Why Josh McDaniels Needs Paul Ekman

Rob BursonCorrespondent IJune 24, 2009

Who the heck is Paul Ekman and why pray-tell does fresh faced Broncos coach Josh McDaniels need him?

Quick. When you think of Josh McDaniels' facial expressions, what's the first one to pop into your mind? For me, it's the "SMIRK".

The smirk was in full force during the Cutler drama. The press corps would ask him a question during an interview about Jay Cutler and McDaniels would answer earnestly enough, it would seem, but then kind of half smile and give us all the "I know something you don't know" look and throw everything off kilter. Something didn't seem right.

It was the glimpse of a facial expression that made us all not want to like the guy. An uneasy feeling in the gut, whether we were consciously aware of it or not. He's the kind of guy that just rubs you the wrong way...Why is he smirking when the world's on fire?

Cutler certainly wasn't innocent in the "body language" department either. The former Broncos quarterback had the face of a sulker through and through. His facial and body expressions exuded the language of a 12 year old boy who was tired of listening to the rules of the house and just wanted his stupid parents to leave him alone.

It was not an endearing trait at all. Much like McDaniels' facial expressions, it rubbed people the wrong way. Nobody likes a pouter. Especially one making millions of dollars a year.

Just for fun, type "smirk" into a Google images search. Before doing so, think for a moment: which famous American figure is likely to show up more often than any other in that search?

You got it: George W. Bush. The KING of the smirk.

So what's this have to do with the Denver Broncos and Josh McDaniels?

Paul Ekman is a psychologist who began studying facial expressions (and body language) in the 1960's. He traveled the world for years on end and studied humans and their various facial expressions diligently. Ekman essentially established that our facial expressions were universal in nature.

Sadness, for example, was expressed the same the world over, whether in the Japanese culture or deep in the Amazon rain forest with a remote tribe. Every emotional expression was universal. Ekman's work is widely respected in the scientific community; the best selling book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell deals extensively with Ekman, and the popular television show "Lie to Me" is based upon his studies and his life.

Ekman, at one point his career, contacted the Bill Clinton administration with a concern. He told Clinton's team that their man was sending out some really bad signals with his facial expressions:

"I said, 'Look, Clinton's got this way of rolling his eyes along with a certain expression, and what it conveys is "I'm a bad boy." I don't think it's a good thing. I could teach him how not to do that in two to three hours..."

The Clinton team demurred. Why? They didn't need the negative publicity that would come along with the President being coached by an expert on body language and lying. A few years later the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit...

Ekman, since that experience, has stated that he prefer's to stay out of the business of public officials. He would have had a hay day with Bush's smirk though.

And what of McDaniels' facial clues? How are we to interpret his wry little smile that curls the triangularis lip muscle downward in the corner when it should be sliding up into a smile of sincerity? We know, instinctively that he LOOKS like he's being insincere. Almost like...he's laughing...AT US.

Remember the 60 Minutes interview with Obama on the state of the economy, when Steve Kroft confronted the President about his laughter throughout the interview, at one point even inquiring if Barack was "punch drunk?"

Kroft was picking up on facial cues and body language. Facial micro expressions and inappropriate vocalizations. So was the audience.

You'd think that the President of the United States would have coaches, of the Ekman variety, navigating him through the dangerous mine fields of public interaction.

It's interesting to note that Ronald Reagan rarely had moments of inappropriate body language. He may have said things that were cringe worthy, but his gestures and facial expressions always brought us back to liking him.


Because he had coaching. Previous to becoming President of the United States, he was an actor. Somewhere along the line, he had trained professionals telling him: "You know, when you say this, you raise your eyebrows like this, and it doesn't work..."

Some NFL coaches come in and just seem to have that Ronald Reagan quality to them.

Yesterday I was watching ESPN and there is this guy, Rex Ryan, new head coach of the New York Jets, who is immediately likable.

Positive public relation traits abound. The first is his no-B.S. demeanor. This guy doesn't need a "communications" coach. Is he going to cross some lines? Oh yeah. Will we still like him anyway? Pretty much.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are guys like Bill Billichick and Josh McDaniels.

Interestingly, who was Ryan going after in his recent press conferences? The guy on the negative end of the public relations spectrum, Mr. Bellichick himself. Ryan had reporters giggling and fans chortling. You'd think he'd had acting lessons or something.

Can you imagine Josh McDaniels and Jay Cutler sitting across from one another in one of those early meeetings?

Jay: "I'll play for you if you keep the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in place." *pout*

Josh: "We'll do everything we can to make that happen." *smirk*

A recipe for disaster.

And the fans were able to pick up on it. Cutler's body language told us he felt "entitled", and that if he didn't get his way he was going to sulk and whine until he did.

McDaniels told us, clearly, that he had the go-ahead to do what ever the heck he felt like with this team. What we can interpret from his smirk is that Bowlen has given him the reigns, 100 percent.

That's the Ekman micro expression he is giving us, isn't it?

"Can you believe this? I've been given all this power, all this control, and all of you can just kiss my..."

If McDaniels continues to smirk his way through this season and seasons to come, things may not bode well for him. Winning games can get just about anybody through the gauntlet of the fans and media, it's true.

But for the moment, a young coach coming in and exuding a personality of smugness and condescension, especially after fans have lost the beloved Mike Shanahan, does not suit Mr. McDaniels well.

It doesn't mean he's a bad coach. It just means that he's now got the fans to gain. He lost them pretty darned quickly with his "I'm the big man on campus" attitude and smirky demeanor.

Is there a hint of things to come in his gestures and facial expressions? Can he gain control of his generally negative public perception?

A little bit of coaching, from a P.R. guru, might get this guy on the right track.

As Ekman said about Clinton: "...in two to three hours..." he could have him straightened out.

Perhaps McDaniels will get the hang of it with time. Maybe over a couple of years. For the moment however, he doesn't have "the touch" with the press or the public.

He'll have to work hard and dig deep to regain the trust of fans (and maybe even players), who find him insincere. Only time will tell.

Or perhaps, he just needs a good PR coach...


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