Big winner in strange saga of Colts and Josh McDaniels is, as always, the Patriots
This could work out for all parties, with Colts GM Chris Ballard handling himself well and rivalry 'back on'
The bizarre saga between the Colts and Josh McDaniels, as unusual as it was, has revealed some truths. For as stunning as this about-face was, the Colts franchise will go on. And for McDaniels, it's clear that New England is solely and truly the place for him, and his long stint there could conceivably extend well into the future.
It's not the end of the world for the team or the coach. It is not something that can't be overcome. It's not over for the Colts, nor for McDaniels.
Having all of this come down in early February speaks to the flawed nature of the NFL's rules regarding the hiring of head coaches -- perhaps some good comes via alterations to how and when coaches participating in the playoffs can actually sign full contracts -- and highlights what a backward process this can be for everyone involved. It forces a young general manager, Chris Ballard, making his first major macro-level decision in Indianapolis, into the challenging position of having to restart his search amid pre-draft meetings mere weeks before the combine. It is, clearly, suboptimal.
But could it work out for all parties? Certainly. Will it add some WWE-style spice and subplots to the regular-season game between the Colts and Patriots? Hell yeah. Does it take the Deflategate bad blood already simmering between these franchises and ramp it up even higher? Damn right. Ballard muttering, before snatching his notes from the lectern and storming off at the end of his press conference Wednesday will live on as a meme and video clip forever, providing great theater if nothing else.
There are takeaways for all involved. Let's start with McDaniels.
Should he have come to the ultimate conclusion that New England was the place for him far sooner than the night the Colts were sending a plane to fly him in for the press conference? Obviously. He had indicated to the team weeks ago that he was in, they were assembling his staff for him, and the sides had agreed to terms. But, I would also point out that he made no public statements proclaiming he was the Colts head coach -- even through all of Super Bowl week in Minnesota -- he had not formally signed a contract and his turnaround is beyond unusual but not without some precedent (see: BB resigns as HC of NYJ).
McDaniels is also an extremely bright coach with 20 years in this league, and he understands the ramifications of his decision. It couldn't possibly be lost on him that, after spending hours with Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick as he was about to leave Foxborough for the last time Tuesday and changing his mind on the Colts, he was effectively making himself a Patriot for (coaching) life, or something close to it. He is not naïve to how other teams and owners would view this situation. He is not a rube. He is not unaware to perception. The reversal, I'm told, and made McDaniels a target for scorn around the league.
But I'm told McDaniels' family is fully on board with this, and ultimately that is going to be most important to any parent with a house full of young kids. That's what will provide peace when heads are put on pillows. While it's something that should have been sorted out last month, the reality was Kraft and Belichick weren't going to address this with McDaniels until after the Super Bowl. And once those conversations started, they were intent on keeping him in the building by any means necessary with the same vigor with which a team might approach a free-agent visit from a star player. Also, could you blame McDaniels, having been with Kraft for so long, for possibly having trepidation about now hitching his wagon to Jim Irsay, who has been prone to strange behavior, who has some demons, has been caught in compromising positions and who doesn't have a succession plan in place for ownership (his idea to alternate daily operating duties between his daughters each year was soundly rebuffed by the league)?
Sources said that Tom Brady waiting for him on the other side.), but that no assurances were given that he would replace Belichick were made; it's also easy to assume that after Kraft leaned on him so hard to stay and begged him not to go, that he would view McDaniels as a head coach in waiting even without the formal title. Time will tell how that plays out. (I would note it worked out really well for Belichick a long time ago, but then again, McDaniels doesn't have a young
In the meantime, Ballard is placed in a very uncomfortable position, but one he has the conviction to handle. He handled himself very well in a difficult press conference Wednesday and came out looking like a strong and sympathetic figure to Colts fans. In a weird way, it might curry him favor down the stretch, especially if he lands a head coach who sticks around a while. And the "rivalry" moment makes him an immediate national figure rather than a relatively anonymous young GM. He earned style and substance points Wednesday.
And, as inconvenient as it is to restart a head coaching search right now, it's not like there aren't very qualified men out there. I wrote about this in regards to the Browns a few weeks ago; they could fire Hue Jackson in July and there would still be strong candidates to take over. We get caught up in the moment, and the idea that coaches have to be hired at a certain time, but three teams fired their GMs at highly irregular times a year ago and all made the playoffs (Buffalo, Carolina and Kansas City).
Yeah, it's a crappy hand to be dealt, but it's certainly one still worth playing.
Ballard could reach back to his ties to Kansas City and Chicago and hire Chiefs esteemed special teams coach Dave Toub, who has been up for head-coaching jobs in the past. He could try to hire either of the Eagles' Super Bowl-winning coordinators, Frank Reich (a former Colts assistant who has the endorsement of former Colts GM Bill Polian) or Jim Schwartz (who has head coaching experience), and be off and running, or someone like Jim Mora, who has NFL and college head coaching experience and whose father previously coached the Colts. Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell, a former Dolphins interim head coach, is a possibility. He had already been talking to former Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell about the offensive coordinator position.
"Let's not over-complicate this," Ballard said in one of several moments of clarity during his remarks to the media. "It's football. ... There are a lot of good coaches out there."
This is still one of only 32 such jobs on the planet and there remains hope that Andrew Luck will be throwing a football again soon enough, and Ballard has extensive contacts from his long tenure in the league at the pro and college level. Did he miss out on some very hot potential hires while waiting for McDaniels? Yup. But as he indicated Wednesday, there is no time to wallow about that now.
Could the Colts still prosper and McDaniels still have a long head-coaching career? Sure, and those aren't mutually exclusive on any level. We'll have to see how that play out.
And in the short term, the biggest winner is, well, the Patriots. Same as it always was.
They manage to keep arguably the best offensive coordinator in the game, again, and do it at the most critical time ever. Belichick was about to be in a big bind, with Brady going on 41, not wanting to learn a new offense and with no prime internal candidate available to replace him. Brady expects -- no, demands -- a certain pedigree of coach and he has only had three coordinators in 18 years (McDaniels, Bill O'Brien and Charlie Weis). The market for bright offensive minds is almost bare -- it's tougher to get coordinators than head coaches because teams can and do block interviews -- and New England keeping McDaniels is a massive win for them.
McDaniels is around now to try to identify the eventual successor to Brady and losing him would've been way more substantial, frankly, than having defensive coordinator Matt Patricia leave for Detroit. Belichick oversees the defense and fixing it is his priority, and there are already high hopes for linebackers coach Brian Flores on that side of the ball. Not the case on offense, where for years McDaniels and Brady have been making history largely with a bunch of seventh-round picks and undrafted slot receivers.
At a time when the demise of the Patriots dynasty narrative has been all the rage, and with supposedly everyone making a run out the door, they have managed to retain a key figure. Suddenly, no one is talking about them giving up 40-plus points to Nick Foles in a Super Bowl loss. And they don't have to worry about any other teams coming fast and furious after McDaniels 11 months from now, either.
It has been said that Belichick has a way of never letting any coach leave until or unless he is completely ready to cut him free, and perhaps this proves that more than ever. Kraft and Belichick poured it on thick and told McDaniels how much they needed them. Now they have him possibly for as long as they like.
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