Does Josh McDaniels Deserve Another Head Coaching Gig?

Josh McDaniels' last head-coaching job ended unceremoniously in Denver. Should he get another chance?

I’ve never been afraid of failure, not at least since watching the TV program The Magic School Bus as a child.

In this show, an eccentric third-grade science teacher named Ms. Frizzle takes her students on wild adventures to understand the way the universe works, all with the help of her anthropomorphic, magical school bus. They do everything from turning the bus into a rocket and flying to Pluto, to shrinking down Fantastic Voyage-style and exploring the human anatomy.

All along the way, Ms. Frizzle encourages her students with the iconic catchphrase: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

These would be my words of encouragement to New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as he interviews for a head-coaching job this offseason. As many remember, McDaniels has held a top job before, an ill-fated tenure from 2009 to 2010 with the Denver Broncos that saw him ousted before even reaching the end of his second season. Still, he took chances and made mistakes, and -- yes -- it got messy, but we know how good McDaniels’ offenses run; does he still have the chops to run a whole team?

Does Josh McDaniels deserve another chance as a head coach?

Seatbelts, Everyone

Those 28 games in Denver were McDaniels’ only experience as a head coach, so they need to be considered as we look toward his future. We can figure out just how effective McDaniels was during his Broncos tenure by looking at our signature metric here on numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is an metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the Broncos’ opponent-adjusted per-play value production with McDaniels, from Week 1 of 2009 through Week 13 of 2010. We also broke down each facet of that value, into total, passing, and rushing on both the defensive and offensive sides.

Year Team O-NEP/P Rank O-Pass NEP/P Rank O-Rush NEP/P Rank
2009-10 DEN 0.01 15 0.09 13 -0.06 27

Year Team D-NEP/P Rank D-Pass NEP/P Rank D-Rush NEP/P Rank
2009-10 DEN 0.02 16 0.03 13 0.00 17

Surprisingly, the Broncos were not a total train wreck with McDaniels at the helm, ranking middle-of-the-road in every facet of the game except Offensive Rushing NEP per play. Despite slumping from a 6-0 start to his tenure to just 5-17 over the remaining games, the Broncos were never a bad team on the whole.

Part of the trouble for the perception of this team was the fact that they got blown out a lot. 19 games from 2009 to 2010 were decided by a margin of 10 points or more, and the Broncos went 7-12 in those games. They averaged 33.43 points in their wins but gave up 39.71 on average in their losses.

That kind of decimation -- getting blown out on average by a touchdown more than you blow teams out -- can leave an impact on the memory of fans and ownership.

There was more working against McDaniels than just the poor play on the field, however.

Come on Bus, Do Your Stuff

When Josh McDaniels came to Denver, it was with the expectation that he would have talented young quarterback Jay Cutler as his starter. Cutler, drafted just three years earlier, was aptly compared to Brett Favre for his cannon arm and gunslinger mentality, so it’s no wonder that a passing guru like McDaniels would have loved to work with a player like Cutler.

However, rumors began to swirl that the Broncos were trying to trade Cutler in order to acquire Patriots backup Matt Cassel, who McDaniels had worked with longer. McDaniels denied the rumors, but Cutler was livid and demanded a trade, threatening to sit out the season if they didn’t move him.

The Broncos complied, and Cutler went to the Chicago Bears, while former fourth-rounder Kyle Orton -- along with two first-round picks and a third -- came back to Denver.

But what if the Broncos had had Cutler rather than Orton as their starter during McDaniels’ tenure?

The table below compares Cutler’s and Orton’s production in Passing NEP per drop back and Passing Success Rate (the percent of plays that contributed positive NEP) over the 2009 and 2010 seasons. How do they stack up?

Full Name Team Drop Backs Passing NEP/P Passing Success Rate
Jay Cutler CHI 1,071 -0.02 44.16%
Kyle Orton DEN 1,102 0.05 44.56%

Despite Cutler’s major upside, it’s clear how much better Orton was for the Broncos, to the tune of nearly 38.00 Passing NEP each of those seasons -- and that’s without considering that Orton didn’t even start the final three games of 2010.

There was little difference in their Passing Success Rate also, so it’s not as if Cutler was simply more inconsistent; his 50 touchdowns didn’t outweigh the fact that he also tossed an abhorrent 42 interceptions. Orton, on the other hand, passed for just 41 touchdowns but limited his air turnovers to just 21.

What's most surprising is how McDaniels took the mediocre talent in exchange for the first-round stud and flip-flopped their fortunes: Orton was coming off a 2008 season that saw him earn just -0.02 Passing NEP per drop back (change of +0.07), while Cutler generated 0.20 the previous year (-0.22 change).

Part of this difference in production is likely due to the fact that the Broncos had stellar receivers, including 2010 rookies Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but that also has to do with McDaniels’ influence. The 2010 first-round pick that Chicago traded with Orton was swapped down in the Draft a few times but ended up being used to select Thomas, while one of those trade-downs netted the third-round pick used on Decker.

Chicago floundered on offense with lackluster weapons as the draft capital they sent to Denver was spun a few times over for extra value.

It’s clear, based on the value the Broncos generated from 2009 to 2010 that McDaniels definitely should have earned a little more leeway than he did to establish his vision.

Plus, aside from the draft negotiations and the quarterback whispering alone, we know McDaniels can orchestrate some pretty good offensive showings when he has talent to work with.

Excellent Observation

As for his next step, it appears that the San Francisco 49ers are McDaniels’ hottest suitor, and McDaniels appears to be interested in the franchise as well.

If the match is made, he’ll be tasked with essentially rebuilding the team from the ground up. The table below depicts the 49ers’ 2016 rankings at each offensive skill position (in terms of Total NEP per play) and their rankings in Defensive Passing and Rushing NEP per play.

Team QB Rank RB Rank WR Rank TE Rank Pass D Rank Rush D Rank
SF 25th 23rd 32nd 17th 26th 30th

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Carlos Hyde are really the lone bright spots on the offense, but Kaepernick is an impending free agent with animosity towards the Niners’ front office and Hyde has played just 34 of a possible 48 games since being drafted.

Whoever McDaniels taps to run the defense is in for a treat as well, given the team’s bottom-quarter rankings in both phases of the game on that side of the ball.

Fortunately, San Francisco is sitting on the second pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. If McDaniels gets this job and doesn’t see a franchise-changing talent at 1.02, he may just swap down and accrue value later in the draft.

While it may be a risk for San Francisco to hire a relatively unproven McDaniels, and it may be dicey for McDaniels to bank his head-coaching career on a franchise as threadbare as the 49ers, he’s earned the chance to make some mistakes and get messy.

That’s the only way we learn, after all.