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As it turns out, it’s not the splashy hire of head coach Josh McDaniels that leaves a lasting impression. It’s the ripple of regret that he leaves in his wake.
This is what we know today about McDaniels: That the guy who supposedly graduated beyond the immaturity of his early 30s – when he squandered the Denver Broncos’ top job – really has only flunked to a new character low. That at 41 years old, he’s still the definition of an unstable head-coaching bet. And that unless McDaniels is the heir apparent to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, it’s unlikely another franchise will ever consider offering him the keys again.
That’s how ugly this moment is for McDaniels. After accepting and then backing out of the Indianapolis Colts head-coaching job (after hiring multiple assistant coaches, no less), he doesn’t just hoist another red flag. Now McDaniels forever stamps his résumé with a batch of scarlet A’s: Arrogant, Abysmal, Abortive – and at least one other A-word that is too explicit for this space.
That’s how this moment will go down in history: As a universal embarrassment for all involved, from McDaniels to the Colts to the NFL. It raises questions about whether the league’s hiring process is broken, how Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard was convinced McDaniels was worth this risk, and if McDaniels even understands the depths of selfishness he displayed this week.
When the autopsy of this debacle begins, it should start with the last question first. Not with some forgiving narrative about how McDaniels suddenly got a great sales pitch from Patriots owner Robert Kraft or had an epiphany about the feelings of his family. Start with how he shafted multiple assistant coaches, whom he had already hired to join him in Indianapolis. Guys who made the mistake of listening to McDaniels’ own sales pitch and who are probably having their own epiphany right now.
Don’t paint this with some warped rationale of well, Bill Belichick did the same thing to the New York Jets, as if that rinses this stink off McDaniels. It doesn’t. Not after Ballard bent over backward trying to find reasons to hand the next several years of Andrew Luck’s prime to McDaniels. Not after Ballard ignored some of the critics who privately expressed doubts about whether McDaniels had changed significantly from his Denver failures. And certainly not after the Colts waited more than five weeks for McDaniels to think about the job and ultimately say yes on Monday.
To suggest anyone but McDaniels deserves the blame for this is absurd. But it will happen. Whether it’s something about Colts owner Jim Irsay, or the city of Indianapolis or the uncertainty around Luck, there will be excuses. The truly twisted and vindictive will say it’s karma for the Colts’ role in deflate-gate. Or people will blame the NFL’s hiring protocols, which stipulate a head coach can’t be hired until his season is over. Now that routine will almost certainly be debated this offseason, with any change unflatteringly dubbed “The McDaniels Rule.”
But for McDaniels, the most lucrative subtext will simply be that he must have some kind of guarantee in place to succeed Belichick in New England. And maybe he does. But that doesn’t change the merciless nature of what he has done. Nor will it repair the still-unforeseen damage this moment has caused for the Colts. Not only did Indianapolis lose out on its other preferred candidate – former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, who took the top job with the Tennessee Titans – it will now strap its next head coach with some of McDaniels’ chosen assistants. At best, that’s the definition of awkward. At worst, it’s a recipe for future dysfunction.
That’s not a great reality for Ballard, who is a well-respected general manager across the NFL. Regardless of whether it’s fair, this will go down as a misstep by him – particularly amongst those who haven’t bought into the resurrection of McDaniels’ reputation. It’s worth noting that despite his successful second turn in New England, the majority of the NFL was extremely slow to offer McDaniels his second chance. And it’s equally worth noting that the Colts needed to be extremely careful about their next head coach, largely because he could make or break the remainder of Luck’s career.
That the Colts chose to gift McDaniels with this second chance says a lot about what they thought about him. That McDaniels responded by dumping Indianapolis says a lot about him in return. In the end, neither comes out of this clean. Without a doubt, the Colts get the worst of it, because they head back into the unknown having squandered more than six weeks of an offseason that would have been valuable for any other candidate.
And McDaniels? He goes back to the safety of New England, where he’s a known and appreciated commodity. Maybe he takes over for Belichick. Maybe he finds some way to erase yet another ugly chapter in his decision making.
As McDaniels said at one point during Super Bowl week, “Failure is the best teacher.”
On Tuesday, he taught the Colts a lesson. To 31 NFL teams outside of New England, it will likely be his last lesson as a head-coaching candidate.
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