What happened to Josh McDaniels on Monday, being fired not even two full years into his tenure with the Denver Broncos, was, as Yogi Berra once said, "Déjà vu all over again." At least it was for me.
I saw this before, back in 1996, when I was director of player personnel for the Browns and owner Art Modell fired Bill Belichick over the phone on Valentine's Day. Modell struggled with the fans' reluctance to embrace their young coach from his first day on the job. Modell struggled with the losing season as the team planned to move from Cleveland to Baltimore. More than anything, he struggled with staying with the plan. Modell failed to see the future, as he wanted to make the fans happy and never felt there was more than a ripple of hope staying the course with his youthful coach.
Having worked side by side with Belichick for five years, I honestly knew one day he was going to eventually win a Super Bowl, in part because he was super smart and had a willingness to adapt. He was always divergent in his thought process. He was, and still is, the best listener I have ever been around.
With Belichick, there was never an ego in the room. He only focused on what was urgent and important each day. He had core principles and beliefs he adhered to, never wavering off those beliefs. But in Cleveland, he could not overcome the changes he insisted on making, which alienated the fan base and caused concern for Modell. And when the 1995 season slipped away from us, we all knew we were in trouble.
In any sport, losing is extremely difficult -- it's hard on the mind, body and spirit. It challenges every prior belief an organization holds true, forcing constant evaluations of the path, the direction and the journey chosen for the organization. It is human nature to second-guess every move on a losing path. Few, in most sports, are willing to brave the losing, the criticism of the media, or the wrath of their fans. Believing in principles and having the courage to stand alone is a rarer quality than bravery in battle or superior intelligence. Yet it is the one essential for teams that desire to win Super Bowls.
When Belichick was hired in Cleveland, Modell had no idea what he had, or what Belichick could eventually become. He never thought in three dimensions, or hired with a plan; he just hoped for success, in large part because Modell based every decision on what the media and the fans thought. Modell had a wonderful heart. He wanted to make his fan base happy, therefore hiring Belichick after winning a Super Bowl with the New York Giants was great, and firing him after the fans revolted was also great -- never mind he just extended his contract.
Belichick's success in New England was due to his experience in Cleveland -- that Modell financed and Patriots owner Robert Kraft now enjoys. Any time a team hires a young coach or a young executive, one must think in a three-dimensional way. Does he have the aptitude to be a successful leader? Does he have the willingness to grow? Do we have the strength to handle the turbulent times?
Modell paid for Belichick's education as a head coach, an education that has to be lived, not learned. There are no schools to attend to be a successful coach in the NFL. And just because an assistant works for a successful coach does not ensure success when it comes time for a promotion to the head coach's chair.
When the Broncos hired McDaniels and turned over all the power to him, they had to understand there would likely be tough times. But did they?
As an outsider looking in, when the Broncos hired McDaniels, I thought they were willing to change the direction of their organization. Having spent a brief time volunteering my services as a consultant to Mike Shanahan, I saw firsthand Denver's ridiculous spending on players, the failure to have a personnel department, and the constant approach to repair as opposed to rebuild. Therefore, when the Broncos fired Shanahan following the 2008 season and decided to change the course, eliminating the free-spending of the past, the move signaled to me that they wanted to try the Patriot Way, which centers on building a total team through the draft, cut spending in free agency and develop coaches and players from within.
Initially, it made sense to me, as most owners tend to hire the opposite of what they just fired. Firing McDaniels 28 games into his tenure as the head coach is bad for both parties. It wasn't enough time for the team to be fully developed, or enough time for McDaniels to grow into the job.
And therein lies the problem -- the Broncos wanted to change, but were not committed to change. Once they slipped into a different world, they longed to be back to their old ways of doing things. They really love the Bronco Way.
Never mind they have only won one playoff game in the last 12 years. Never mind they lack talent on the field, or are going to be paying three head coaches as a result of McDaniels' firing. Never mind they might have to take two steps back to move forward. Clearly, this move means the Broncos long for their old days, and potentially bringing John Elway back into the organization signals how much they miss those days.
Why does it seem that most of Belichick's assistants never attain a high level of success when becoming a head coach? It might appear that way on the surface, however the coaches involved with Belichick in Cleveland have done well -- from Pat Hill at Fresno State to Kirk Ferentz at Iowa to Nick Saban at Alabama.
And the ones who have only been in New England -- Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and now McDaniels -- have missed the element of what went into developing the program in Cleveland, therefore they missed a huge step in the evolution. The failure rate among NFL coaches, regardless of their background is high. However when coaches leave an established program like the one in New England, not every owner is willing to embrace the time it takes to lay the foundation. Also, not all the new coaches carry Belichick's uncanny ability to evaluate talent, and also what his team needs to be successful.
Belichick's success lies in his ability to coach, but also in his ability to be the general manager. He can wear two hats, and not every coach that leaves the Patriots can do the same.
While that might be true, I believe McDaniels will one day be a successful head coach. I believe this because I know what it takes to be successful in the league. I've never worked with Josh, nor have I spent much time around him. But I have observed him each week, from his game plans to his teams' performance on the field. His teams might not have been the most talented, but they were well-coached, well-designed and well-prepared.
McDaniels will learn from his tenure in Denver, just as Belichick learned from his time in Cleveland, and some other owner willing to change will benefit greatly.