On the morning of Dec. 6, 2010, a plane touched down at Akron-Canton Airport. Thom McDaniels turned on his phone as the plane slowed, and it rang immediately. It was his son Josh. The day before, Thom had watched Josh's Broncos lose to the Chiefs in Kansas City. Now, Josh had some news.
"Dad, the Broncos let me go this morning," Josh said. "I want you to know I'm fine. Laura is fine. Tell Mom for me, would you?"
Not long after, Thom called his son back. Like most good dads, Thom doesn't hold back when he thinks his son needed to be told something. And when Thom has something to say about coaching, his words are well received by his son.
These days, Thom mows greens on a golf course. But for 38 years, he carved a legend in northeast Ohio as a high school football coach. Josh started tagging along to his practices when he was five years old.
"You need to write down everything you would do differently if you ever get a chance to be a head coach again," Thom told him. "Do it while everything is fresh in your mind. Over time, add to it."
Josh created an Excel document on his laptop. He named it "lessonslearned.xls."
For a long time, McDaniels had been living on fast forward. After playing a role in three Patriots Super Bowl championships, he was hired as head coach of the Broncos at the don't-know-what-you-don't-know age of 33. The Broncos gave him almost as much power as his former boss Bill Belichick had in New England.
McDaniels quickly traded quarterback Jay Cutler and reshaped the organization to what some called "New England West." He won his first six games as a head coach but then lost 17 of his next 22.
He lost his team and lost himself in the process.
That winter and into the spring of 2011, McDaniels had plenty of time to ponder it all. He took a job in St. Louis as the offensive coordinator. His wife Laura and their children stayed in Colorado to finish out the school year. That was the offseason of the NFL lockout, so there were no players to coach.
The other Rams coaches would clear out of the facility early and head home for dinner with their families. McDaniels would order from a local restaurant that delivered. If not, he would save some leftovers from lunch or microwave a couple of instant oatmeal packets he had picked up from the breakfast buffet at his hotel and stashed.
He was alone in his office for five or six hours every night until 10:30 or 11. The room was barren—no photos, mementos or decorations. The shelves were empty. A couple of boxes with his belongings sat in a corner. The view out his window for too long was a gray sky and a snow-covered practice field.
In the silence, McDaniels found himself. And he began to imagine a new coach.
"I was by myself—just me and my thoughts," McDaniels says. "I had very little interaction with other people. I had time to go back over everything we did in Denver, the decisions we made, step by step. I could slow it down."
There were many lessons to be considered, about big things and small: the length of meetings, player discipline, to call plays or not call plays, developing assistant coaches, time management, how to build the roster, handling the media, scheduling, how hard to work players...on and on.
Much of what he thought about had to do with relationships. He continued the dialogue with his father and reached out to others he trusted, including Ted Crews, who was in charge of Rams public relations at the time, and Bill O'Brien, who had succeeded him as offensive coordinator in New England.
"He was more willing to take advice," Thom McDaniels says.
He had some long talks with Tony Dungy, his one-time rival with the Colts. Dungy told him he needed to self-reflect every year, whether he was fired or won the Super Bowl. They talked about the importance of being yourself and trusting instincts. Having fun is not a bad thing. Dungy stressed that a head coach's consistency with a team really mattered. They talked about the formula that makes a good coaching staff. Dungy gave him some ideas about keeping his faith at the center of his life as his coaching world turned.
"I could relate to where he was at the time, having been fired myself," Dungy says. "He's a very smart guy, and we just talked about finding the next spot—the one that would be best for him."
At the time, the right next spot was a step back—back to New England as an offensive assistant. Five years later, he's offensive coordinator and could be close to finding another next spot.
"I would look at his years in Denver as a positive, not a negative," one NFC general manager says. "It made him realize he needs to rely on his strengths. He now realizes that Belichick is a rarity, and no one can run the show like him. [But] like Bill, Josh can adapt to any circumstance, and he can do this with limited prep time. ...
"If I were an owner, hiring Josh would be a no-brainer."
"Lesson Learned: Take time to digest information and make good, PATIENT decisions. Never rush into anything—all things are important. Impulsive—is a bad word—listen to everyone and make the RIGHT decision. Nothing gets fixed quickly."
Trading Cutler was not McDaniels' intention when he arrived in Denver. He had heard some things and was sniffing around. Then Cutler started to get suspicious, and the relationship started to turn.
Rather than try to salvage things, McDaniels said screw it. He traded him.
