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The case for and against Josh McDaniels as 49ers head coach

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Among an underwhelming slate of candidates connected to the 49ers' head coaching vacancy, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels just might be the most intriguing fit.

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By my count there have been no fewer than a dozen candidates connected to the 49ers’ head coaching vacancy in the two weeks since moving on from Jim Harbaugh. And despite the far-reaching search by Jed York and Trent Baalke, no option really stands above the crowd in the way Harbaugh did the last time San Francisco was in this position.

Internal candidates Vic Fangio and Jim Tomsula are underwhelming at best. Fangio has been in the NFL in some capacity since 1986, yet has never been given a head coaching opportunity. If Fangio were to land the job, the closest comparison in the salary-cap era would be someone like Dick LeBeau or Romeo Crennel. Both had well over two decades of experience at the professional level before reaching the top rung of the coaching ladder. Combined, LeBeau and Crennel went 36–73 in their tenures.

Tomsula is a fantastic defensive line coach by all accounts, but position coaches have a shoddy track record of making the move directly to head coach. Tomsula has also only been in the NFL since 2007. While I found little correlation between NFL coaching experience and success as a head coach, Tomsula is very much on the low end of the experience scale and most with similar levels of NFL experience that went on to become head coaches spent time at the helm of a major college program. Tomsula’s experience primarily comes from NFL Europe, which seems just a bit different from commanding an NFL team with championship aspirations. There are few candidates who I believe could truly torpedo the 49ers in the coming seasons, but Tomsula would be at the top of that list.

Mike Shanahan makes it seem like the 49ers are reaching back for a connection to an era gone-by rather than focusing on the future. Opinions on Rex Ryan vary wildly, but he seems like a guy better suited to simply be one of the league’s very best defensive coordinators for years to come.

Kyle Shanahan and Adam Gase appeal to my personal preference of creative, offensive-minded coaches, but first-time head coaches in their 30s are a high-variance proposition. Find the rare candidate that’s ready to go early on and you have Jon Gruden. Swing and miss and you end up with Lane Kiffin.

Teryl Austin, Todd Bowles, and Dan Quinn are all fine candidates I can envision going on to have success, but I don’t like the pairing of a first-time, defensive-minded head coach with a team whose biggest strength is already its defense.

The one candidate that has consistently stuck out to me as the most intriguing option has been Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels has been a polarizing figure to say the least. But among a pool of otherwise meh candidates, McDaniels strikes me as the most interesting fit.

Before looking at the case for why McDaniels and the 49ers could be a good match, let’s outline the case against him.

The Case Against McDaniels

Flopped as Broncos head coach. Mention McDaniels in the presence of a Broncos fan and you’re liable to get punched in the nuts. When discussing McDaniels’s merits as a head coach, it’s impossible to ignore his disastrous run in Mile High.

Many of you are likely familiar with the lowlights of McDaniels’s tenure with the Broncos at this point. Barely a month into his tenure, McDaniels managed to alienate his promising young quarterback, Jay Cutler, by attempting to trade for Matt Cassel. Cutler was ultimately traded to Chicago for Kyle Orton, two first-round picks, and a third-round pick, six months before McDaniels would coach in his first game for the Broncos.

As Grantland’s Matt Borcas chronicled back in October, the Cutler ordeal was the first in a series of incidents in which McDaniels managed to piss off one of his players or coaches. If you want to get an idea of how McDaniels infuriated Broncos fans, check out this timeline at joshmcdanielssucks.com.

The on-field results were hardly any consolation to Broncos’ fans who were sent into a rage when McDaniels sent their quarterback packing. Denver did begin McDaniels’s first season 6–0, but went on to lose 17 of their next 22. The combination of shipping away Cutler with several other personnel blunders caused Denver’s top-ranked offense by DVOA to fall to 18th in McDaniels’s first season. Little improved in McDaniels’s second season and he was given the axe after 12 games.

Ultimately, McDaniels’s biggest problems in Denver were player personnel decisions and interpersonal relationships. While the former would not be an issue in San Francisco with Trent Baalke calling the shots, the latter could be a far greater concern for an organization that just fired ahem, mutually parted ways with their head coach because everyone couldn’t get along.

His success has come under the umbrella of Belichick and Brady. A sister statement to this one would reference the lack of success previous Patriots’ coordinators have experienced upon leaving the cozy womb of Belichick and Brady. Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Al Groh, Nick Saban, and Jim Schwartz are all former Belichick assistants that flopped as head coaches.

McDaniels has thrived in New England but his three seasons away from the Patriots — two with the Broncos and another as offensive coordinator with the Rams under Steve Spagnuolo — haven’t produced the offensive output you would hope for from a supposed offensive guru.

