BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — As he is going out the door, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels couldn’t be facing a bigger challenge than attempting to solve the Eagles defense.
Even with Tom Brady at the controls, scoring on the Eagles during Super Bowl LII promises to be a difficult challenge for the reigning champs. The key will be holding off the Eagles’ pass rush and keeping Brady from facing up-the-middle pressure, which has stymied him at times in the past.
It will be up to McDaniels to X-and-O his way through Jim Schwartz’s menacing defense in his Patriots swan song. The Pats assistant is considered signed, sealed, and delivered to be the Indianapolis Colts’ next head coach. (A deal can’t be made official until after the Super Bowl.)
Until then, McDaniels will have many more visions of Fletcher Cox than he will of Andrew Luck.
Cox has been playing better than his three-time Pro Bowl résumé in the postseason, but his statistics don’t tell the entire story despite his two tackles for losses, including a sack and four quarterback hurries in the Eagles’ two playoff wins.
The book on getting to Brady is to apply relentless pressure up the middle. Cox is able to do that, or at least occupy two to three blockers so others can find their way into the Patriots’ backfield.
During the week in Minnesota, McDaniels has been almost reverential when taking about the Eagles defense.
“They don’t make any mistakes, or very few that you can see,” McDaniels said. “They are always coordinated on defense, they have smart players, they are in position, they make you fight for every yard gained during the course of the game.”
In the Eagles’ 38-7 win over Minnesota in the NFC championship game, the Eagles defense scored as many points as the Vikings offense.
“Their front four is very talented in the running game, the pass rush is very disruptive, and if you don’t do the right things up there, then the rest of the stuff you talk about won’t matter,” McDaniels said.
This isn’t just a coach throwing the traditional bouquet the way of an opponent. McDaniels has a legitimate reason to worry.
Then again, so do the Eagles. McDaniels has developed a reputation as one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. Of course, it helps having Brady and his five Super Bowl rings under center.
It also helps having a seasoned offensive coordinator. Between his two Patriots stints, McDaniels had two humbling experiences as a head coach and offensive coordinator outside of New England.
He left the first time to take over as the head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009. That stint didn’ last even two years — he was fired in 2010 with a 3-9 record in his second season. He finished 11-17 during his brief time in Denver.
In 2011 he became offensive coordinator for the then-St. Louis Rams and presided over a train wreck of a 2-14 season, in which three quarterbacks started at least three games. They were Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, and Kellen Clemens, a group that won’t make anybody forget about Brady.
McDaniels was 33 years old when he was hired by Denver, considered the wunderkind of NFL coaches.
Even though he has been around seemingly forever, McDaniels is still just 41 years old, nine years younger than Eagles coach Doug Pederson. And in football years he is both wiser and definitely humbled by his lack of success outside of New England.
“Sometimes I think failure is the best teacher,” McDaniels said. “And I learned that certainly over the course of my career whether it has been here or someplace else.”
As a result, he hopes those losses in Denver and St. Louis weren’t in vain. His work with Brady and the Patriots offense has been impressive. Just ask Brady.
“I communicate with him probably more than anybody in my life,” Brady said. “I can’t say enough good things on what he has meant to me, how much he taught me, how great a coach he has been for me, and gotten the best out of me.”
McDaniels’ first stint in New England began in 2001 as a personnel/coaching assistant, and he worked his way up to offensive coordinator for three years before being hired by Denver. The last six years, including this season, have included three Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl titles, with the prospect of a third against the Eagles.
He also believes he has plenty of room for growth.
“I am nowhere near a finished product as a coach myself,” he said.
Maybe not, but it’s likely he is a better product after his second stint with the Patriots than after the first.