."
Game on again — a different Broncos team against a team with a new coach who knows a bit more about that franchise? Whether it's gamesmanship or questionable tactics, the McDaniels hire takes an already compelling game to DEFCON 1 status.
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