Josh McDaniels: How he Built the Broncos, and How he is Rebuilding the Patriots Offence

This article was originally written for Pats Pulpit. Because it is a blog focused on the New England Patriots, this piece was written with that in mind.

Misdirection, use of multiple players, running a multitude of plays out of the same packages. McDaniels' philosophy has always been to keep opposing teams on their heels. But his attempts to implement that philosophy have come under fire, both today and in previous years.

When we look at the team he was building in Denver and compare it with the one built by Shanahan, the difference was this:

Shanahan built a team that was top heavy, and had almost no depth

This meant that when the team was completely healthy, they would be supremely talented and difficult to beat. But the moment injuries occurred, cracks would start appearing. Because all the budget was going to the starters, little was left for the backups, who were, therefore, not very good (in fact, many of the players McDaniels cut from the 2008 Broncos team couldn't find jobs in the NFL afterwards).

It was a philosophy that depended on having its players overcome their predictability. Shanahan knew the team was predictable, but also knew that players like Terrell Davis and Champ Bailey were good enough to overcome it.

(As an aside, Shanahan's offence is also the complete opposite of McDaniels': it has a small number of plays, but runs them out of many different packages.)

McDaniels built a team that sacrificed top talent for top depth

This meant that when the team was competely healthy, they would have to rely on good coaching, game-planning, and playing mistake-free as well as smart football, since the top-level talent against a team like the Indianapolis Colts (who, incidentally, also followed the Shanahan model) would always be a step below, at least until young players started to mature. (Belichick's early Patriots teams are a good comparison, here.) But, what happens when the season gets long and players start going down? No problem. Because the backups were expected to play as well as the starters, the team would plug the next guy in and the machine would continue running.

This was a philosophy that depended on its players overcoming talent deficiencies through scheme and good old-fashioned hard work. The team may still have had enough talent to compete on that alone, but in order to be a Climax team (we will discuss the meaning of this later), they needed more than that.


Shanahan maximised players' abilities; McDaniels minimised players' weaknesses

Shanahan wanted a team that could beat you. McDaniels wanted a team you couldn't beat.

These were very fundemental differences, and are the reason McDaniels was run out of town. In 2009, the Denver Broncos were, for all intents and purposes, a rebuilding team. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen never wanted to admit it (a fact that ultimately harmed the team because of the high expectations Broncos fans always have), but with hindsight, this was always the case.

When McDaniels arrived, he saw a team that was undisciplined, talent-deficient in key areas, had zero depth behind the starters, lacked toughness, and was, ever since beating the Patriots in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, a mirage, prone to hot starts and limping finishes. Since the retirement of John Elway, the Broncos were dying a slow death and needed a fresh start (even if it was under the same coach).

For those of you who are also ice hockey fans, Busted Twigg has written a number of articles on the life-cycles of NHL teams in the modern era. We can apply his theory to the NFL, as well. In his first article, he names each step of the cycle:

All Blowed Up - Rebuilding - Contending - Climax - Past Prime - Death's Door

A Climax team is detailed as such:

  • Players - Core players are in the prime of their careers. Depth is provided by a blend of past-prime players and youngsters. Prospect pool is deep and ready.
  • Contracts - Core players are on UFA-class contracts. Salary cap has come into play.
  • Playoffs - Conference finals are the minimum playoff expectation.

A Past Prime team:

  • Players - Core players are in their 30's and making big bucks. Depth is maintained by trades of prospects and picks for veterans.
  • Contracts - Salary cap is in play.
  • Playoffs - Playoffs are a near certainty, but clearing the 2nd round is a bonus.

And a Death's Door team:

  • Players - Core players are in their mid-30's and still making big bucks. Prospect pool is almost non-existent having been traded away in an attempt to stay in the playoff hunt.
  • Contracts - Team is still close to the salary cap
  • Playoffs - Team is just good enough to miss out on a playoff berth in the final weeks of the season.

