The miseducation of Josh McDaniels

Posted on December 7, 2010


DISCLAIMER: I am not a journalist, nor am I a football expert. I am- gulp- a classical musician. But what makes leaders great either on/off the field or on/off the podium is very similar, so maybe there is something we can learn from each other.

Since Josh McDaniels was hired as the head coach/grand poobah of Broncos football, I have followed him very closely. Why, you might ask? Well…

  1. He’s only five years older than me, yet he had been given the keys to an entire professional football organization. This impressed me.
  2. I liked the idea that a young man around my age had been entrusted with an important institution (Like Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil), and I like to fantasize about following in their footsteps and getting a big gig at a young age.
  3. He’s in Denver. I’m in Denver. Not only could I watch him closely through national and local sports media, but I could get a really good feel for what everyone in town thinks about the job he’s doing.

Well, after a 6-0 start, a slew of poor (and in my opinion) selfish draft picks/personnel decisions and losing 17 of their next 22 games, McDaniels is out after less than two years of living his dream. And even though he obviously wasn’t having the kind of success that his boss or Broncos fans expected him to have, I’m still sad that he’s gone. His dream of coaching in the NFL might be permanently dead at age 32 after getting just one crack at it, and that’s sad to me. We often call for the organizations we love to take risks, and when Broncos owner Pat Bowlen did just that by hiring the young, inexperienced and brash McDaniels, it absolutely blew up in his face. It’s no wonder organizations would often rather settle for experienced mediocrity than take a flyer on “potential.”

I’m sure McDaniels has learned a lot of lessons the hard way recently, but if real-life lessons can be gleaned from the sports world (and I believe they can), I’d like to share the top five lessons I’ve learned from the McDaniels McEra that I think are relevant not only to sports leadership, but to arts leadership and life leadership as well. I’ll express them in mostly sports terms and trust that you can make the application to your area of expertise without my help.

5. No one should have absolute power, and bosses should be wary of anyone who wants it.

I don’t know Josh McDaniels’ educational background, but the idea of him sitting in on contract negotiations is comical to me. This is a football guy. Why does he even want to have that aspect of the football business on his plate? Because his mentor had it? Because it makes him feel more important? I’m not sure.

As a professional musician on the artistic staff of the Colorado Children’s Chorale, I fully admit that I want as little to do with the administrative side of the music business as possible. Sure, I’ll do what I’m asked to do, and I could learn how to do some things and perhaps become proficient at some things on the administrative side of the organization if trained EXTENSIVELY, but the fact is that I have a hard enough time keeping track of my receipts and turning them in at the end of each month, so I know that there are some aspects the organization that will always be more successful and efficient if they are left in the hands of someone other than myself. There are a few coaches in the NFL that want the absolute power that McDaniels had in Denver (former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan being one of them), and I just find it laughable. If you really believe that you’re the most qualified person for that many high-level tasks and that no one else is worthy of your absolute trust on those levels, I question not only your ability to evaluate yourself but your ability to evaluate the talent of others.

4. Systems should conform to talent, not the other way around.

Here’s another thing that I find laughable about the NFL (and college football): all of these coaches are brought up implementing a specific offensive or defensive “system.” And when they become head coaches, WAY more often than not, the system they know comes with them. This would be like hiring an artistic director for an orchestra that’s an early music specialist and having that person choose to only program music written before 1750 even though he/she has an orchestra full of players who are experts in romantic, 20th century or more contemporary repertoire and techniques. What a waste.

These coaches implement their system regardless of- and at times in spite of- the skill sets of the players on their teams, and this is what McDaniels did. If they’re truly football experts, couldn’t they craft an offensive or defensive scheme that allows the talent on their rosters to fulfill their maximum potential? Why make 53 people adapt to you- the person on the sidelines- when you could adapt to them and possibly get more out of them between the lines?

