Granted, when you have Tom Brady to run your offense, you’re at a distinct advantage. Maybe the greatest advantage of any team in modern NFL history.
But there’s a man behind the scenes who spends countless hours trying to figure out which plays will work best for Brady. As the Patriots prepare to face the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, his contributions should not be overlooked. Even if he’s been overlooked in recent years by several teams looking for a head coach.
Josh McDaniels already had a crack at being one, and things didn’t go so well in an ill-fated 28-game run (11-17) with the Broncos in 2009-10. In a league that routinely gives coaches a second chance, McDaniels, 40, is still waiting for another shot. Which is fine with the Patriots, because they get to keep one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds and a coach at the top of his game.
It’s Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has done exceptional work himself in helping Matt Ryan to his best-ever season, who is the hot candidate. He’s the presumptive head coach for the 49ers, who opted for the son of former Broncos and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan over McDaniels. But the Patriots’ play-caller has the chance to earn a fifth Super Bowl title as one of Bill Belichick’s top lieutenants.
McDaniels has done some of his best work this season, and not simply because of Brady. With the 39-year-old quarterback suspended the first four games for his alleged role in the Deflategate scandal, McDaniels helped the Pats go 3-1 with the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett. Neither had ever started an NFL game, but McDaniels’ adaptability proved essential in helping the Patriots survive the early challenge.
Although Brady deserves most of the credit for yet another terrific season — he had 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions — McDaniels’ influence cannot be understated. As quarterbacks coach and play-caller, he has been brilliant in figuring out weaknesses and calling exceptional games.
McDaniels did some of his best work in Sunday’s 36-17 win over the Steelers, not only calling plays that would take advantage of Pittsburgh’s reliance on zone defenses but also relying on seldom-used Chris Hogan as Brady’s go-to receiver. Hogan had a career day with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, as the Patriots went away from Julian Edelman and tight end Martellus Bennett.
It typified the Patriots’ willingness to use any means necessary to win. Even if it meant going to a player who hadn’t produced a 100-yard game until this season.
“The guys have an unselfishness about them that’s unique, and I don’t really think they much care who gets credit or who creates statistics or what have you,” McDaniels said. “Our guys are excited for each other’s success, and when they get their opportunities and their turn, they’re just ready to go and do whatever they can to help the team win.”
McDaniels might need a similarly imaginative game plan against the Falcons, who outscored the Seahawks and Packers by a combined 80-41 in the playoffs. Atlanta’s defense struggled much of the regular season, giving up an average of 371.2 yards and 25.4 points. But part of the reason for those unimpressive numbers was because opponents were often in catch-up mode late. The defense has been better in the playoffs against quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons also have had a sustained pass rush, with five sacks and several pressures.
So McDaniels will adjust his game plan accordingly, perhaps sprinkling in more of the no-huddle he used against the Steelers.
“What’s really important is how we execute whatever it is we’re doing,” he said. “You can go fast and go nowhere in a hurry, and then you just come off the field and give the ball back to the other team quickly. There’s a lot of ways to go about that.”
Rest assured McDaniels will leave no stone unturned during his preparation. And if Brady earns his fifth Super Bowl victory, which would be a record for a quarterback, he can thank him for calling the right shots at the right time. Just as he has all season — even when Brady was watching from his couch.