"I learned the hard way," he says. "We could have avoided that, no question."
As he grayed, Thom McDaniels recognized he became a more thoughtful, measured and calculating leader. He told his son he needed to do the same. And Josh acknowledges that he was too reactive and emotional during his Denver days.
"I don't know that I was as patient as I needed to be in most situations, whether it was game-planning, on the sidelines, preparation for the draft, personnel moves, whatever," he says. "There is an element of this game that tests your ability to slow down and make a good decision. I was allowing the way I felt at the moment to make the decision."
McDaniels still wants to be passionate, but he wants to channel his emotion in a productive way.
He is, for instance, trying to clean up his language.
"I don't think swearing sends a good message," he says. "When I do it, I feel bad about it. Before, I don't know that I ever even thought about it. My frustration would be apparent. Now my response to a bad practice is to try to find the positives and show them how to learn from mistakes."
This year, McDaniels could have become flustered about having quarterback Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the season. He could have become exasperated when Brady's backup Jimmy Garoppolo sprained his shoulder. He could have fired a clipboard when third-stringer Jacoby Brissett injured his thumb.
But he just kind of rolled with it.
"It is what it is," McDaniels says with a smile and a shrug. "We'll be ready."
McDaniels is focused on living in the now—not on when Brady comes back or when the playoffs start or when he gets a chance to be a head coach again. His attention this week is on beating the Bills, whether it's with Garoppolo, Brissett or even Julian Edelman at quarterback.
Instability at QB often exposes coaches. For McDaniels, it has been a showcase. With two backups, the Patriots have scored more points than all but four teams. McDaniels has shown flexibility in game-planning and diligence about long-term development as well as short-term preparation.
Instead of coming unglued under difficult circumstances, he has embraced them.
"I enjoy coaching all of the quarterbacks," he says. "The games are great, but my favorite thing is getting an opportunity to spend time with a position group and just teach.
"You have to navigate the different levels of learning. Jimmy is an eager learner. Jacoby is a smart guy who loves football. He wants to get better and invest himself in it."
"Lesson Learned: LISTEN better. To anyone who tells me something. There are so many people who can help us win & have wisdom I don't have. I will do my part in teaching but can never stop learning myself. Best results come from a group effort!"
As a head coach, McDaniels had to deal with many more team employees than he did and does as an offensive coordinator. But he really didn't have time for the director of accounting or community relations liaison. He was there for football, right? They could talk to his assistant.
McDaniels was guarded. He kept to himself. It seemed like the bridge between the rest of the building and McDaniels' office was raised most of the time.
If someone had an idea, McDaniels wasn't all that interested in hearing it. He'd rather do something himself and know it would be done to his standards than delegate to a subordinate. He unwittingly suppressed creativity and growth.
Now? "I've had an opportunity to truly understand the value of interpersonal relationships and the feelings people have in the building, coach to player, player to coach, person to person," he says. "I don't know that I ever considered that before."
His goal is to be a resource to those he works with, a servant leader. He wants to empower co-workers by trusting and sharing the responsibilities of guiding a team.
Not long ago, Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll was assigned to put together a third-down scouting report. Daboll came up with a new way of presenting it. He ran it by McDaniels first. It gave McDaniels pause. In the past, he would have told him to redo it the way that McDaniels was most comfortable. But he knew Daboll felt good about the report and had worked hard on it.
Green light given.
"As much as we are on the same staff, we don't all think the same," McDaniels says. "That's OK. Before, I might have been frustrated with that. Now I feel that's a healthy thing."
Watching and talking to Belichick during his second Patriots tenure has made this clear to him. "After being a head coach myself, I look at him in a different light when he speaks to the staff or players," McDaniels said. "I appreciate how supportive he has been of me, and I see how supportive he is to others."
When he was in Denver, McDaniels wore a hoodie with cutoff sleeves to practice at times. Was he trying to be a Belichick clone? Maybe, but he isn't now. He has great respect for the way Belichick does things, but he wants to be Josh McDaniels.
The respect is mutual. "I just know he has done a great job at everything I have ever asked him to do," Belichick says.
While Belichick always has considered McDaniels smart, dependable, well prepared and team-oriented, he says this: "Being with two other organizations, Denver and St. Louis, and knowing how intelligent and perceptive he is, Josh undoubtedly has gained perspectives that he wouldn't have otherwise had. I'm sure that has helped him grow professionally."
