The Browns’ search for their next head coach is now in full swing, and much like the decision at the top of the draft last May, media and fans have been left blindfolded playing a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey attempting to gain insight on who the Browns are truly interested in for the position. As a result, media reports have been all over the map about who the favorite might be, and the resumes of those candidates have been wide-ranging, from a Super Bowl winning longtime NFL head coach like Mike McCarthy to Matt Campbell, the 39-year old head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones.
As of Monday morning January the 6th however, the odds-on favorite for the position by many is one Josh McDaniels, and that is whom this piece will be centered around. But before we can get to McDaniels, we need to take a trip back in time to January of 2016 and briefly examine the hiring of Hue Jackson.
Head coach Mike Pettine was fired by the Browns immediately following a loss to finish the 2015 season 3-13, and the search for a new head coach hit the ground running. Within 10 days, the Browns had hired Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as the new head coach of the Browns. The move was essentially universally lauded by the media. A search through the news archives at the time of the hire revealed little to no concern among media members with regards to Hue Jackson’s single year as the Raiders head coach, and the Browns organization seemingly felt the same, as they refused to let him leave the building following his Sunday interview without accepting the position of head coach. Looking back today, it is unfortunate that Hue’s past as a head coach did not factor more heavily into the decision.
During Hue’s short stint as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, we saw an exact microcosm of what played itself out in Cleveland over the last 3 seasons. Hue was promoted to head coach due to his dramatic turnaround of the Oakland offense as the offensive coordinator. He was lauded as an affable, energetic coach that players wanted to play for. It took just 8 weeks for the cracks to start to show, with Hue coming under fire by the media for questionable decisions and head-scratching play calling on offense.
In the wake of Al Davis’s unexpected passing, seeing a power vacuum, Hue moved quickly to secure more than his share of influence within the organization. With the team floundering after quarterback Jason Campbell went down, Hue Jackson assumed the role of general manager and made a panicked move at the trade deadline, sending a 1st round pick and another conditional 1st to the Cincinnati Bengals for the rights to Carson Palmer. The Raiders would play their worst football down the stretch, losing 4 of their last 5 games including the final game of the season, which ceded the division to the Denver Broncos. After the game, Hue Jackson went on a rant throwing his players under the bus for their poor effort and took none of the blame for himself. He was fired days later.
In just one season, Hue exhibited all of the same characteristics and tendencies that led to his historic failure as a head coach with the Cleveland Browns eight years later. It was only the botched paperwork (intentional or not) of the failed trade for AJ McCarron that stopped his tenure with the Browns from being a prolonged mirror image of his year as Oakland’s head coach. These characteristics -unchecked ego, underhandedness within the organization, panic under fire, and refusal to take responsibility as a head coach were brushed aside when Hue was once again a hot offensive coordinator looking for another shot at being a head coach in 2016. When I think about Hue Jackson in hindsight, there is one quote that crystallizes in my mind as the right lesson to remember as we move forward into a new era of Browns football and make the critical decision of who to hire as the teams next head coach.
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Here in January of 2019, Browns find themselves in the all-too-familiar position of starting the new year in search of their next head coach. What is not familiar is the standing of the organization and the outlook of the roster. The Browns have found their franchise quarterback after a decades-long string of failures at the position. The Browns best players are nearly all 25 years old or younger. They have more than their full complement of picks for the upcoming draft and the most cap space available out of all the league’s teams. Unlike at any other time since the return of the team in 1999, the Browns head coaching position is the most attractive head coaching position available, and for once, they hold all the cards as they consider the head coaching candidates.
Which brings me to Josh McDaniels, who as stated above, is currently the favorite to be hired by the Browns. In the spirit of lessons being learned, a long, hard, look at McDaniel’s past is warranted as the Browns get closer to making a decision. There are two areas of note that I would like to put under a microscope here- his first job as a head coach with the Denver Broncos, and his backing out of the Indianapolis Colt’s head coaching job last offseason.
Josh McDaniels was hired by the Denver Broncos on January 11th, 2009, at that time the youngest head coach in NFL history at 33 years old. He had just come off of two extremely impressive seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Patriots, leading the most prolific scoring offense in NFL history in 2007, and then overcoming the loss of Tom Brady to guide Matt Cassell to a good season on route to a playoff appearance without the Patriots best player. He was as hot as a head coaching candidate can be, and most in the media loved the hire. When you hire a new coach in the NFL, hope is at its highest point, particularly with first-time head coaches. They have no baggage and most come into their first head coaching job as previously successful coordinators. There is no reason to suspect they will not be successful as a head coach.
