Commentary

McDaniels building Foxborough West?

Updated: April 29, 2009, 5:29 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Josh McDanielsAP Photo/David ZalubowskiThere is more to Broncos coach Josh McDaniels' life than the Jay Cutler saga, but he spent his early days in Denver answering questions about the controversy.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Steam rises from the snowy concrete, and five dozen weary men board a bus. It figures that Josh McDaniels' first minicamp would start in a near blizzard, the worst of the season. From maelstrom to snowstorm. A couple of days ago, it was 70 degrees in the foothills. But that's the thing about Denver in the spring -- you never know what you're going to get.

Josh McDaniels on 2009 season

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Rookie head coach Josh McDaniels believes the key to the Broncos success will be their offseason preparation.

McDaniels walks out of the Broncos' indoor practice facility, which, on this day, doubles as an afternoon hangout for a local girls' lacrosse team. A tinsel-mouthed teenager acts as if she has just seen one of the Jonas Brothers, nudges her friend and gushes, "That's the coach! That's the coach!"

The people of Denver don't know what to make of McDaniels yet. Maybe they'll never know. His first 3 months on the job have, at the very least, left an entire league buzzing. The rift between the new coach and Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler was the biggest news of the NFL offseason, and McDaniels' hard-line stance has led critics to label him stubborn and unwavering. When the Broncos traded their franchise face to Chicago earlier this month, it seemed as if two careers would forever be tied to what some have boiled down to misunderstandings between a couple of young men.

And make no mistake, the new coach looks young. If he didn't have the 5-o'clock shadow covering half of his baby face, didn't have the stern look of a man racing against time, McDaniels, in his blue warm-ups, could pass for a ball boy. He just turned 33. He is in the process of scrapping an offense that finished near the top of the NFL, overhauling a defense that hovered at the bottom and trying to win over a fan base that has sold out home games since John Elway was in Pop Warner.

It could all implode and leave some high-placed execs in Denver looking very bad.

By all outside appearances, McDaniels isn't sweating it. Colleagues say he's a young Bill Belichick, a methodical offensive whiz ensconced in the Patriots way, which is the coach's way or the highway. Friends say he's the spitting image of his father, Thom McDaniels, a nurturing man who is a legend in Ohio high school coaching circles.

In the Rockies, where the clouds are swirling, Josh McDaniels will need to be both.

"Look, all I want to do is win," McDaniels says. "And I want to try and do the things I believe in. So if sticking to your guns when you believe in something is being [stubborn], then I guess that's what I would fall into. I think all good coaches are stubborn in certain areas, and it comes from being confident that what you're saying is the right thing to do. I don't think I'd be in this position or have this job if I didn't have that confidence."

The little general

The thing is, McDaniels has rarely walked into a situation in which he appeared at first blush, hands-down, to be the right man for the job. In high school at Canton McKinley, he was called on to be the starting quarterback, all 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds of him. (Looking back, McKinley folks say those proportions were exaggerated.) In huddles, the offensive linemen, the receivers, well, just about everybody loomed over him.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels
AP Photo/Ed AndrieskiMcDaniels has faced lots of questions about the Broncos' draft selections.

"It was funny. He was almost like a Rudy type of guy," says Broncos defensive end Kenny Peterson, a teammate at McKinley, which is just a few tosses from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"But he commanded respect. When Josh got in the huddle, guys listened because he was definitely the coach on the field."

The biggest game of McDaniels' career was profiled in Sports Illustrated in 1994 because it was the 100th meeting in a storied rivalry between McKinley and Massillon. The game went to overtime. The stadium was packed. McDaniels, who also served as the team's place-kicker, lined up for an extra-point attempt. The kick sailed wide right.

According to coach Thom McDaniels, a reporter asked Josh what it felt like to be the guy who cost his team the game.

"He answered that he suspected God must've chosen him to be the guy that cost his team the game because he was strong enough to handle it," Thom says. "I was blown away that a high school senior could handle it that way."

Two weeks later, the teams met in the playoffs. McKinley was trailing 20-19 in the fourth quarter when McDaniels hit Mark Thewes with a game-winning 46-yard touchdown pass.

McDaniels recently hired Thewes, still one of his best friends, to be the Broncos' assistant to the head coach.

Coach McD's McKinley boys look after each other, Peterson says, even after old teammates go on to much bigger things. At first, it seemed as if Josh would be happy being a successful high school coach just like his dad. He slept with a football from the time he was 5 and tagged along with Thom until he was old enough to wear the Bulldogs' red and black. He picked up his dad's mannerisms -- both men stress their points by pinching their thumb and finger together -- and developed his easy-going nature.

A Thom McDaniels practice was disciplined but loose, high-energy yet controlled and meticulous. The elder McDaniels took great joy in doing stretching exercises. So does Josh.

