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HENDERSON, Nev. — It wasn’t the sharpest or most poignant metaphor to offer Josh McDaniels about the lessons he has learned over the years, but it struck a chord with him anyway.
The Las Vegas Raiders head coach had taken refuge in some shade Thursday, ducking out of the 106-degree heat following his team’s first full-squad training camp practice. As he began to explain the importance of learning how to subtract from his coaching plate over the course of his career, a visitor floated a clunky, half-remembered proverb.
“I remember someone once saying that perfecting your painting is learning to understand what shouldn’t be in it,” the visitor said.
McDaniels’ eyes lit up.
“That’s exactly — that’s such a great way to say it,” McDaniels said.
With his second head coaching stint underway (or third, if you count the McDaniels-scuttled Indianapolis Colts job), he has zero illusions about what needed to be removed from his canvass. Or more specifically, since his late-season firing from the Denver Broncos in 2010 after coaching the team less than two seasons. He was 34 years old when that happened. He’s 46 now. And in his mind, a lot has changed since.
What does he know now that he didn’t know then? That he doesn’t want to be a general manager; doesn’t expect everyone on his staff to recreate the New England Patriots experience; wants to focus on his own design rather than tracing the one created by Bill Belichick; and would rather be good at a few jobs in his building than micromanaging himself into an abyss.
He’s not spending this second chance trying to fit into the identity of a head coach he was never comfortable replicating in the first place.
“It’s 12 years since I left [head coaching] the first time, and sometimes you hear people say that they took some time and they tried to figure things out,” McDaniels said. “To each person, that means different things. For me, what I was trying to get done was, let me really stop and self-reflect on, what did I do that was clearly wrong? It’s humbling. You have to really drop your ego and say to yourself, ‘Man, I stunk at that. That was a really bad decision.’ Or, ‘I didn’t treat that person the way that I wanted to treat them all the time.’”
At one point, McDaniels summed up the Denver experience about as succinctly as possible: “It was crazy and I was young and everything else.”
Josh McDaniels not shying away from lessons of Denver debacle
Since leaving New England this offseason to take the Raiders job, he has been expansive and humble about that part of his career. He doesn’t treat it as a sore subject or some type of failure that he’d rather avoid in conversation. That means something, given that most coaches are left with some mental scars after being ousted from their first head coaching job.
Instead, he draws that memory closer, talks about what he learned going 11-17 over those two seasons. History mostly remembers the fallout and trade of quarterback Jay Cutler and multiple run-ins with star wideout Brandon Marshall. McDaniels frames it as an overall struggle with not knowing how to navigate people, and not understanding himself and what an attempt at recreating the Patriots culture would take out of him. His results screamed of failed imitation rather than organic innovation.
In a way, that’s how he was forced to begin recreating himself. After a one-year stint as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the St. Louis Rams in 2011, McDaniels began a decade-long process of reevaluation during his second stint as offensive coordinator of the Patriots. A period of reflection that helped him take a confident leap into a new job with the Raiders, an opportunity many predicted would never come after he backed out on an agreement to become the head coach of the Colts in 2018.
“To go back to New England and be watching [Belichick] run such an incredibly first-class organization and he’s got it working the way he wants it to work, I was able to see that for a second go-round,” McDaniels said. “But Bill O’Brien left. [Matt Patricia] left. [Brian Flores] left. Joe [Judge] had left. So I got an opportunity to kind of watch [other New England coaches] from afar as you’re processing some of the things you would do different.”
Here’s what he learned from that.
“That it’s really important for me and for anybody that leaves there — you can take a lot of the football philosophies and a lot of the strategic things that apply to winning and losing on a Sunday, but I think the interpersonal workings of every relationship in every organization are going to be different,” McDaniels said. “That’s what I learned the hard way. Now I’m trying to make a concerted effort to do it all the right way as much as I can.”
Why McDaniels' Colts fiasco deserves deeper consideration
In retrospect, a large part of the failure in Denver was McDaniels butting heads with Cutler within his first couple months on the job and trading him shortly afterward. That initial misstep looks far more like the failure of two young and stubborn people who had a lot of maturing to do.
Even if McDaniels' steadfast critics are willing to accept that his hiring in Denver was too young and too soon, they won’t let him off easily for what happened with the Colts. The fact remains that he hired three assistant coaches, changed the trajectory of their lives ... and then walked away. History will also remember that one of those coaches was defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who was one of the best coordinators in the NFL over the past four years before landing a head coaching job with the Bears this offseason.
There’s a few more layers to the Colts situation that haven't been adequately considered, too. Andrew Luck had missed the previous season with shoulder surgery and been remarkably beaten up in his short career. McDaniels also didn’t have a track record with general manager Chris Ballard, and the two were getting to know each other during the courting process. Even when it looked like a slam-dunk of a job, McDaniels was uneasy about it. And when Patriots owner Robert Kraft sensed he might have an opening, he seized upon it to bring McDaniels back for four more seasons.
The fallout of that decision and the criticism that followed ultimately made the McDaniels-Raiders union possible. He knew that if he ever left the Patriots again, there would not only be no going back, but it would have to be accompanied by Dave Ziegler as general manager. Former teammates at John Carroll University and the best of friends, that is who McDaniels wanted to pair with. Because who needs to worry about being a GM when your longtime friend and trusted confidant is filling that role? And can shape a personnel department that knows precisely how to scout for the coaching staff it's working with?
Raiders stand to reap benefits from wiser McDaniels
This is what the Raiders have working for them now. Not only has the dynamic tension (often friction) between former head coach Jon Gruden and former general manager Mike Mayock disappeared into the blast-furnace wind of Las Vegas, it has been replaced by two leaders who are in lockstep in every single decision. And they’re being supported by a revamped supporting structure.
For perhaps the first time under Mark Davis' team ownership, departments are now fully streamlined and staffed at every level, from business to football to administration. The purse strings for more aggressive roster-building have been loosened. Even Davis is making himself more available to McDaniels and Ziegler than any previous regime, while also surrendering the full authority for the tandem to build out the football organization as they see fit.
That’s how you get a 2022 edition of the Raiders that reshuffled the entire coaching and personnel staffs but loaded up with pricey veteran additions like Davante Adams and Chandler Jones rather than rebuilding. Because McDaniels and Ziegler believed in it, winning the trust of Davis to sign off.
Even with all those changes, a lot of the success and failure will come down to the Raiders' culture. And the culture will come down to whether McDaniels can live up to his embrace of concentrating on people more, micromanaging less and trusting his functional design rather than trying to recreate a Stalinesque Patriots blueprint that has never been successfully replicated outside of New England.
“I’ve let that go,” McDaniels said. “I’ve just realized over time, really at the end of the day, you have to give people a great opportunity to do their job. And sometimes that means you’re going to have to accept different. And I think some of us that have left the Patriots have gotten frustrated at times with, man, everything isn’t the way that I remember it being in New England. And you know what? It ain’t gonna be. It’s never going to be. I’ve come to that conclusion and honestly, I’m at such peace with the way we do things, while understanding that isn’t the way that everything was done there.”