FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Patriots offensive assistant Josh McDaniels has chosen an odd path to resuscitating his listing career. In the NFL, it's generally unfashionable to return to where you started.
"What's the point? You go back to working with [New England coach] Bill [Belichick] and [quarterback] Tom [Brady]," an AFC executive said. "Unless he thinks he's going to take over when Belichick retires – and I don't think that's happening anytime soon – what is he going to prove? To me, it's about being comfortable again. It's low-risk and low-reward."
That's the long-range perspective. The short-term view is even stranger. On Saturday night, McDaniels will be staring across the field at what is, in many respects, his creation. As the Denver Broncos and Tebow mania makes their way here for an AFC divisional playoff matchup, McDaniels is in the position of having to defeat quarterback Tim Tebow, the man who one day might be McDaniels' redeemer. It was, after all, McDaniels who went out on a limb to draft Tebow in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.
That scenario, which sounds like the makings of some Shakespearean drama, wasn't lost on New England wide receiver Deion Branch. Branch didn't think for a second that McDaniels might be torn about his loyalties, but saw the bigger picture.
"I know he wants to win on Saturday like the rest of us," Branch said. "But in the back of his mind, he probably hopes Tebow at least plays well and then goes on to be good the rest of his career. That would prove [McDaniels] was right all along."
Brady, who has become something of a kingmaker in the NFL after seeing all three of his offensive coordinators in New England (McDaniels, Bill O'Brien and Charlie Weis) go on to become head coaches, was more broad in discussing the subject.
"I think everybody has to fight through some things, which really – you can see someone's strength of character and what they're made of when they're faced with adversity," said Brady, answering a question about Tebow. "They have a good team. They have a bunch of guys like that. Josh, obviously talking to him, he's got a lot of admiration for this team and the players on the team and their mental toughness."
Success by Tebow could help erase some of the memories of McDaniels' historic flameout in the Mile High city and possibly help get him back on the head-coaching carousel. In less than two years, McDaniels went from rising star to pariah, a guy seen as so far in over his egotistical head that he had to be dispatched post haste.
McDaniels' tenure is the stuff of legend. Upon taking the job, he immediately went to war with starting quarterback Jay Cutler and then star wide receiver Brandon Marshall, eventually trading both of them. His first season featured a 6-0 start, including a dramatic overtime win over the Patriots at home which McDaniels punctuated with a fist-pumping display in front of the crowd.
Complete with his Belichick-style hoody, McDaniels seemed on an arc to greatness. Then came a crash akin to an avalanche at The Great Divide. The Broncos went 2-8 the rest of 2009 to finish at 8-8 overall. In the 2010 draft, Denver moved up to take Tebow as one of two first-round selections. The other was wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the guy at the other end of Tebow's 80-yard, overtime touchdown connection on Sunday against Pittsburgh.
However, Tebow and Thomas couldn't stem the failures that mounted in 2010. Following a 3-9 start to the season and an embarrassing scandal in which the team and McDaniels were each fined $50,000 by the league for videotaping another team's practice, McDaniels was fired.
McDaniels followed that by being the offensive coordinator in St. Louis this season, but the Rams were 2-14 (McDaniels has watched his teams go 7-31 since his 6-0 start) and finished last in the league in scoring. When New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien accepted the Penn State job, the Rams didn't stand in the way of McDaniels returning to New England.
That reunites McDaniels with Brady, who along with Baltimore's Ray Lewis (former Baltimore defensive assistants Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith and Rex Ryan have gone on to become NFL head coaches), is one of the great head coach creators in the NFL.
In this case, however, McDaniels probably needs more help. He needs proof that his ideas on personnel were not some Machiavellian story of power and control. He needs to have some evidence that maybe, just maybe, there was a method to the perceived madness.
McDaniels needs Tebow to be as good as possible. He needs the NFL's latest great story to not just live up to the hype, but probably exceed it.
And on Saturday, McDaniels will have to deal with the conflict of wanting to win for his current team and, in some ways, wanting to win for himself.
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