Everyone knows that things change fast in the NFL, but things changed quicker than normal even by NFL standards when it came to Josh McDaniels. By the end of February, the first signs of trouble began surfacing, as reports were released stating that McDaniels was secretly attempting to trade Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, who was coming off his third and best season as a pro. By March, Jay Cutler was no longer speaking with the team. In just eight weeks McDaniels had managed to create an irreconcilable situation with the Broncos young quarterback. One month later, Cutler was a Chicago bear and Kyle Orton was the new starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
Offseason reports indicated that McDaniels was rubbing players the wrong way with his my-way-or-the-highway attitude and the Broncos came into the 2009 season with far more angst than could ever have been expected for a team with a new exciting head coach. Despite the offseason drama, after six weeks the Broncos were 6-0 and McDaniels was once again the talk of the league and the problematic start to his tenure seemed like a small bump in the road. Instead, it would be the high point of the Broncos season. They would go through a pair of 4-game losing streaks including one to close out the season and finished with an 8-8 record.
McDaniels 2nd season with the Broncos began with a trade Browns fans will remember well-Peyton Hillis and 2 late round picks to the Cleveland Browns for Brady Quinn. The next Bronco to be traded was mercurial Probowl WR Brandon Marshall, traded to the Miami Dolphins for two 2nd round draft picks, one in 2010 and one in 2011. In the draft, McDaniels selected Demaryius Thomas to replace Marshall, but then in a baffling move traded 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks to the Baltimore Ravens to move back up into the 1st round to select quarterback Tim Tebow.
The 2010 season would prove to be McDaniels last as a head coach. The Denver offensive line struggled in making the switch from the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme they’d run for more than a decade and the offense suffered as a result. On the other side of the ball, Denver’s defense had not improved from the dismal shape it was in to begin with. The result was a complete collapse of the team.
Denver was 3-8 in late November when reports surfaced that the league was investigating the Broncos for illegally videotaping the San Fransisco 49ers’ walk-through in London earlier that season. That would later be confirmed and Josh McDaniels would be fined $50,000, which was the least of the fallout from that incident. Effectively this sealed McDaniels’ fate as the Broncos’ head coach and further tarnished his reputation for any future head coaching job he would be considered for. Besides the stigma from cheating, there is the clear indication of extreme arrogance given that while on New England’s staff, the Patriots and Bill Belichick were found guilty of “Spygate”, which was one of the biggest stories that have ever been broken in the NFL, resulting in massive fines for the Patriots and Bill Belichick as well as lost draft picks. Whatever lessons McDaniels took away from that experience clearly didn’t include the lesson that cheating isn’t worth it. He was fired December 9th with four games remaining on the season. In less than two seasons, Josh McDaniels’ first head coaching job ended, marred by issues with control, alienation of players, poor personnel decisions, arrogance, and a cheating scandal.
Having returned to New England as quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator in 2011, McDaniels has been receiving interest in head coaching positions over the last several years, interviewing with teams each year but ultimately turning down several opportunities looking for a perfect fit in his second shot at a head coaching position. Last season McDaniels looked to have found that perfect fit when he interviewed with and accepted the job with the Indianapolis Colts, but then inexplicably backed out in the last minute, blindsiding Colts’ GM Chris Ballard and the three assistants that had reached agreements to coach under McDaniels in Indy. McDaniels’ agent Bob LaMonte subsequently terminated his relationship with McDaniels, and everyone was left wondering what could have happened that changed McDaniels’ mind with one foot out the door.
Reports said that McDaniels was already having second thoughts when the Patriots made a last-minute pitch to stay in New England. Speculation was that this may have had something to do with the uncertain status of Andrew Luck’s shoulder, or that Jim Irsay was considered a problem, though both of these were known issues at the time of the interview. Other reports stated that Belichick offered to bring Josh in on the inner workings of the organization including salary cap strategies. Some speculated that he had been offered a clear succession plan for when Belichick retires. In the end, no one will ever know with certainty what it was led him to stay in New England. Whatever his reasons, I find the idea that he left three assistants that he recruited and brought to Indy hanging in the wind as the most objectionable part of this ordeal with the Colts. The only new information McDaniels received came out of that meeting with the Patriots following the Super Bowl. Everything else was known.
There is no doubt that Josh McDaniels is a talented offensive coordinator and coach. When he takes his next head coaching position, it will come with Bill Belichick’s unqualified recommendation. We can also say that at least for the Colts’ job, he had an excellent staff picked out to support him as head coach. These are the reasons that McDaniels should be considered if you are looking for your next head coach.
In terms of what McDaniels has shown us beyond those things, he’s shown that he is a control freak in search of a perfect situation in a world that rarely provides one, and if it does, it won’t stay that way for long. He’s shown arrogance in continuing to break the rules even in such situations where it provided little benefit. He’s shown selfishness in disregarding the livelihoods of coaches that committed to work for him in Indianapolis. These are the reasons that the idea of hiring McDaniels should give a team pause.
It is up to the Browns to leverage their current position wisely. An enormous amount of blood, sweat, and tears have been poured into this organization to put the team in this position. The Browns should continue to explore all the possibilities and options available to them until they have exhausted all angles and can make an informed decision on who the right fit is for the head coach.
At the end of the day, maybe they will feel that McDaniels is the right choice. Maybe they won’t. In either case, my advice to the Browns is the same. Learn the right lesson from the Hue Jackson experience, don’t expect anything different from what you have already seen, and believe Josh McDaniels when he shows you who he is.