KRAVITZ: Has Josh McDaniels changed? The Colts are betting their future on it

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Bob Kravitz

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - Maybe they are platitudes. Maybe all this stuff about how Josh McDaniels has changed, improved, grown since his short and disastrous tenure in Denver is a bunch of lip service. Maybe he’s still the coach who is long on football intelligence and short on emotional intelligence.

Maybe.

Or maybe, he’s just like his mentor, Bill Belichick, who had mixed results during his Cleveland Browns tenure from 1991-95, then emerged to become, almost inarguably, the greatest NFL head coach who’s ever lived.

Fifty minutes of a Media Day interview is not long enough or involved enough to truly reveal a man’s essence, but if I’m being honest – and that’s the job, right? – I came away from McDaniels’ first meeting with several Indianapolis media outlets both impressed and convinced that he has grown up in the eight years since his time in Denver, that the five-time Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator is more than ready to take on the responsibility of restoring the Colts to glory.

Here’s what I heard, over and over and over again: Humility.

Here’s what I saw, or at least sensed: Growth.

“I’ve learned a lot in my career, whether it’s here (in New England), my time in Denver or St. Louis," he said, surrounded by a phalanx of reporters. “Every step of the way has been invaluable to me. There’s so many good people and so many good coaches and personnel people who are willing to share what they know and I’ve tried to pick up things here and there from everybody I’ve worked for.

“Sometimes, I think failure is the best teacher."

If that’s true – and it should be – McDaniels ought to have a PhD by now. For all the great successes he’s enjoyed by Belichick’s side, his Denver days were marked by hubris and one disastrous misstep after another, both as a head coach and as a personnel man. And let’s not forget how he mishandled the situation when a video coordinator illegally taped another team’s practice. He said he never watched the video and had it immediately destroyed, but he failed to inform his Broncos superiors and the National Football League, sins for which he was fined by the league, sins that played a role in getting him fired late in his second season in Denver.

He lost his team.

And he lost himself.

But, as the late, great John Wooden once said, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be."

A lot has been said and written about the conversation McDaniels had with his father, Thom, a legendary Ohio high school football coach, shortly after Josh was fired in Denver. Thom told his son, who was 33 years old at the time, “Write down all the things you wished you had done differently. Remember those for the next time this kind of opportunity comes along."

Josh created an Excel spreadsheet, titled it “lessonslearned."

Asked Monday what he learned from that difficult experience, McDaniels shrugged. “This could take a while," he said with a smile.

Let’s just say, “lessonslearne"’ is not a short document.

“We were all so young," said Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who was a student assistant with McDaniels at Michigan State and a receivers coach on McDaniels’ Denver staff. “Things started well (the Broncos began 6-0), then we didn’t finish that season off, and then things didn’t go well that second year and things kind of spun out of control for us. You look back at it, we all learned a lot. That first season, he’d never had a losing season his entire life. I think we all had to learn how to handle this thing. But I think it all made us better because we had those experiences."

“I’m nowhere near a finished product as a coach myself," McDaniels said. “ I love the game of football. And I’m hungry to try and get better and serve the guys who I work for and serve the people who I work with. Hopefully that will serve me well as I move forward."

Ah…moving forward.

So, um, Josh, there are all these reports you’ve been signed, sealed and delivered to the Indianapolis Colts, and will be introduced as their new head coach early next week…

“What’s next for you after this season?" a reporter asked with a wry smile.

Everybody laughed. It’s the league’s worst-kept secret, right there with the fact that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will be taking over as the Detroit Lions’ next head coach.

McDaniels knew it was coming and laughed along with the crowd.

“You know, I don’t know (what’s next)," he said, grinning.

If you were hoping to read about how McDaniels plans to use Andrew Luck (who will start a throwing regimen in Los Angeles within the week), whether he’s going to call the plays (probably), whether he prefers a 3-4 defense or a 4-3 defense, well, sorry. That will have to wait until next week when he’s introduced at a press conference. For now, McDaniels cannot acknowledge the elephant in the room.

The rest of the NFL community can, however.

Like Dwayne Allen, the former Colts’ tight end who has a chance to win a ring with the Patriots.

“I think pairing Josh with Andrew (Luck), I would tell the fans of Indianapolis, get ready for a spectacular offense," Allen said. “Get…ready. Andrew, of course, is a phenomenal player, but we all need someone to challenge us to get better. I think of all the coaching candidates, Josh would be the one who would give Andrew that challenge he needs to return back to his old dominance."