McDaniels played football at John Carroll University, then parlayed his dad's connections -- and a friendship with Nick Saban -- to land an interview for a graduate assistant job at Michigan State. On the ride to East Lansing, Mich., the elder McDaniels told his son he was now on his own.

"This is where your dad's influence ends," Thom recalls telling Josh. "I can't do anything more for you. What you become will be determined by what you do."

Getting a chance

As a young man in flux, in between Michigan State and the next chance, Josh McDaniels sold plastics in Cleveland. He was good at his job, earning a decent wage. Then New England called and offered a low-paying scouting gig, and McDaniels jumped.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaNew England coach Bill Belichick unofficially elevated McDaniels to offensive coordinator in 2005, when McDaniels was just 29.

He went from personnel assistant to defensive coaching assistant to quarterbacks coach in 2004. In his first year with Tom Brady, the future MVP produced the third-highest passer rating in team history (92.6). And in 2005, Belichick quietly elevated McDaniels to offensive coordinator after the departure of Charlie Weis. There was speculation that Belichick didn't make the promotion public that year because he wanted to shield his young playcaller, who was just 29.

McDaniels' unofficial debut as offensive coordinator came in a nationally televised Thursday night game against the Oakland Raiders, and the Patriots scored 30 points. He says he never really felt the nerves that night and called the experience "exhilarating."

The quarterbacks in the meeting room knew two things about McDaniels -- that he was a huge "CSI" fan, had to tape it every week, and that he always came prepared. His offense is complex -- McDaniels is known to add schemes each week of the season -- and his quarterbacks are expected to become one with their playbooks. McDaniels is tight with all of his quarterbacks and plays to their strengths.

"I was actually older than him, but I respected him a great deal," says Jim Miller, a backup quarterback for the Patriots in 2004. "I think he's an extremely bright coach who wanted to get better at his craft. He was basically a sponge in what he was learning from Bill Belichick.

"He's not a guy that's going to butt heads just to butt heads. Everything is well thought out. He's flexible and listens to feedback from his players."

McDaniels won three Super Bowl rings, but his defining moment might have come this past season when Brady was writhing in pain on the grass in Foxborough, out for the season with a serious knee injury.

McDaniels huddled the offense together on the sideline and looked into each player's eyes.

We're going to be OK.

"As a player, that was very comforting," says former New England receiver Jabar Gaffney, who joined Denver in the offseason. "He just had that look in his eyes, and we felt a lot better about ourselves.

"He said, 'Matt [Cassel] is going to go in there, and he's going to be fine. And we were."

Before that surreal afternoon in early September, Cassel had done little to evoke confidence from the masses at Gillette Stadium. His preseason was disastrous. Rumors swirled that he might get cut. McDaniels brought the young quarterback along, through rough patches in San Diego and high points in Miami, and the Patriots finished 11-5.

Six months later, the AFC landscape changed again. And Cassel was at the center of it.

The Cutler saga

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Paul Spinelli/Getty ImagesThe Cutler era in Denver is over. He's in Chicago. But questions likely will follow both men.

There are some who wonder whether if things had been different, if egos weren't bruised and meetings hadn't been held with agents and reinforcements, maybe McDaniels and Cutler could've hit it off. They are both very close to their fathers; both had to prove themselves to naysayers; and both, at young ages, were asked to fill very big shoes.

A handful of people who were willing to talk about Cutler all said he's a team player, a man who wants to win, a tireless worker who hated being away from his friends as they started offseason conditioning in Denver without him. Trey Holloway, a former teammate from Vanderbilt, relayed a story about how the Commodores squad was depleted on the offensive line one year, how the coaches asked Holloway to switch over from defense, how he refused and wanted to quit the team. It took a call from Cutler to persuade him to move to center. All he had to say was: Hey, we need you. That's how much respect Cutler commanded from his team.

Another Cutler endorsement: He was beyond bummed during the Denver stalemate, Vanderbilt strength and conditioning coach John Sisk says. But he still managed to work out religiously at his alma mater. He was lifting weights on April 2, the day he got the call that he was free from Denver.

"He was smiling and high-fiving all the guys," Sisk says. "He had to go buy a suit because he was going to Chicago the next day. He left during a tornado warning."

The dirty details of the McDaniels-Cutler relationship, albeit brief, made great copy in a normally slow patch of the offseason. The Broncos inquired about trading Cutler for Cassel; Cutler, who threw for 4,526 yards in 2008, was stunned and felt betrayed. The next few weeks played out like a soap opera.

Observers say McDaniels, who's two decades younger than predecessor Mike Shanahan, ultimately was going to be tested and had to show who was in command in Dove Valley. Nobody knew the test would come so early and with a player so big.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniel
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesMcDaniels, then New England's offensive coordinator, talks with Tom Brady during Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants in February 2008.

