KRAVITZ: McDaniels was a disaster in Denver, but he deserves a second chance with the Colts

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, left, speaks to head coach Bill Belichick before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Josh McDaniels made mistakes in Denver. Heaven knows, he made mistakes, lots of them, big mistakes, and as a result, he got run out of there in less than two years as the team’s head coach and personnel man. He made a mess of the Jay Cutler situation. He got crossways with Brandon Marshall. He messed up when an assistant came to him with a walkthrough videotape that was against the rules and failed to inform his Broncos’ superiors or the National Football League. And the list goes on, McDaniels generally coming across as a Baby Bill Belichick who knew all the answers and didn’t know what he didn’t know, which is a common malady among younger leaders.

And yet…

I find him the most intriguing candidate among the six men the Colts are said to be interviewing in this first round of interviews.

He may not be the pre-interview leader in the clubhouse – I believe that’s long-time Chris Ballard friend and colleague Dave Toub of Kansas City – but McDaniels is the candidate who most interests me.

Why? Because of what I mentioned earlier: He made mistakes. He made lots of mistakes. And presumably, he’s learned from them.

I was a young up-and-comer once in my business (that was a very long time ago). I made mistakes. I made mistakes in the way I did my job and the way I dealt with people. I came across as cocksure bordering on arrogant, even if that wasn’t my intention. Truth is, I was so intimidated (especially during my time at Sports Illustrated), I over-compensated, tried to act like I knew what I was doing when the truth was, at that tender age, I didn’t have an earthly clue.

Now, whether I learned anything from those early years remains a point of contention – I hope I’m a better journalist and person than I was in my 20’s and 30’s – but I learned that I don’t know what I don’t know, and that’s an important step for anybody as they progress.

When McDaniels got the Broncos’ job – and he was given complete power over personnel, as well – he was just 33 years old. Let me tell you, unless you’re preternaturally mature, and few of us are at that age, you’re going to step in it on a regular basis.

I wasn’t quite so sure about McDaniels, who the Colts interviewed Wednesday in Foxboro, until I came across an extraordinary piece by journalist Dan Pompei, who wrote about McDaniels for Bleacher Report in September of 2016.

In Pompei’s piece, he recalled how McDaniels spoke to his father, Thom, the day he was let go by the Broncos after less than two seasons.

“You need to write down everything you would do differently if you ever get a chance to be a head coach again,’’ his father told him. “Do it while everything is fresh in your mind. Over time, add to it.’’

So the son created an Excel document, naming it “lessonslearned.xls.’’

He wrote about the importance of patience and making sober-minded, unemotional decisions. He wrote about the importance of becoming a better listener. He wrote about maintaining better, human relationships with his assistant coaches. He wrote about taking care of himself rather than doing all-nighters at the office. He wrote about the importance of leaning on his faith.

(top row, from left) Josh McDaniels, Steve Wilks & Matt Nagy; (bottom, from left) Kris Richard, Dave Toub & Mike Vrabel were all under consideration to take over for Chuck Pagano as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts after the 2017 season. (file photos)
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In the meantime, McDaniels reached out to several football people, including Tony Dungy, who had himself been fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy talked to him about consistency and maintaining productive relationships, among other things.

Pompei quoted an anonymous NFC general manager: “I would look at his years in Denver as a positive, not a negative. It made him realize he needs to rely on his strengths. He now realizes that [Bill] Belichick is a rarity and no one can run the show like him. [But] like Bill, Josh can adapt to any circumstance and he can do this with limited prep time…

“If I were an owner, hiring Josh would be a no-brainer.’’

He screwed up in Denver, and there’s no getting around it. That said, I’m not sure that having a bad relationship with Cutler is necessarily a McDaniels issue; Cutler is famously difficult to handle, which he’s shown over the course of his career. He also had problems with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, but Marshall has dealt with his own emotional issues over the years.

His biggest mistake, though, came when his video operations guy, Steve Scarnecchia, broke NFL rules by videotaping a 49ers practice in London. Now, McDaniels was not initially aware the video had been taken, knew this was wrong, refused to watch the tape and had it erased. Where he screwed up, though, was he failed to inform Broncos management and the National Football League, and for that, he was fined by the league – along with Scarnecchia.

“While [McDaniels] apparently declined to look at the tape, I also believe that he should have immediately advised you [Broncos management] or one of your senior executives when he learned what Mr. Scarnecchia had done,’’ commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to the Broncos.

Could it have been handled better? Absolutely.

Should it be an eternal blot on his record? Absolutely not.

“I made a mistake,’’ McDaniels told Denver reporters at the time. “It wasn’t something that I’d do again.’’

In the public mind, there are concerns, notably related to the fact that Bill Belichick proteges have not covered themselves in glory when they’ve left the nest and attempted to go out on their own. You look at the Belichick tree, and the most successful head coach has been Houston’s Bill O’Brien.

What you cannot question is McDaniels’ record as an offensive mastermind. Granted, he’s got the greatest quarterback in league history (sorry, Peyton) running his offense, and that makes a huge difference. When McDaniels spent a short time in St. Louis, his offenses sputtered, largely due to a marked lack of talent on that side of the ball. But McDaniels helped guide Matt Cassel to a winning record the year Brady was injured, and went 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett during Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension.

If and when McDaniels gets his next head coaching job, will he show that he’s learned the lessons he scribbled in “lessonslearned.xls’’?

I believe he will.

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