Josh McDaniels' shocking decision Tuesday night -- leaving the Colts jilted at the podium one day before he was scheduled to be introduced as the new head coach in order to remain the Patriots' offensive coordinator -- harkens back to Bill Belichick's napkin-delivered resignation-before-he-started from the Jets. And it raises the strong possibility that McDaniels will eventually succeed Belichick in New England, just as he has now followed in his footsteps for awkward career moves.
That decision worked out exceedingly well for Belichick and the Patriots -- and that success and stability has made the Pats irresistable to McDaniels, too. McDaniels has enjoyed enormous success during two separate periods in New England: the first from 2001 to 2008, when he rose from a personnel and coaching assistant, the second starting when he returned as offensive coordinator in 2012.
McDaniels' decision casts an inevitable and -- given the subject -- unwelcome spotlight on Belichick, who has a contract to coach in 2018. He declined to talk about his future in the moments after the Patriots lost in Super Bowl LII on Sunday. But there will now be increased speculation that Belichick might not coach much longer than that and that the Patriots have already given McDaniels some kind of assurance, official or otherwise, that he is the coach in waiting. That would at least make some sense in this otherwise-bizarre scenario, which should serve as a reminder that no deal is ever completed until it is signed, and that a coach's word means little until then.
But if there is no agreement in place for McDaniels in New England, this stunning move would almost certainly do serious damage to McDaniels in the eyes of every other franchise, imperilling his chances of getting a job anywhere outside Foxborough, particularly after his disastrous stint as Denver's head coach. McDaniels was fired from that job before the end of his second season and executives around the league still had lingering reservations about him. McDaniels has assiduously worked to improve his reputation, talking recently about how much he learned from his earlier stops. At the Super Bowl, McDaniels uttered what now seems like a prophetic statement:
"Sometimes I think failure is the best teacher," he said.
So perhaps McDaniels is learning plenty right now at the expense of the Colts. They were the first team to offer McDaniels a second chance -- he had declined the chance to pursue other jobs -- and now they are in an embarrassing spot, having lost their choice and forced to resume interviews long after the top coaching candidates have been snapped up by other teams. In a statement acknowledging McDaniels' decision, the Colts said they were "surprised and disappointed," which is probably the most family-friendly way of putting it. They are left with slim pickings to choose from now, as they will go from landing the most sought-after candidate this offseason to wooing a series of fallback options.
That is probably a delicious turn of events for those who are still bitter that it was the Colts who turned the Patriots in and started the Deflategate saga. But the collateral damage from McDaniels' change of heart is not insignificant. Left in the lurch by McDaniels are his planned assistant coaches, some of whom have already signed contracts and are working for the Colts. They do not know who they will be working for now, or if the eventual head coach will even want them.
For as much chaos as McDaniels has caused in Indianapolis, his return provides a badly needed dose of stability for the Patriots and especially Tom Brady. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has already left for the Detroit Lions. Rob Gronkowski mused about his future after the Patriots lost to Philadelphia. Danny Amendola is a free agent. And Jimmy Garoppolo is in San Francisco.
And for the last month, there has been considerable conversation about tension among Belichick, Brady and owner Robert Kraft. Kraft acknowledged as much before the Super Bowl, and said he intended to talk to them after the season ended.
McDaniels' decision would seem to be a victory for Kraft, who values consistency in his organization and who, like the smart business owner he is, has undoubtedly already given thought to life after Belichick.
"It's my job to think about how we can sustain things -- that's what I've been doing for 24 years," Kraft said last week. "It's easier to attain success than it is to sustain it."
Eighteen years ago, Belichick pulled the plug on the Jets and forever changed the fortunes of two franchises, attaining the success for the Patriots he and Kraft imagined together. Even before we know all the reasons McDaniels followed suit, one thing seems clear: The Patriots are likely imagining a way to sustain that success after Belichick with McDaniels in the fold. If failure taught McDaniels anything, it seems it has taught him to find a soft landing.