By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Outside of giving starving sports radio hosts some raw meat, that whole “Tom Brady-Josh McDaniels crumbling relationship” report this week doesn’t actually mean anything. Brady is in Tampa Bay. He’s gone. Which players and coaches he played hopscotch with, and which players and coaches he furiously scribbled about his burn book, it really doesn’t mean anything as far as the future of Brady, McDaniels or the New England Patriots is concerned.
The whole thing does, though, serve as a bit of a reminder that Josh McDaniels is in the midst of the most important year of his professional life.
You certainly recall that the Patriots’ offense last year was not great. At times, it was not even good. The team ranked 15th in yards and seventh in points, though the scoring was bolstered by seven touchdowns being scored by the defense and special teams. The Patriots asked rookie punter Jake Bailey to boot the ball away 81 times in 2019, their highest total in 16 years. (The Patriots averaged 61 punts per season from 2007-18.) Their season ended with a whimper — a 13-point showing at home against the Titans.
Fortunately for McDaniels, it’s always the quarterback who takes the heat when things go wrong on offense. So the offensive coordinator by and large escape heavy scrutiny as Brady remained the A1 story all year long.
This year, however, there’s really not anybody else around who will serve as everybody’s favorite scapegoat aside from McDaniels. The pressure’s on in a big way. And he’s kind of being asked to perform a miracle.
That may be a bit strong, as the hurdles from last season — no tight ends, no center, no left tackle, issues at receiver, etc. — may have been larger in number than the challenges on the horizon for 2020. But McDaniels also had Tom Brady, owner of the greatest football mind in the league, to help the train move in 2019. This year? It’s either the second-year Jarrett Stidham or career backup Brian Hoyer.
Suffice it to say, the bulk — or the entirety — of the creativity and efficiency of the Patriots’ offensive game plans will fall on the shoulders of McDaniels.
If it works out and the Patriots’ offense actually improves in Year 1 of the Post-Tom Brady Era, then McDaniels will rejuvenate all of the praise that he’s earned throughout his coaching career, most notably with the record-setting offense in 2007 and then again a year later with the surprisingly effective Matt Cassel-led offense.
If it doesn’t work out, then the reactions will be predictable: McDaniels owes it all to Brady. Without the GOAT, he’s a bum. Those calls for head coaching interviews won’t be coming this year. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
In fairness, neither end of the spectrum is entirely fair or 100 percent accurate. But that rarely matters in the football world.
In that regard, the 2020 season represents a major opportunity for McDaniels. While he’s on the hook for 2019 along with Brady, it’s entirely possible that things simply got a little stale for a partnership that had worked so well for so long. A new quarterback and a new offense represents a new opportunity. And as he showed 12 years ago, he’s proven capable of making the most of such a change. He capitalized on that by seizing his first head coaching opportunity.
(You could make the case that 2008 was a greater challenge, but McDaniels still had the league’s best offense to work with when he lost Brady in Week 1. That he and the rest of the staff was able to give the ball to Cassel and let the offense stay afloat was an achievement. But going into a season where an organization made the conscious decision to move on from the greatest quarterback of all time, after a down year on offense and in an offseason with limited player interaction and practice, carries with it all sorts of demands that McDaniels didn’t have to consider until the season had begun in 2008.)
We know how that Denver tenure ended, and we also know that McDaniels has been awfully selective with choosing his second head coaching gig. Aware that a second chance will likely be the last chance, McDaniels has turned down some interviews and famously reneged on an agreement to take over in Indianapolis.
Clearly, he’s been waiting for the job that felt right. Yet with NFL trends influencing teams to take chances on younger, less-established coaches, it’s entirely possible that a flop in 2020 will lead to a winter with no offers for McDaniels.
At 44 years old, he’s still plenty young as far as coaches go — though roughly 20 percent of NFL head coaches are younger than he is. Having been around for so long shouldn’t hurt McDaniels’ future opportunities as a head coach in the NFL.
In the past three-plus years, McDaniels has either taken or rejected interviews with a third of the NFL’s 31 other teams. Clearly, the league has not let the Denver debacle nor the Indy “Visor Season” mess kill their interest in an offensive mind like McDaniels. And if McDaniels can make things work with Stidham the way Charlie Weis did with a young Brady back in 2001, that interest may crest next January.
Yet if the 2020 season goes south, with a Stidham-Hoyer-led offense looking confused and overmatched every week, then that head coaching opportunity may go on an indefinite hiatus. Especially if Brady looks revived and as good as ever down in Tampa without McDaniels.
The career aspirations and goals of a coordinator may not be of the utmost importance to the average fan on a regular basis, but for the purpose of contextualizing the 2020 season that is to come, McDaniels just may be the most important aspect. How he handles this unique challenge will have lasting effects on the 2020 Patriots and beyond.