Thom McDaniels won't speculate on whether his son dug his cleats in too hard. He talks to Josh nearly every day -- as does his mom -- and has become his sounding board. Thom says the relationship between a quarterback and coach is very important, sort of like a husband and wife.

"It's not shocking to me that he would consider working with a guy he already had a relationship with as opposed to a guy he didn't have a relationship with," Thom McDaniels says.

"I've often wondered this, from a distance," he adds. "If [Josh] wasn't 33, and he hadn't worked for Belichick, would people have the same impression of that whole scenario?"

A view from the seats

Barrel Man says good riddance. For nearly 30 years, he ran up and down the steps at Denver home games, wearing nothing but the barrel, cheering, always, for his beloved Broncos.

As one of the NFL's most recognizable superfans, Tim McKernan has loved John Elway, held his breath for Bubby Brister and made huge plans for Jay Cutler. Now, Barrel Man eyes the Broncos' quarterback race, between two great unknowns in Kyle Orton and Chris Simms, and says he's glad Cutler is gone.

"He was going to end up being a cancer in the locker room," McKernan says. "I liked the kid when he came in. I thought he was going to be a great one. I still think he might be. But after his first year, I was getting very tired of some of his statements on how good he was.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaMcDaniels tosses his son, Jack, as his wife, Laura, watches after an afternoon session of the Patriots' summer camp in 2006. The McDaniels also have a daughter, Maddie.

"Yes, he has a strong arm. But I never saw Jay throw a 70-yard in-air touchdown pass across the field like Elway did. He doesn't have that sixth sense Elway had. To compare himself, it was a mistake in Denver. Because Elway's thought of almost as if he's Jesus' little brother."

Jeff Legwold, a longtime Broncos beat writer for the Rocky Mountain News, says the majority of Denver fans, like Barrel Man, have tended to side with the team on the Cutler issue. It's somewhat surprising, but then again, the past five months have been full of shockers. Legwold was the only writer at the Broncos' facility on Dec. 30, the day Shanahan was fired. Nobody really thought it would happen.

Shanahan had been head coach for 14 years, had won two Super Bowls and had consistently saved Denver from embarrassment. He won at least seven games in all but one season and was always in the playoff mix. But then came the 8-5 season that spiraled down to three straight losses and a blowout at San Diego.

And now, what should Broncos fans expect?

"I'm getting a real good feeling toward [McDaniels]," McKernan says. "He's very sure of himself. He's involved with the team. He gets out there, and he's not standing on the sidelines letting the coaches do all the coaching."

The Belichick way?

No, McDaniels will not stand by and let others do all the coaching. He moves briskly from one end of the field to the other, his eyes almost always fixed on the quarterback. When something goes awry, he throws his hands up and says, "Do it again!"

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiMcDaniels already has left his mark.

Veterans and media types confirm it: This first minicamp was far more spirited than those in the past.

McDaniels, who has a four-year, $8 million deal, is taking the moribund defense and switching to a 3-4, a la Belichick. His free-agency and draft moves have puzzled Broncos fans. They wonder why he has enough running backs to start a soccer team and why Denver didn't move up this past weekend, with two first-round picks, to secure USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.

"He knows what he's doing," says Broncos running back LaMont Jordan, who played for McDaniels in New England.

"When I first became a free agent this offseason, my first goal was to get back to New England. When I found out they wouldn't be bringing me back, once Josh got the head-coach job, I said, 'I want to go play for Josh.' I wanted to go back to the [Patriots] locker room. The attitude in that building, the way that organization was run … I knew Josh would bring a lot of similarities from New England. That's something I wanted to be part of."

These will not be Shanahan's Broncos. In one of his first meetings with the team, McDaniels went over the offense's gawdy numbers, how the Broncos had racked up more yards than just about anybody else in the NFL, how it didn't really matter because they finished in the middle of the pack in scoring.

On some thinner-skinned teams, maybe this would've angered some people. But tight end Daniel Graham said it just motivated the team to dive harder into the new playbooks. Graham, it should be noted, played for McDaniels in New England. So did Lonie Paxton, Gaffney and a handful of other free-agent acquisitions. It has led some to wonder whether Denver will become Foxborough West.

McDaniels, much like his mentor, isn't tipping his hand.

"Here's what I'll tell you," McDaniels says. "My demeanor, the way I am with people, how I go about my daily business? That's all totally me. And my philosophy on how to win? Why would I want to change from what I learned and was taught? It was so successful."

Does he know what he has gotten himself into? Or what he might already have lost?

McDaniels doesn't have time to think about it. He gets on the bus outside the practice facility and heads down the hill to his office. The sun is out, and the thaw has begun.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.