FOXBORO - Josh McDaniels just turned 36 and there's barely a wrinkle - or a hint of a whisker - on his boyish face.
During his three-year mission away from the Patriots, he got some miles put on him. Scrutinized, vilified and - was very briefly - glorified.
As head coach of the Broncos, he traded a surly quarterback (Jay Cutler) after a draft-time trade for Matt Cassel blew up in Denver's face. He silenced doubters by starting out 6-0 and gave them voice again by finishing the rest of that 2009 season 2-6. After a 3-9 start in 2010 he was given the gate.
He landed in St. Louis, offensive coordinator for a team that made the playoffs in 2010 with Sam Bradford under center as a rookie. The Rams went 2-14, were in offensive shambles and the coaching staff was fired.
Now McDaniels is back with the Patriots. While he'd be excused if he seemed a little world-weary, the tone he struck at rookie minicamp this week was of a guy happy to be back where things began.
Im older," McDaniels said when asked how he's changed. Then he added, "I think we all learn things about ourselves each year, and I thinkIve had some experiences that hopefully have taught me a lot of things aboutme as a person, and certainly as a coach, Ive learned a lot of things aboutdifferent ways to do things.
"Ive been around a lot of different people thathave different philosophies, and some I thought were really interesting, andsome I learned some of maybe what I dont want to do," he added. :I think you learn both ofthose things as you meet new people, and experience new things. Just try totake the best from all those experiences and apply them to what I do every dayand try to be a better coach.If you put all 32 NFL coaches in a room, you couldn't throw a balled-up pink slip and not hit a guy who's been fired as a head coach and gotten a second bite at the apple.
Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick spring to mind first as guys who've been canned then triumped. There's also Mike Shanahan and John Fox and a fleet of men - Norv Turner, Chan Gailey, Romeo Crennel, Jeff Fisher - who are on their second teams now.
The smart money is on McDaniels again emerging as a hot head coaching prospect. He said Friday that's way off his radar right now.
Asked why he'd come back to New England with nothing left to prove, McDaniels said, "I think its more about what I have to learn. I think this is a greatenvironment for a young coach to learn. As old as I might feel, Im stillreally young and have so much more to learn and understand. There is not abetter teacher than Coach Belichick and Mr. Kraft and the way we do thingshere, how we adapt each year, and I think that gives any coach young or old an opportunity to really grasp those things and really improve."
McDaniels actually has plenty to prove. He hasn't coached a winning offense since 2008 when Cassel carried the Patriots to 11-5. He needs to show he is still one of the most innovative minds in football but also do it with a different cast than the one he had in New England his first time.
Short-lived though it was, Brady-to-Moss was historically explosive for the Patriots in 2007 when McDaniels made his reputation. That link-up is obviously gone and new toys are in place including a revolutionary tight end duo, a slot receiver who's only gotten better and a different kind of outside threat in Brandon Lloyd. What will McDaniels conjure from this group?
The foundation of our system has really been the same, in terms of our termsand some of the things that we re-teach every year," McDaniels explained. "Really. I think itsimportant as coaches to go back to your foundation each spring and dontassume anything. Recall, certainly, with a lot of our players is something thatwe expect and that we want them to show us and demonstrate. But I thinksometimes as coaches, its really good for you to go back and get to the nutsand bolts of why it started where it did, and again, progress to wherever itneeds to go that year, for that team, to do the best it can.
"Each year, everyteam is different," he added. "This team, the players we have here, are different than anyplayers Ive had. Tight ends. Backs are younger. I think you just have to goback, re-teach your foundation, establish what you believe in and your coreeach year, and then build it from there and allow the personnel to kind ofdictate which direction you go.There must have been an avalanche of advice and counsel for McDaniels when he left the Patriots in early 2009. But none of that could necessarily prepare him for the realities of the job. Real-life experience - success, failure and controversy - they leave their marks even if the face doesn't show a crease.
McDaniels is back and - even though his stay as simply the offensive coordinator of the Patriots may not be a five-year ride - it's what he's locked in on now. Head coaching?
"That's really not something I'm worried about or concerned about," he concluded. "I'm really excited about the opportunity that I have here and looking forward, very much, to this spring and trying to do what we can this year to win."