The Pats are currently at Climax, even though they should be at Past Prime. The fact that the team managed to skirt Death's Door, All Blowed Up, and Rebuilding before returning to Contending two years ago is quite remarkable - and rare. How did they do it? By making the correct but incredibly difficult choice of not trading prospects and picks for veterans that can help you win now, but the opposite: trading veterans for prospects and picks, instead. (See: Richard Seymour trade.) Shanahan, unfortunately, made all the mistakes many Past Prime teams make. He tried to hold on to his fading team by sacrificing the future for the present. The Broncos briefly fixed this problem with their 2006 draft, but they rarely addressed the defence, and when they did, they were largely incompetent at it. When McDaniels arrived, there was little young talent to nurture, but a load of veterans who were on the downswing of their careers. Young talent such as Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall created the illusion that the team was on its way to Contending, but not only have they shown in their post-Broncos careers that they don't have what it takes to be core players as opposed to simply above-average or possibly elite ones (examples of this are Terrel Owens and Richard Seymour, two players who were very good, but ultimately only parts of their teams' successes), they would also never have been enough to carry the team to its Climax without a rebuild that would have taken them past their primes.

McDaniels joined a sinking ship that was full of holes. He could have hoped, along with Broncos - and now Bears - fans, that Jay Cutler would throw more touchdowns than interceptions. He could given given a bucket to every player and told them to start tossing water as fast as they could. Instead, he decided to systematically plug every hole; create a team that had no weaknesses.

We can debate whether it was a success, but that's irrelevant to the discussion. What many of you want to know is, what does this have to do with the Patriots?

How the Shanahan Denver Broncos compare with the New England Patriots

Reading so far, you must see similarities between both McDaniels and the Broncos, and the Patriots. The Patriots are and were very much like the 2009 Broncos: tough, physical, coaching-heavy, game-planning for the opposing team instead of hoping for their own. The 2007 Patriots were also very much like Shanahan's Broncos.

The offence was deadly. And predictable. Everyone knew how to attack the Patriots. Take out Randy Moss. Take out Wes Welker. Take out Tom Brady. Eliminate these three players, and the Patriots were nothing. The problem, as it was with the Broncos and teams like the Baltimore Ravens and, formerly, Colts, was that eliminating them was nearly impossible. They didn't care that they were predictable, they were going to beat you anyway. And they did. Every single time except one, the final game that mattered the most.

The Patriots were more like Shanahan's Broncos than the Patriots we normally know, relying on their top-level talent to carry them and hoping that strategy wouldn't fail. Eventually, it would. With teams that have identifiable weaknesses, it always will, sooner or later. The Ravens haven't been to the Super Bowl in over a decade; the Colts suffered a humiliating defeat in their last appearance, and their former star, Peyton Manning, has fewer rings than his younger brother - that fact is evidence enough of the value of an all-rounded team.

McDaniels knew this when he became a head coach, and he knows this now. Bill Belichick also knows. The Patriots don't want to be that 2007 team, a fighter who tries to knock you out with their first swing, hoping it connects while leaving their defences wide open. They want to absorb your jabs, grind you down, and systematically destroy you. Sometimes, there will be hooks. Other times, there will be jabs. Maybe even an uppercut or two will be attempted. But none of that will matter. What will is that they will keep you on your back foot, not knowing what comes next and waiting for your turn to swing that never comes.

McDaniels' rebuild of the Denver Broncos was to take four years. It promised young players backing up wily veterans until they were ready to take their place, an offence that took long to master but even longer to defeat, a defence that would shift and contort to attack its opponents' weaknesses, and, most importantly, Super Bowls. That rebuild was cut short.

His rebuild of the Patriots' offence is heading into its third week (in terms of meaningful games), and hopefully this one, too, won't be cut short.

To conclude, here is a thought experiment: take a glass and fill it with water. Now drop the glass and see what happens. (Note that I did say it is a thought experiment!) The glass shatters, and the water runs everywhere. The glass, which was once firm, seemingly unbreakable, and able to easily contain the water, is now broken and useless, mere fodder for your trash can. The water, on the other hand, moulded itself to the water pipes or bottle, then the glass, and is now free on the floor. And it still is water. If you soak it up and pour it into another glass, it will mould itself once again, as though nothing has ever changed. The glass is powerful until that one moment of force destroys it, the force to which the water simply reacts.

The Patriots, and McDaniels, Way is the way of water. Give it time to mould itself to the next glass.


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