Josh McDaniels’s lone afternoon spent as the official incoming head coach of the Indianapolis Colts earns him a spot in the Coaching Cold Feet Hall of Fame, right next to Orlando Magic head coach Billy Donovan, Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball head coach Dana Altman, and, of course, New York Jets head coach Bill Belichick.
That last name is the one that makes Tuesday’s news especially interesting. McDaniels, who has been linked to the Colts’ head-coaching vacancy since mid-January, reportedly spoke to the team on Monday night and seemed all in. According to The MMQB, he then went to clean out his office at New England’s facilities on Tuesday and Belichick, his current boss, successfully talked him out of leaving.
This turnabout comes on the heels of Indianapolis sitting idly by during the Patriots’ playoff run while the rest of the teams with openings figured out their coaching situations. The Colts were the NFL’s Hachiko, waiting for a coach whose train would never arrive. To make matters worse, McDaniels turned his back on Indianapolis after the franchise had already announced his hiring; its Twitter account was plastered with enthusiastic McDaniels tweets just as everybody learned that he would not, in fact, show up. It’s one thing to get dumped; it’s another to send out wedding invitations and then immediately have to tell everyone to unsave the date.
The person who looks the worst in all of this is McDaniels, who is now forever branded as radioactively unambitious. His decision to ditch the Colts doesn’t just hurt that franchise; it hurts all of the assistant coaches who had literally signed contracts to leave other teams in favor of joining his staff in Indy. We all struggle to make tough choices, but dawdling or reneging on a difficult decision in a way that hurts others is the type of move that can send a seemingly kind-hearted ethics professor to the Bad Place. McDaniels’s agent reportedly warned him against returning to the Pats; now, McDaniels’s agent has ended their professional relationship.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard gave a press conference about the McDaniels backout on Wednesday morning, and ended with a quip: “The rivalry is back on.” Ballard was referring to the beef his organization has with New England. The two teams have met in the AFC championship game three times during the Belichick-Brady era, and the Colts narced the Pats straight into Deflategate. Still, calling it a “rivalry” might be a stretch—the Patriots have won seven straight matchups with the Colts, four by at least three touchdowns, and New England is 14-6 versus Indianapolis this millennium with a 4-1 record in the playoffs.
But McDaniels’s decision is about the future, and it sheds light on two teams with uncertain outlooks. While the uncertainty of the Colts job may have pushed him away, the uncertainty of the Pats’ situation probably kept him in town. It’s impossible to know whether McDaniels made the right call—or to know anything, really, about the long-term prognosis for either franchise.
With Andrew Luck, Indianapolis is a team with a rudder. The 28-year-old is a legitimate franchise player who led the Colts to 11-5 finishes in each of his first three NFL seasons. He was a top-10 quarterback by any standard the last time he took the field, in 2016. Indy went 4-12 without him this past season; it made the AFC championship game with him just three years prior.
Unfortunately, every piece of news that has come out about Luck since then has made the idea of building around him seem iffy. In January 2017, it was revealed that Luck would undergo surgery to repair a nagging issue with his shoulder; there was no real reason to worry, though, because Luck would be fine. Then Luck wasn’t able to practice in the summer, or in training camp, or in the preseason. In August, Colts owner Jim Irsay said the quarterback’s delayed return was based on “[Luck’s] gut feeling” rather than any medical issue. For about two months, Luck remained on Indy’s active roster, only listed as “out” before every game. In November, the team finally gave up, placing him on injured reserve. On the day of Super Bowl LII, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Luck might need more surgery.
What are the Colts supposed to do now? Should they continue to put their franchise on the shoulders of a man with a potentially doomed shoulder? Should they use the no. 3 pick in the 2018 draft on a quarterback? Should they continue down the path they’re on, entrusting the offense to Jacoby Brissett and hoping that Luck will show up sometime? These are questions that McDaniels was unwilling to answer.
But it’s the future of the Patriots that might be the most interesting story in the NFL. Last season was filled with talk about how the soon-to-be-41-year-old Tom Brady believes he has conquered aging, and can continue to perform at an MVP-caliber level until he’s 45. Logic suggests this is impossible, since no quarterback has ever played well deep into his 40s. Logic also suggests that what he’s already doing is impossible—no quarterback had ever played as well at 40 as Brady did in 2017. As long as Brady keeps correctly betting on himself, everyone affiliated with the Patriots will look smart.
Brady isn’t the only factor here. The past month has been filled with speculation that Belichick simply can’t take this job anymore. Maybe he’s Alexander staring at the edge of the continent and realizing there are no worlds left to conquer; maybe he’s a grumpy guy who hates his boss and most important coworker. Any scenario is within the realm of possibility.
McDaniels is Belichick’s most trusted assistant. He began coaching for New England in 2001; incidentally, that was the first season the team won a Super Bowl. He left the franchise from 2009 to 2011; incidentally, that was the least-successful stretch New England has had during this dynastic run. McDaniels has five rings, just like Brady and Belichick do. At the very least, we have to presume that McDaniels presumes that he’ll become New England’s next head coach whenever Belichick decides to move on.
Except let’s remember who Belichick is: Although he’s been with the Pats for almost two decades, turning this franchise into a model of consistency and staying famously loyal toward the handful of football obsessives whom he trusts, he is also the most prominent coach to ever ghost a team in the way that McDaniels ghosted the Colts. Nobody really knows what Belichick wants to do. Sometimes, even Belichick may be unaware of his plans. While we’ve started to assume that Belichick’s tenure will soon be over, it’s quite possible that one of the most successful coaches in sports history will want to continue doing the only thing that apparently brings him joy in life.
There are indecision dominoes. After news broke that McDaniels would return to New England, the Patriots’ reported defensive coordinator target, Greg Schiano, experienced his own abrupt change of heart, deciding to return to his job at Ohio State. Perhaps he originally thought that he could emerge as Belichick’s chosen successor, only to realize that McDaniels would be next in line in New England if and when Belichick moves on.
The Colts might be poised for a long run of success under Luck; Luck might never play football again. This would have been a risky situation to go into, but there’s a reason that assistant coaches on great teams tend to leave, and it’s not just the money. (There’s also the money.) With the Colts, McDaniels could have gotten a second shot to shape an organization in his image. Most guys don’t get a first shot, but McDaniels’s ties to Belichick kept him in high regard around the NFL in spite of his dismal stint in charge of the Broncos.
The Patriots are in the midst of the most prolonged stretch of success in football history, yet no one knows how long that will last, or who will stick around in New England after it’s over. Sticking with the historically great franchise that reared his coaching career may seem like the safe move for McDaniels, but even in a situation as seemingly secure as the one in New England, it’s clear that he just took a major risk.