We covered Denver’s fall on offense in the previous section. In St. Louis, McDaniels took a bad offense and made it the league’s worst. The Rams went from 26th in points scored and 30th in offensive DVOA in the season preceding McDaniels’s arrival to rock bottom in both categories during his one season running the show.

Success as a coordinator doesn’t always translate to success as a head coach. I referenced this when trying to find the profile for a successful NFL head coach, but it’s worth repeating here. Andrew Healy’s research at Football Perspective showed that performance as a coordinator doesn’t tell us much about how that coordinator will perform as a head coach. Healy’s research also found that head coaches carry over about 70 percent of their value from previous head coaching jobs, which doesn’t bode well for McDaniels considering his run in Denver.

The Case For McDaniels

He’s led top offenses with a variety of styles. McDaniels coordinated one of the greatest offenses of all-time — the 2007 Patriots’ high-flying, shotgun-spread attack that averaged nearly 37 points per game by chucking the ball all over the field to the likes of Wes Welker and a rejuvenated Randy Moss.

A year later, Tom Brady attempted just 11 passes before Bernard Pollard ended his season with a hit to the knee. McDaniels seamlessly re-crafted the offense around Matt Cassel. The passing game was dialed back and featured more underneath throws to Welker and Kevin Faulk. The rushing attack was the fourth-best in football despite no single running back topping 750 yards on the season.

By the time McDaniels returned to New England in 2012, Moss was gone and the Patriots had transitioned to a two-tight end offense featuring Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. McDaniels piloted the Patriots to league-best marks in points per game and offensive DVOA.

With Welker off to Denver, Hernandez in prison, and Gronk spending most of the 2013 season on the sideline due to injury, McDaniels was again forced to switch gears on offense. This time powered by a multi-pronged, power-rushing attack, the Patriots again finished in the top five in both points and DVOA. The passing game relied heavily Julian Edelman — a former seventh-round pick that had done little outside of the return game to that point — and a host of other players that rotated in and out of the line-up.

How much of the Patriots’ success you want to give McDaniels credit for is very debatable, but at worst he has experience with a variety of different offensive styles that have been executed at a high level, and has shown the ability to adapt on the fly when faced with injuries and a rotating cast of skill position players.

McDaniels also brings with him the Erhardt-Perkins system on offense, which as Chris Brown expertly details over at Grantland uses a concept-based playcalling system that operates from the perspective of the quarterback. Erhardt-Perkins cuts down on the cumbersome verbiage of the West Coast system, which in turns makes it easier to operate at an up-tempo pace, something I think Colin Kaepernick & Co. could greatly benefit from.

Hired a quality staff in Denver. One of the most important functions of a head coach is his ability to assemble a quality coaching staff. For all of his failings in Denver, this was an area where he did show some promise.

McDaniels was able to court Mike Nolan as his defensive coordinator, who had just been fired as head coach of the 49ers. McDaniels also hired current 49ers defensive backs coach Ed Donatell to the same position on his Broncos staff.

On the offensive side, McDaniels hired away now Chargers head coach Mike McCoy from the Panthers to be his offensive coordinator. And current Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase was pouched from the 49ers staff to be the wide receivers coach.

I fully admit this could ultimately mean nothing, but even anecdotal evidence that suggests McDaniels is able to identify quality assistants is more than we have for the slew of candidates looking to get their first head coaching opportunity.

Similarities to a former great. When looking at various head coaching archetypes in the NFL back in early-December, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell identified some similarities between McDaniels and the man that’s been his mentor, Bill Belichick. It’s an interesting comparison and another reminder of how bad we are at identifying and projecting who the best head coaches will be. But in doing my own research, another comparison jumped out to me: Mike Shanahan.

Like McDaniels, Shanahan failed to complete two seasons at his first head coaching stop before getting fired, famously feuding with Raiders owner Al Davis. After a brief stop with the Broncos, Shanahan took the offensive coordinator position under George Seifert in San Francisco, joining one of the league’s best offenses.

Shanahan’s run with the 49ers culminated with one of the more impressive performances in Super Bowl history, with Steve Young throwing for six touchdown passes in a 49–26 victory over the Chargers. McDaniels and the Patriots are looking to accomplish the same this postseason.

Shanahan would go on to great things during his second head coaching tenure, leading the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the late ‘90s. I have no idea whether McDaniels will go on to have success at his next stop, but if the stories of Shanahan and Belichick tell us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t dismiss the idea because of his failures in Denver. Nor should we assume he won’t have success because his best years have come with an all-time great head coach and quarterback at his side.

If the rumors are any indication, the 49ers might very well bring back Mike Shanahan in an attempt to a restore a connection to their Super Bowl-winning days two decades ago. But with neither option being a sure thing, I’d rather take a chance at finding the next Mike Shanahan.