"Lesson Learned: Be considerate of assistant coaches' time, their emotions & make sure they always know how much I care. Push them, hold them accountable and love each one of them personally. We win as a team, we lose as a team and I always take responsibility for the losses. They get the credit when we win—they deserve it."
In McDaniels' second season as a head coach, the Broncos hosted the Raiders in a game that could have turned around their season. The Raiders gave them a 59-14 whipping. McDaniels gathered his assistants in the locker room and chewed them out. He assessed blame and vented.
The young McDaniels never took time to think about how people he worked with might be feeling. He either was lost in the moment or was thinking ahead about what he had to do next.
One former assistant said McDaniels' people skills were a problem.
"I was tough on assistants," McDaniels says. "I didn't do a good enough job of making them feel good, in terms of what they were doing for us. I have learned how important that is to make sure they understand how much you appreciate them. They need to be able to enjoy working with you. There is no doubt I appreciated them. I just don't know that I demonstrated that."
When he came back to New England, McDaniels noticed something: Belichick knew all of his children's names—Jack, Maddie, Livia and Neenah. He thought about that.
While leaving a recent game, McDaniels bumped into offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and his wife Susan in the parking lot. He stopped to thank them. Scarnecchia returned to the Patriots this year after a two-year retirement.
"It's so good to have him back," he said to Susan. "I hope you are enjoying this."
Four years after McDaniels' tirade following the loss to the Raiders, his Patriots endured a similar embarrassment, this time losing 41-14 at Kansas City. Instead of railing at his offensive assistants, McDaniels apologized for not doing his job well enough. He told his staff and his players he had confidence the Patriots would bounce back from the loss.
He was right. The Patriots went on a tear and ended that season in a confetti shower, passing around a silver trophy.
"Lesson Learned: I wanted to practice until I felt we totally had it. Wrong Choice. I need to lighten the load and REALIZE the value in allowing the players to feel good about that. Players who feel you are taking care of them will give you all they have during the week and on Sunday."
There was friction and distrust between McDaniels and some of his Broncos players. In a 2013 interview with 750 The Game in Portland (via PFT), punter Mitch Berger said McDaniels wouldn't talk to him or look at him if he performed below his standards. "I never played for a guy in my life who guys wanted to play for less," he said. "He was just a guy you didn't care about."
Having a feel-good relationship with players, McDaniels thought at the time, wasn't important. Scoring touchdowns, sacking the quarterback, having more takeaways than the opponent—that's what he thought was important.
He thinks differently now. At one point, it dawned on him: His father always seemed to strike the right balance between being demanding and compassionate with this players, and he was beloved for it. Without mutual respect, he realized, it's almost impossible to achieve mutual goals.
When McDaniels returned to the Patriots in 2012 and was reunited with Brady, the coach and quarterback had to figure out how to work with one another again. Their last full season together was 2007, and each had grown since then.
Brady had ideas about how to do things differently. He liked the way O'Brien had handled aspects of the offense. McDaniels' playbook and his approach had evolved in five years. There was some tension between them on game-planning.
"I got used to Billy's style," Brady says. "Josh wasn't a part of the processes it took to get to where we were when he came back. You spend a few years apart, and it's not like you come back together and it's instantaneous.
"We had to work back towards communication and trusting each other and believing what the other was saying would mesh. I usually end up deferring to him, because I have a lot of trust in him."
McDaniels adds: "We had a lot of discussions. It took time. It took some giving. We learned to communicate effectively together to the point where it's not going to be all my way, it's not going to be all his way. We worked really hard on our relationship, and I think it's in as good a place now as it's ever been because we have given the other person the trust and the respect."
Brady says he talks with McDaniels more than anyone else.
"I think Gisele gets jealous of the time I spend talking to Josh," he says. "But she understands. This is something we both care deeply about."
Brady and McDaniels spend time talking about Gisele, Brady's supermodel wife, too. And Laura, and the rest of their families. Remember: McDaniels, 40, is just one year older than Brady. They experienced marriage and children on a similar timetable. The other day they had a conversation about how the book The Five Love Languages applies to relationships with their children.
"He may need me more in that regard than he does for something else," McDaniels says. "Somebody else can draw up a play."
It has been rewarding for Brady to witness the maturation of McDaniels.
"I trust him, I respect him, I love him like a brother," Brady says. "He's not just my coach. He'll be a friend the rest of my life. We've been through a lot of wins, losses, tough seasons and incredible seasons. It's been a fun ride to experience with him."
