For close to a decade now, whenever the Cleveland Browns have been looking for a coach (which has been quite often, six times since 2010), Josh McDaniels has been in the conversation. And why not? The New England Patriots offensive coordinator has been with the Patriots in each of their six Super Bowl-winning seasons, and has directed a top scoring offense year after year.
He grew up in Northeast Ohio as a Browns fan, and has been mentored by Bill Belichick, perhaps the greatest head coach in NFL history. Yet McDaniels was once again passed over by Cleveland, along with other teams this past month. He still has yet to receive a second chance at being a HC, and there are valid reasons for that. When the Browns decided to hire Kevin Stefanski over McDaniels, they didn’t just choose a candidate who aligned more closely with their organizational direction, they also dodged a bullet by passing on McDaniels.
From a pure resume perspective, McDaniels is more than qualified to be a head coach. His resume speaks for itself. He was hired by the New England Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, and after working with the defense for two years, he was named the quarterbacks coach. He was promoted to OC in 2006, after reportedly calling plays the season before. At this point, McDaniels was just 29 years old.
In his first season as OC, the Patriots finished 11th in yards per game and seventh in scoring. In 2007, they ranked first in both categories, and the next season, they were again top 10 in both, despite Tom Brady missing 15 games. The work that Josh McDaniels was able to do with Matt Cassel, Brady’s replacement, earned him the head coaching job with the Denver Broncos. At the time, he was the youngest coach in NFL history.
But he wasn’t just the head coach in Denver. He also had full control over the roster. The Broncos thought they were getting a 30-year-old offensive version of Bill Belichick, and McDaniels was determined to be just like his mentor. The problem is, there’s only one Belichick.
One of the first moves McDaniels made was to trade QB Jay Cutler. Cutler was 26 years old and had just made the Pro Bowl in his second season as a full-time starter. Cutler was sent to the Chicago Bears, but reports were that the Patriots attempted to swap Cassel for Cutler, which raised suspicions about McDaniels’ true allegiances.
McDaniels’ two draft classes were nothing impressive. His first pick was runningback Knowshon Moreno, who was taken 12th overall out of Georgia. He played five seasons for Denver, rushing for 1,000 yards just once. He would play three games in 2014 for the Miami Dolphins before being out of the league. Defensive end Robert Ayers was taken six picks later, and although he played nine seasons in the league, he had only 12 sacks in five years for the Broncos, including none as a rookie.
In 2010, McDaniels selected wide receivers Demariyus Thomas and Eric Decker, by far his best picks with Denver. But he also traded up for QB Tim Tebow. Judging by his two drafts, it’s clear talent evaluation may not be McDaniels’ strong suit.
During his rookie HC season, McDaniels’ Broncos started out 6-0. It appeared as if Belichick’s protege had learned what he needed to.
After that 6-0 start, Denver went 2-6 over the rest of the season, but still had a chance to make the playoffs in Week 17 with a win. They lost to the rival Kansas City Chiefs by 20.
The next season, the Broncos started 3-9, and after it was revealed that Denver was caught recording the San Francisco 49ers’ practice walkthrough (something that has happened in New England) prior to their game, McDaniels was fired. A promising start that ended in a complete disaster.
Josh McDaniels was hired by the St. Louis Rams as OC for the 2011 season, where he piloted them to the 32nd ranked offense. In 2012, he was back in New England, and the Patriots again led the NFL in yards and points. McDaniels now had to rebuild his reputation, and learn from his mistakes in Denver. Over the next five seasons, New England remained among the league’s best offenses, despite a constant churning of personnel and the aging of Brady.
Prior to the 2018 season, McDaniels agreed to become the next coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He got a staff together, and those coaches left their jobs and moved their families to Indianapolis. But on the day the team introduced McDaniels as their new coach, McDaniels backed out of the job. This caused his agent to part ways with him, and McDaniels’ reputation suffered once more.
2019 was an interesting year for the Patriots. Their defense was the most dominant unit in recent history, but their offense was middling. Injuries and a lack of talent, both in the skill positions and the offensive line, combined with visible regression from Brady, led to New England’s worst offensive output since 2003. But in spite of this, McDaniels was reportedly ready to be a head coach once again, and although he was open to other jobs, he wanted to be in Cleveland.
The Browns ended up being the last team with a head coach vacancy, and McDaniels’ only interview was with Cleveland, despite having others scheduled. Belichick refused to allow McDaniels to move up interviews due to the Patriots’ exit interviews and meetings. This led to positions like the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants being filled without talking to McDaniels. This is interesting because the Giants were allowed to interview special teams and wide receivers coach Joe Judge, who they ultimately hired.
Josh McDaniels did interview with the Browns, and reportedly impressed the search committee. It seemed as if McDaniels and Cleveland would finally unite after years of on and off courting. But the next day, Kevin O’Connell, rumored as McDaniels’ choice for OC, was hired by the Los Angeles Rams. Shortly after, the Browns announced that Kevin Stefanski would be their next HC.
Reports came out later that McDaniels and Cleveland had differing viewpoints on the structure of the organization. Owner Jimmy Haslam wanted to keep chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta in place, along with other members. McDaniels wanted “sweeping changes.”
Rumors also swirled about certain demands that the Browns made, such as having an “analytics person” on the headset with the coach during games to help him make decisions, as well as turning in the game plan to the analytics department by Friday, and meeting with Haslam on Mondays. The majority of the issues highlighted in the various reports are standard things that nearly all NFL teams do, but they’re presented as weird and unusual because the Browns are doing them.
The overall tone as well as the timing of the reports seem to point to a certain candidate unhappy with the Browns refusing to accommodate his demands. But the Browns were correct not to cave to McDaniels. Perhaps he has truly changed, and the team made a mistake by passing on him.
But purging the front office to adhere to McDaniels demands sounds quite similar to what happened over 10 years ago. Josh McDaniels was trying to do the exact same thing that got him fired in Denver. Maybe it would have worked this time, but the Browns decided to not take that risk.
Will it pay off? Only time will tell. Cleveland doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given the perpetual losing and dysfunction that has plagued the franchise since its return in 1999, but at the very least, the organization is finally on the same page.