How about checking in with Tom Brady, who’s had a modicum of success with McDaniels over the years?

“We’ve worked so well together over the years; he knows me so well, he knows me by the look on my face and vice versa," Brady said Tuesday. “I communicate with him probably more than anybody in my life. I can’t say enough good things about him and what he’s meant to me, what he’s taught me…and how he’s got the best out of me and how he motivates me in the offseason. He’s a friend for life."

Ask around the league, and the word that comes up most often in relation to McDaniels is “adaptability." Think about the Patriots’ offense over the years: Outside of Brady, there have been few personnel constants and even fewer Pro Bowl-worthy skill players. One week, the Patriots will pound a LeGarrette Blount at an opponent (sound familiar, Colts fans?). Another week, they’ll go empty backfield all game and spread a defense out. The Patriots’ offenses are neither fish nor fowl but rather an ever-evolving organism that not only changes from week to week, but possession by possession.

It’s the “by whatever means necessary" offense.

Two weeks ago, the Patriots lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski to a concussion. McDaniels adjusted. He found a way. With some help from a certain quarterback.

“We’ve had tall receivers, fast receivers, short, quick guys, multiple tight ends, pass-catching running backs, running backs who weigh 235 pounds, linemen who move better and some who are bigger, so I think for us it’s about adapting to what players can do and putting them in a position to be successful during a game," McDaniels said. “Sometimes the word `system’ is overused. The best thing for us is our system is broad enough that we can accommodate most players. And then we’ll figure out what we do well as a team."

Gase once told a friend he received a PhD in offensive football from McDaniels.

“I worked with Mike Martz for three years and that was where I felt like it was an introduction to the next level of football," he said. “Then when I got with Josh, he had a different way of looking at it, and that all stemmed from his time in New England. He was teaching me how to look at defenses, how defenses are supposed to play, the leverages of the defense, why linebackers are playing a certain way, why the fronts are are playing a certain way, why the corners were doing what they did, pressures, how to pick things up, why they’re blitzing a certain way, and I felt like I’d never really dug into it as deep as I did with him.

“He always knew how to attack a defense. He understood the `why’ behind what a defense was doing, and that’s what made him so good. There was never any panic by him. If someone goes out, it’s not going to be `What do we do now?’ He’s going to move some pieces around. He could think fast enough to put guys in a different position to make things work. It moves quick in his brain, too. It’s not like he needs a long time to figure it out. I think that’s something I had to learn quickly with him, and it made him so unique, he thought so fast, adjusted so fast, I was in an adapt-or-die situation as a receivers coach."

McDaniels has learned from the best, and he’s learned from the best from a very young age. His father, Thom, was a legendary Ohio high school coach, and 5-year-old Josh used to run the projector – stop/start, stop/start – to the point where it drove his dad to distraction. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do," he said. “Coaching was in my blood."

After an ordinary football career at John Carroll University in Ohio, McDaniels continued to chase his dream when his father helped him landed a graduate assistant’s spot on Nick Saban’s Michigan State program in 1999.

Then, in 2001, he found himself working as a personnel assistant for the Patriots as they began their Brady-led rise to prominence.

Think about that: Saban. Belichick. The greatest college football coach of the modern era and perhaps any era. The greatest pro football coach of the modern era and perhaps any era. Both men, by the way, failed at one point in their career – Saban with the Miami Dolphins, Belichick with the Cleveland Browns (although Clevelanders would give their left leg to have the kind of record Belichick managed during his tenure there).

“College coaches, they go through Alabama so they can get the Nick Saban stamp on their resume," Allen said. “For coaches to coach for Bill Belichick, I’m telling you, it’s not easy. Not…easy…at…all. So that stamp should stand out. It should mean a lot, which it does in Josh’s case. Not only to coach under Bill but to have all the success he’s had. It goes back to the old adage, if you can’t beat them, join them. Or hire them."

Sometime next week, McDaniels will be introduced to Indianapolis as the man who is responsible for ensuring that Luck, and by extension the Colts, return to the kind of excellence they enjoyed with Peyton Manning.

“I know I haven’t reached my potential as an individual coach, whether that’s coaching a position, a coordinator designing and calling plays and making adjustments, working with a staff, all those things you can get better doing," he said. “I’ll never reach that ceiling and I understand that. But it’s something to keep shooting for."

A pause.

“Hopefully, my best is still to come."

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