Commentary

McDaniels could know the ins and outs

Denver coach may be able to exploit weaknesses

Updated: October 8, 2009, 7:55 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- How much will Josh McDaniels' knowledge of the Patriots' personnel and offensive and defensive systems help the Broncos in Sunday's game at Denver?

It's the question of the week, one that both Patriots coach Bill Belichick and McDaniels, in his first year as Broncos coach after serving as personnel/coaching assistant, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under Belichick, have said will be a minor factor. Both repeated the same thought this week: It will come down to the players' execution on the field.

In the end, McDaniels and Belichick are right … to a point.

The relationship between McDaniels and Belichick might be an overhyped storyline, but the impact McDaniels' inside knowledge can have on the game -- specifically with preparation and in-game coaching adjustments -- shouldn't be completely dismissed.

Recent history reinforces the thought.

Patriots fans can rewind to Nov. 12, 2006, for a clear-cut example of the power of insider knowledge in a football game.

That's when the Jets, led by then-first-year coach Eric Mangini, came to Gillette Stadium with a game plan aided by information Mangini and assistant coach Brian Daboll had gathered while with the Patriots. Mangini had been secondary coach and defensive coordinator; Daboll had been receivers coach and heavily involved in the passing game.

The Jets brilliantly disguised their pass-rush intentions that day, standing players up at the line of scrimmage, moving others around and effectively paralyzing an important part of the Patriots' offense: Tom Brady's ability to set the protection for the blockers in front of him by calling out the middle linebacker.

The Patriots ultimately went to more quick-snap counts to combat the strategy and negate the Jets' ability to disguise, but the damage had been done and Brady was battered in a 17-14 loss.

"That was a case where Mangini knew their protections and gave them problems," said former NFL coach Dan Reeves, who covered the game for Westwood One radio.

"You can look at that as an example of a guy who knew the system, and then you can see how the Patriots later adjusted to what they did. This week, it's going to be a constant chess match with some people who are very familiar with each other."

What makes this game slightly different from the Jets contests is that the Patriots and Broncos run the same offense. So, in essence, both teams have inside information. The intrigue comes in how they will use it on the field.

"In many ways, it's like looking in the mirror," McDaniels said Wednesday.

The Patriots' prior matchups against Mangini's Jets teams provide a picture of what could unfold Sunday. Those contests were often as much mental as they were physical, with the sides shuffling personnel on and off the field from snap to snap in a game of matchups.

Mangini's approach was aimed at trying to create situations in which the Jets could exploit weaknesses of players that he had detected on the practice fields during his time in New England. The same could happen Sunday in Denver, with McDaniels having a backlog of eight years to fall back upon.

That's where the insider information might provide the greatest edge for the Broncos.

"When you have a situation with Josh, who knows and understands personnel, you figure he's going to try to set it up and get the player in a position where he can isolate and take advantage of it," said former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, who has been in similar situations after serving as Belichick's defensive coordinator in New England from 2001 to 2004.

"Every coach searches for weaknesses, but sometimes they don't always show up on film, so that's an advantage Josh could have."

Crennel also pointed out another dynamic that could be in play on both sides.

"Because you have teams that do the same things, one might try something different and get away from who they are to throw the other off balance," he said. "I think you have be really careful because that's not necessarily who you are. You've been successful doing things a certain way, players understand that and you coach that way, and now you're off the script. That can make players start wondering if what you're doing is not working, as there's a mental game there."

So in some respects, Sunday will be two games in one.

McDaniels and Belichick are right when they say it will come down to the execution of the players, as it always does. The best plans mean little if the players don't carry them out.

Yet the coaching chess match and the impact of McDaniels' insider information is also a significant part of the matchup.

"The key will be the other team's ability to adjust, and how soon they can make those adjustments," Reeves said. "Then it comes down to the players' executing what you're trying to have them do."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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