It grew quickly, as if fed by speculation from the fans. When news broke that Bill O'Brien was headed to Penn State after this season to coach the Nittany Lions, New England Patriots fans' eyes drifted across the map from the Bay State to the Gateway to the West—St. Louis, home of the Rams, where Josh McDaniels was.
Everyone had the same thought. Maybe he would come back. Why not, right?
But then the rumor did what most rumors never do. It took on legs and life. First the Patriots contacted the Rams about the possibility. Then the Rams said to McDaniels, in essence, go wherever you want. No catch. Just go.
Then it was official. McDaniels was headed to Foxborough immediately to assist with the offense this year and, it's almost certain, to coordinate the offense next year. The mind behind the highest-scoring offense in football history was returning. The Josh Mac attack is back.
Though McDaniels was highly successful with the Patriots and didn't go against the family when he left—as opposed to Eric Mangini, who remains Fredo Corleone to Bill Belichick—this move goes against the Patriots' nature.
New England never brings back coordinators and coaches. They promote, their promotions are successful, they leave. Repeat. Even Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, who have three rings as Belichick assistants, haven't generated whispers of returning as they've hit rocky shores away from New England.
And now McDaniels, at one point the most coveted young offensive mind in the game, is breaking the mold.
Taking advantage of an opportunity to easily bring back McDaniels was a simple decision (ESPN's Mike Reiss called it a "slam dunk"). As is the case with any coaching decision, however, there are bound to be those who disagree with the move. Here are the grounds for both sides.
It's hard to look at this move and not at least be satisfied. It's rare to immediately upgrade at the coordinator position. Upgrades happen, but the replacement is usually a lesser-known mind that proves himself over time. But it's fair to say that McDaniels is a more respected coach than O'Brien.
After all, McDaniels' resume in New England is vast. As the offensive coordinator from 2006 to '08, McDaniels helmed an offense that helped the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game or beyond twice. The exception was 2008, when the Patriots lost Tom Brady and New England still recovered to become a dangerous 11-5 team that missed out on the playoffs by tiebreakers.
Though 2007 was McDaniels' masterpiece, as he called the plays for a record-setting offense that saw Brady throw 50 touchdown passes and Randy Moss catch 23 of them, 2008 may have been his magnum opus.
His playcalling and schemes helped Matt Cassel fill in for Brady and go from being a kid who hadn't started since high school to being a near Pro-Bowler with two 400-yard passing games under his belt.
McDaniels had (and obviously, has) the complete trust of Belichick, and he was in sync with Brady throughout his tenure here. With a return to an offense he helped build, it should be a seamless transition at the coordinator spot.
McDaniels' offense in New England was never synonymous with "balance." McDaniels morphed the Patriots' traditional under-center, slow-paced offense into a spread-out, shotgun-based aerial attack. Running back and tight end production slumped, as the Patriots were consistently firing the ball out of four- and five-receiver sets.
That scheme was fine with Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney lining up, but it quickly crumbled when McDaniels left and the Patriots tried to keep running it even as the talent at the receiver spot eroded.
The Patriots have made more of an effort to switch to a balanced scheme, as they've drafted star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and spent a first-round pick on tackle Nate Solder. Receivers have gone from primary weapons to complimentary pieces in New England. Moss is now Deion Branch, Stallworth is Chad Ochocinco. The tight ends make the offense go these days.
Will that click with McDaniels' philosophy? If he's coming in with an intention of ripping the offense up and going back to the old way, he could be trying to fix something that isn't broken.
Furthermore, McDaniels will always carry an indelible mark on his resume from Super Bowl XLII. He and Belichick combined to get badly outcoached, failing to adjust the offensive attack, even as the New York Giants forced them to, until it was too late. The Giants brought pressure all game, and though more running plays and quick passes might have provided the solution, the Patriots kept trying to force the ball downfield. Five Brady sacks later, the perfect season was history.
McDaniels did more than enough good in New England for his addition to be a good one. The passing game flourished, and he built a reputation as much on play calling as scheme-building. It's hard to know offense that well and not know how to work with two excellent tight ends.
Furthermore, McDaniels will know this isn't a project. Brady threw for 5,000 yards. The offense led the AFC in scoring. If the Patriots had a semblance of a defense, they'd be rolling to the Super Bowl.
But the Patriots did need an offensive coordinator for next year, and they got a better one. Under McDaniels, the offense went from decent to historic. Imagine the possibilities with this group.
He'll have to make adjustments. He'll have to acknowledge the value of the running game. He'll have to take advantage of the vast blocking schemes the Patriots have added since his departure.
But he shouldn't forget what made him who he is. The Patriots have a, so far, disappointing project in Ochocinco. Maybe McDaniels figures out how to get him involved. And with his immediate hiring, his help could come sooner rather than later.
The whiz kid is coming back. That should be plenty of reason for Patriots fans to be excited.
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