FOXBORO -- As I was waiting with the huddled masses around an agility cone on the Patriots practice field Thursday, I was thinking about how I was going try to tone down all those “undefeated” predictions and try and convince people that the Patriots are not going undefeated.
Too many feverish predictions about how great and unbeatable the Patriots are made me think there was the need for a flu shot filled with a heaping dose of reality.
But then I heard Josh McDaniels speak Thursday.
And while I think 13-3 is more realistic for a team that is a clear favorite to represent the AFC in New Orleans, McDaniels holding court with the media got me thinking even further down the road.
Believe it or not, there will come a time when Bill Belichick is no longer head coach of the Patriots. His reign over one of the most successful franchises the NFL has ever known will come to an end.
How comforting is it to Robert Kraft and his son, Jonathan, to know that that they have his successor right in house?
The Krafts and McDaniels both must feel very fortunate.
The Krafts were able to pry him out of St. Louis last year, three seasons after he left their coop for Denver and his first NFL head coaching gig at the age of 33. Remember that?
There was the 6-0 start, the ball bouncing off Leon Hall’s hands and into Brandon Stokley’s arms on opening day of the 2009 season as the Broncos faced sure defeat in the closing seconds only to beat the Bengals on a miracle finish. There was the shouting and jumping as he beat Bill Belichick and the Patriots in overtime. But then things turned for McDaniels.
There was the 2-8 finish to the ’09 season that left the Broncos at .500 and missing the playoffs. There was the 3-9 start to the 2010 season and his unceremonious dismissal. Before last season, he took a job as the Rams offensive coordinator.
Even with the talented Sam Bradford calling signals, that job seemed beneath someone who called the plays and helped direct the most potent offense in NFL history in 2007.
When the Patriots brought him back to Foxboro for the 2011 playoff run, it must’ve felt like a young person who goes out on his own to spread his wings only to realize shortly thereafter how good he had it under his parents' roof.
“Yes,” McDaniels said Thursday after Day 1 of 2012 Patriots training camp, “this is home for me. It feels great to be back.”
McDaniels, now all of 36 years of age, was asked if he felt like he never left.
“My body doesn’t feel like I never left,” McDaniels said. “I feel older. But again, there are so many great people here that it’s wonderful to see all of them, you guys included.”
So, there was McDaniels doing what he does best Thursday, doing what he learned years ago from Bill Belichick, standing on the practice field, watching closely and getting involved with the receivers on the goal line. He was teaching them how to break off patterns when the offense is on its own goal line, getting open quickly for Tom Brady.
“It’s great. This is what I love to do. I think that most coaches are that way,” McDaniels said. “The best part of our day is getting to work with the players out on the field. We do a lot of sitting and watching TV and talking about the film and meeting in the meeting rooms, but when you actually get to come out here for a couple of hours and sweat with them and correct things and do some things, that’s what really makes you so proud as a coach. That’s what I love to do most.”
And having McDaniels on the field working again is just fine by guys like Brady, Jabar Gaffney and Wes Welker, all of whom were on the Patriots when McDaniels was at the helm of the most productive offense in history.
"It's great. He's really evolved this offense and done such a great job with it and always coming up with new ideas and always listening to you on ideas you have and going over them,” Welker said Thursday. “It's great to have him back and really working with and putting everything together and us getting better.
"Even added a few things, bringing some of the wrinkles he used in Denver and St. Louis, bringing it over here to help us win some games."
What are those new things? McDaniels can actually employ tight ends in his passing game this season, something he didn’t do five seasons ago. McDaniels has a much bigger “jumbo” package in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
No one is in better position than McDaniels to put a stamp on this offense. Brady throws it, but it’s McDaniels who will be dialing up plays for an offense that has Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch and Stevan Ridley.
Yes, it’s different than the 2007 Patriots. These Patriots are deeper. Danny Woodhead has replaced Kevin Faulk -- for now. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have taken the spot of Laurence Maroney. You have two Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends and you have Brandon Lloyd taking over for Moss. And, of course, you have Gronk and Hernandez as tight ends.
“The tight ends are different,” McDaniels said. “The backs are a little younger. Things have changed. There are few different coaches on our staff, but I think that happens to every team each year in the NFL. But we just adapt and we’re so used to doing it by now that it just kind of comes with the territory.
“It’s exciting to start to formulate what you’re actually going to be in training camp in terms of, ‘OK, that worked well with these guys.’ And there are always some things that change in training camp, too, so it will be exciting to see how it all unfolds.”
The man who would be the next head coach of the Patriots does not overlook the abundance of riches.
“I do feel like I have a great job,” McDaniels said. “I’m blessed to work for Mr. Kraft and coach Belichick, and we’ve got a great staff of people around us and a team that’s really willing to work hard and listen to you. That’s the only thing you can ask as a coach, and I’m really happy to have this position.”
If he stays, it’s only a matter of time before McDaniels has another position with the Patriots.
So, back to this business of the Patriots being “unbeatable” in 2012, as highly respected and longtime NFL columnist Pete Prisco wrote this week.
Are they really?
I say no, because good teams are going to sell out to get to Brady, and there will be days when they succeed. Remember last September in Western New York? And that Bills team will put on even more pressure with the likes of Mark Anderson and Mario Williams added to the roster.
McDaniels is fully aware of this.
“I think everybody is trying to stop us from putting points on the board,” McDaniels said. “Everybody is trying to disrupt the quarterback. If you can hit the quarterback and take the ball away, I think you’ve got the chance to be a good defense, so that’s what we have to be ready for every week.”
Still, predictions on the Patriots tearing through the NFL are getting thrown around like Brady heaves against the Bills secondary in December.
Predictions such as “13-3, no problem,” “14-2, bank on it,” “15-1, cream puff schedule,” and “16-0, who’s going to beat them?”
For proof, let’s go to the TragsBag for some great examples.
@NEP4L NEP 13 - 3 w losses @Bal, SF and @Buffalo. Concerns pass D!
@GioPontiFan Record: 14-2, due to great offense, and improved defense. Concerns:how much can defense improve?
@BostonRocks They will win more then they lose & Welker will be late for some games because he'll be blow drying his new hair at home.
@0_LayDX @They will go between 13-3 to 16-0 (leaning more towards the higher wins). OLine and the fact the secondary hinges on Dowling's Health
@GingerNinja023 15-1 Greatly improved D with more overall talent on both offense and defense combined with an easy schedule, tough to find losses.
@TrentSouth @patriots undefeated through to a Super Bowl win. Why? Because who's going to stop them? No one.
@_ErikaLeigh 15-1. No concerns
@GregCabana Pats will go 11-5 - win the division - but have several close games. Defense can't live on the edge the way it did a year ago.
@ReYelVI 13-3. Easier schedule with a few tough ones. running and secondary are questionable, but versatile passing game will be hard to stop.
@KiashBaiby 14-2 record. Because weve had a great regular season record and theres no reason for that to change this year. Concerns: O-Line Depth