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A little less than one year ago, when Josh McDaniels removed his name from the San Francisco 49ers’ head coaching search, his decision was about time and assets. Specifically, McDaniels wanted both – an ownership that had historically displayed some patience with head coaches and a roster that featured a centerpiece quarterback to build around.
Go ahead and book it right now: Josh McDaniels will be all ears for this opening. Now it’s up to the Colts to make the first move.
If the recent fact-finding of general manager Chris Ballard is any indication, the Colts could seek to interview McDaniels as soon as this week, when the Patriots will have a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
Two league sources have told Yahoo Sports that Ballard has been gathering intel on McDaniels over the past month, trying to determine what kind of coach he is; how he works with quarterbacks; why he failed as a head coach with the Denver Broncos and how he may have grown since that experience. While Colts owner Jim Irsay will undoubtedly be involved in the process of choosing Pagano’s replacement, the opinions gathered by Ballard might mean the difference between a quick move toward McDaniels or a more prolonged search throughout the NFL playoffs.
For now, at least one thing is clear: the Colts check off several of the big boxes that McDaniels has been looking for when it comes to his next (and possibly last) head coaching job. To put a finer point on it, a source close to McDaniels said the coordinator would rank the Colts at the top of his wish list this offseason, barring an unexpected opening with a top-end playoff team. Why? Three reasons:
1. An owner capable of showing patience
Getting fired after only 28 games with the Broncos – including an 8-8 record in his first season – left an impression on McDaniels. While he has since admitted that he wasn’t fully prepared for the experience at the age of 33, it has also continued to resonate that the plug was pulled before he finished his second season. Hindsight is 20-20 and things went very sour in Denver, but there was some impatience on the part of ownership when it came to McDaniels being able to work his way out of a mess. On the list of vital needs the next time around, having sustained backing from above is paramount.
That’s part of why the San Francisco job made McDaniels nervous last offseason. After firing Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers had whipsawed through two more head coaches in Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly, while also firing general manager Trent Baalke along the way. An owner can sell patience with the next regime but the proof is in the previous firings. And San Francisco looked like the picture of instability. If there was one thing that McDaniels learned from his experience in Denver – and from the advice he was continuing to get from others he respected – it was that the next head coaching job couldn’t be one that overlooked support just for the opportunity to be in charge again.
While it might be a stretch to say Irsay has an overwhelming amount of patience, he hasn’t exactly had a quick trigger with coaches, either. After the retirement of Tony Dungy, Irsay’s three seasons of Jim Caldwell now look like an appropriate window to have judged that Caldwell was middling at best. And Chuck Pagano’s six seasons, mixed in with the tenure of Ryan Grigson, were a frustratingly patient decent into the current situation. If anything, Irsay could be blamed for waiting one season too long with Pagano. But he showed some loyalty in a tough situation and that doesn’t go unnoticed.
What Irsay doesn’t have here is key: Since Lindy Infante’s firing in 1997, every single head coach has gotten at least three full seasons to show himself. That’s a fair measure nowadays. If you can’t turn a ship into the right direction by the end of three years, it’s an understandable firing.
2. A quarterback he sees as a foundational centerpiece
If they are honest about it, New England coaches who leave for head coaching jobs and then fail will admit they share a common realization: Not having Tom Brady is a hell of a reality check.
Like many other Patriots-turned-head-coaches, McDaniels learned this the hard way. From the start, he wasn’t a believer in Jay Cutler as a Super Bowl caliber quarterback. Unfortunately, his assessment of Matt Cassel potentially being that kind of player wasn’t sound, either. Nor Kyle Orton being an adequate bridge quarterback or Tim Tebow being a viable NFL starter. So, yeah. Hard lessons to learn.
In truth, Brady has been an absurd luxury for the entire New England coaching staff. McDaniels has been more blessed than most, having served as Brady’s position coach or coordinator for 11 seasons (2004-2008 and 2012-2017). More than anyone, McDaniels knows a guy like Brady is a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback, having even deeper perspective following his short tenures in Denver and with the St. Louis Rams. While McDaniels knows he’ll likely never have another Brady elsewhere, he has also come to understand that he can’t leave without knowing he’s sold on the quarterback he’s inheriting. Amazingly, the Colts may have two players McDaniels feels he can count on – star Andrew Luck and former Patriots backup Jacoby Brissett.
Luck would be the draw, of course. If he’s ever healthy again – and that’s a monumental “if” – he still represents a top-five quarterback talent in the league. He also doesn’t turn 29 until next season, giving him more than ample time to build around. But in the event Luck is never right again (and that might be the case), Brissett is a known commodity to McDaniels who also showed plenty of promise as a start in 2017. He’s also very young (just turned 24 in December), knows McDaniels’ playbook, and is under contract for at least two more seasons. In almost every respect, this quarterback depth chart is the opposite of the one McDaniels inherited when he took over Denver in 2009. He’s got two quarterbacks to believe in from Day 1, rather than zero.
3. A general manager who can work with his coaches
OK, so Chris Ballard has only been around for one season. But he has two things going for him. He’s long had a reputation of being a thoughtful, deliberate guy. And he’s known to listen and solicit opinions before processing information and making decisions. Those are typically the kinds of general managers who mesh well with their coaching staff because they break down walls rather than build them up between the personnel and coaching side.
McDaniels has to know by now that he isn’t going to get a full-control situation unless he’s willing to take over a complete mess of a franchise. Someone would have to be desperate to give McDaniels control over both coaching and personnel. But he’s not going to get the Bill Belichick set of keys for a team that has some solid pieces and a legitimate future in place. And if he can’t have that, the best place for him becomes a franchise with a younger, progressive general manager who is willing to work hand-in-hand with his head coach. That’s Ballard. And it can work wonders, so long as the general manager and head coach are seeking the same type of players, scheme and culture (see: John Schneider and Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks).
Those are three vital boxes for McDaniels. But there is a flip side to all of this, and that’s whether McDaniels checks off the must-have qualities that Ballard seeks. And a lot of that will hinge on what McDaniels has learned since his 11-17 implosion in Denver. Maybe not so much what he has learned in scheming or even coaching – but what McDaniels has learned about himself. As he has admitted in the past, a head coaching job has far more personality management to it than he realized. It has some psychiatrist. It has some parenting. It has some bossing. And it has some listening.
Maybe McDaniels is ready. Maybe he isn’t. But he can wait only so long before the right opportunity presents itself before making a push for it. The indications are there that he’s ready. And the pieces in place on the Colts make the fit look more logical than any other past opening. What happens next depends on what Ballard has learned about McDaniels and how quickly the Colts want to move to secure candidates.
That search starts now. And if the fit is right, Josh McDaniels is there for the taking.
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