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For Packers, Josh McDaniels’ upside outweighs his red flags

Josh McDaniels carries some risk for teams in search of a new head coach. However, if he can settle some concerns about his past and his vision for his next NFL stop, hiring him makes sense for the Packers.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Just days after the 2018 regular season ended, the Green Bay Packers find themselves entrenched in what promises to be a lengthy search for their next head coach. Several candidates have already met with the team and many others have received official requests and even scheduled interviews of their own. Rumors and reports will inevitably dominate the next few weeks, as Green Bay and other teams narrow their search.

But while much remains in flux, it appears New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has emerged as the front-runner for the Packers’ head-coaching vacancy.

The Packers reportedly will interview McDaniels Friday, just over a week before the Patriots kick off in the divisional round. If McDaniels’ meeting goes well for both sides, he would presumably come in for a second interview later in the process.

McDaniels’ name has surfaced frequently in connection with Green Bay since the team fired Mike McCarthy back in November. Other coaches such as Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley have come up as well. However, both appear to have taken themselves out of the running, leaving the path clear for McDaniels. Though the Packers could still pivot to another candidate, he seems like the man to beat at this stage.

Hiring McDaniels certainly carries risk. He famously flamed out as Denver Broncos head coach during his early 30s, lasting less than two full seasons on the job. McDaniels, who had a hand in the team’s personnel decisions, made several disastrous moves such as trading away a first-round pick in order to move up in the second round for undersized corner Alphonso Smith and burning another first-rounder on Tim Tebow. McDaniels also struggled with delegation, preferring to do nearly everything himself. That approach caused issues within his coaching staff and on game day. And, of course, McDaniels appeared to have an agreement in place to take over the Indianapolis Colts last offseason before changing his mind at the 11th hour.

For a team like the Packers, some of these concerns matter less than others. McDaniels’ shortcomings in player personnel wouldn’t affect any hiring decision as those responsibilities belong to general manager Brian Gutekunst. Granted, the GM and head coach work together on personnel decisions. However, the final say lies with Gutekunst, reducing or eliminating the risk of another Smith or Tebow selection. And as for last year’s Colts drama, McDaniels surely knows he can ill afford a repeat.

However, Green Bay needs to learn how McDaniels plans to manage his coaching staff. If McDaniels still believes he needs to do everything rather than trust to his hand-picked assistants, that could force the franchise to look in a different direction. And even if McDaniels has learned how to better handle the workload, his choices for coordinators and other coaching spots could influence the Packers’ evaluation.

Should McDaniels check off those boxes, his upside outweighs his red flags for the Packers. The team has struggled to stay on the cutting edge offensively in recent years, an issue that seemed to widen the divide between star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his since-fired head coach Mike McCarthy. Other issues have contributed to Green Bay’s recent woes, but the next hire must address the offense and build trust with the man under center.

In McDaniels, the Packers would have a coach with the expertise to bring the offense into the modern era and the bona fides, plus an endorsement from Tom Brady, to appeal to Rodgers. During each of his stints in New England, McDaniels has managed to keep his offenses on the cutting edge, borrowing liberally from the top units in the NFL and at the college level. Just as importantly, McDaniels has catered to the Patriots’ personnel, a group that has changed frequently and hasn’t always featured much top-end talent.

McDaniels also utilizes the Erhardt-Perkins system, an offensive language not nearly as unwieldy as that of the West Coast offense. Erhardt-Perkins facilitates quicker communication between coach and quarterback as well as players at the line of scrimmage, allowing for a lightning fast no-huddle approach.

The Packers received a close look at all of those strengths just a few months ago. McDaniels used pre-snap motion to create favorable matchups for Brady and the offense, often drawing a linebacker into coverage over pass-catching scatback James White. White quickly proved too difficult for Green Bay defenders to handle, finishing the game tied for the team lead in receptions.

Meanwhile in the backfield, McDaniels had to build a ground game without Sony Michel, Jeremy Hill, or any traditional between-the-tackles runner. He opted to move Cordarrelle Patterson to tailback, feeding him almost exclusively with A-gap runs that most closely simulated the wideout’s approach returning kickoffs. The plan worked as Patterson carried the ball 11 times for 61 yards (5.5 average) and a touchdown.

And until his team built a commanding lead, McDaniels leaned heavily on the no-huddle offense to tear through the Packers defense. Brady brought the Patriots to the line of scrimmage with considerable time left on the play clock and prevented Green Bay from substituting into more favorable and fresher personnel. The no-huddle rivaled the speed of even the fastest college offenses, and the Packers simply had no answer for it.

Should the Packers hire McDaniels, he would have several field-tiling offensive weapons, an offensive line with an experienced center and one of the league’s best tackle tandems, and a future Hall of Fame quarterback at his disposal. The team will also have an offseason to add to that group. In just his first year with Green Bay, McDaniels could have offensive personnel superior to the group he just coached to a top-5 finish in DVOA (the Patriots have never finished worse than sixth since McDaniels’ return in 2012, twice finishing first during that span).

Other factors would contribute to the Packers’ fortunes under McDaniels, including a defense that cratered down the stretch of 2018 and special teams that routinely performed like the worst such unit in the league. Still, the marriage of McDaniels’ coaching acumen and Green Bay’s offensive talent could put the team back into title contention in short order, perhaps as early as next season.