"Lesson Learned: Stay fresh & healthy—don't overdo it—it will eventually burn me out! Never let that happen!!!"
By December 27, the 2009 season had become a grueling one for McDaniels. His Broncos had just lost to the Eagles, and he was miserable and frustrated. He was gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles were white, but he couldn't steer his team where he wanted it to go.
As the parking lot cleared at Mile High Stadium, McDaniels decided he should lie down in the coaches' locker room. That's where Ben McDaniels, Josh's brother and his offensive assistant on the Broncos, found him. His color was off. He was feeling light-headed and overheated, and he had a migraine. Doctors were called.
He almost was proud of his condition. He figured he was a wounded warrior of sorts. He was the work-through-anything football coach who ate poorly, didn't sleep enough, had little balance in his life and ignored symptoms of ill health.
That was then. This past offseason, he started working out a few times a week at TB12—Brady's training facility, which emphasizes high-intensity workouts. He also cut down on carbs and started eating a lot of fish and vegetables. He lost 20 pounds, and he feels better than he has in a decade.
During training camp, he and Daboll took a brisk walk almost every day through Patriot Place, the open-air shopping center adjacent to Gillette Stadium. They would spend maybe 45 minutes de-stressing, talking about families, vacations, other sports or anything that wasn't work-related.
McDaniels looks vibrant. He smiles a lot. Especially when he is around his family.
Shortly after the Patriots dismantled the Dolphins two Sundays ago, McDaniels picked up Maddie, 10, from a friend's house. On the ride home, he asked her about her gymnastics training. She asked about the game.
"Remember that nice man who gave you the book he wrote?" he said to her, referring to tight end/children's book author Martellus Bennett. "He scored a touchdown."
Once home, he wished A.J. a happy birthday and scratched behind his ears. A.J., white, brown and affectionate, is one of two Lagotto Romagnolos in the house. Bear, cocoa-colored and rambunctious, is the other. The dogs were imported from Italy.
When 12-year-old Jack walked in, football was the subject.
"How was your flag football game?" McDaniels asked. They talked about it for a bit, and then Jack wanted to know why Dad called so many runs up the middle against the Dolphins. Everyone had a chuckle.
While Laura tended to Livia, 6, and Neenah, 3, who were face painting, Josh set up the carry-out trays of chicken salad, pasta and Italian sausage.
After dinner, the McDaniels like to sit around and talk and laugh, maybe with a cooking show on TV. One of the girls doing cartwheels. Another reviewing homework. Jack playing video games on the computer.
"This line of work can swallow you up," Laura says. "But when he's with the kids, he can stop what he's doing and talk about the school dance.
"That wasn't easy for him. He's worked on it and still is working on it. I think he has changed."
Josh is doing what he needs to do in order to share himself with his family.
"I've learned if I don't take time to enjoy the things that are important to me, I'll look back 20 years from now and say, ‘What did I do this for?'" he says. "If that means leaving work early so I can see the kids and coming back earlier the next morning when they are sleeping anyway, that's what I'll do."
"Lesson Learned: Lean on my faith and be myself—I love this game and enjoy working hard at it to compete with the very best. Trust our process and enjoy each day—it's a blessing to work in this game—let people see how much I treasure this privilege."
By now, more than a hundred lessons learned populate McDaniels' laptop. This one may be as important as any.
Known for his hugs and for making men feel good about themselves, Jack Easterby came to the Patriots as their character coach in 2013 after serving as the team chaplain of the Chiefs.
The Southern gentleman has been praised by Brady and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, among others, for helping to reshape the Patriots' culture by encouraging service to others, humility and poise.
"He has changed a lot of lives, and I'm on that list," McDaniels says. "He's one of my best friends, and he's got me to embrace how important faith is in my life. It's changed me as a person in terms of how I interact with everyone. It's changed my outlook on everything."
McDaniels looks forward to Saturday night bible study with Easterby and the coaching staff, as well as Sunday services at Waters Church when he is not calling plays.
"From my eyes, I think he's a more balanced guy at this point," says his brother Ben, now an offensive assistant with the Bears. "His faith is of significance in his life now. That's visible to me. I've witnessed that."
The McDaniels boys—father Thom and sons Jay, Josh and Ben—sometimes exchange spiritual and inspirational texts. In May, Josh texted this to the others:
"If u want to be happy for an hour, take a nap.
…for a day, go fishing.
…for a week, take a vacation.
…for a lifetime, serve others."
Josh McDaniels is happy again. He probably will be when he finds his next spot too.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.