3. Having a brilliant mentor can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

One of my favorite things about McDaniels: the fact that he wears the hoodie on the sidelines in honor of his mentor, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. And I also loved that of all of the coaches that learned under Belichick in New England, McDaniels is clearly Belichick’s favorite son. Because I identify so much with McDaniels, I love this dynamic between him and Belichick, and feel like its similar to one I’ve shared with past and maybe even present mentors. But as a young up-and-comer in the music biz who has had and who continues to have the good fortune of incredible mentors, I know how easy it is to become so enamored with how your mentors go about their business that you forget what your vision used to be like, stop formulating your own ideas, stunt your own growth and wholeheartedly adopt the model(s) of your mentor(s). Instead of being yourself, you kill yourself because you don’t want to be yourself anymore; you want to be your mentor. And the younger you are, the harder it is to fight this child-like tendency. I am 100% speculating here, but it’s my guess that this is the biggest reason for McDaniel’s ultimate demise in Denver. He tried to be Belichick, and he is most definitely not Belichick. Tried to coach like him (but with more visible passion). Tried to run the whole show like him. Traded for draft picks like him. Treated players like him. (Cheated like him?). I think he was on the way to figuring this out, and if he had had one more year, he would have been more of his own man on the sidelines. Whether or not that would have translated into wins or not, I guess we’ll never know.

As I get a little older, I’m starting to learn how to balance reverence for mentors and valuing their priceless wisdom and counsel while still trying to foster my own artistic ideas, gifts and visions. As great as my mentors are, I think it’s probably still best for me to try to be an artist that is influenced by them but not a clone of them (perhaps I need to start conducting CCC concerts in track pants and a hoodie?)

2. Passion might be overrated.

It  kills me to say this because people who know me consider me to be a passionate person, but the older I get the more I realize that what the world recognizes as passion is pretty much worthless. To myself and others from my generation, passion is more of a feeling; an “intense conviction” (Webster’s definition #4a) that manifests itself usually in inspiring words or a willingness to admit a particular conviction to others. That kind of passion- a feeling without actions inspired by the feelings- is like the “furiousness” of Mr. Furious in the movie Mystery Men, whose only super power was getting…well…furious. He never did anything positive as a result of his anger; he just got mad. It’s funny in the movie, but it’s frustrating and annoying in real life. Real, affective passion is Webster’s definition #5b: : “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.” THAT’S passion.

Did you watch that Patriots/Jets game last night?  Hilarious. Perfect example of “4a” passion vs. “5b” passion. Which coach would you rather have: the foul-mouthed, “4a passionate” Rex Ryan and be pretty good, or the somewhat boring-at-times “5b” Bill Belechick and be great? Surely, you’d rather have 5b. And because I consider myself to be a passionate person, this an important thing for me to be able to recognize and make sure that I convert the massive amounts of 4a passion I have for music, children and singing into an equal amount of 5b passion.

I find it telling that when McDaniels was hired AND when he was fired, one of the things owner Pat Bowlen complimented McDaniels on was his passion. I have to ask: what kind of passion did Bowlen see in him? 4a or 5b? Was McDaniel’s so-called passion what got him the job over Steve Spagnuolo who has the lowly St. Louis Rams at .500 this year, and beat the Broncos last week? I have no idea, but if so, we see how well that worked out. 100% of passion #5b is worth infinitely more than passion #4a, and we need to do a better job of telling the difference between the two when we put people in high-importance, high-impact positions. #4a passion can make you 6-0 out of the gate, but only #5b passion can bring about sustained excellence.

1. Beware the temptation to have only “your people.”

If trying to be too Belichick-like was the #1 thing that led to McD’s demise, this is reason#1a.

Stephen Stills once wrote, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Apparently McDaniels has never heard that song. He wanted his own people. He wanted Matt Cassel who “knew his system” even though Cutler has more ability and skill. He never really even gave Cutler a chance. As a head coach who still loved being an offensive coordinator, he drafted Tim Tebow as another toy for his system/some sort of long-term project in the first round when his team had much more pressing needs; needs that someone who thought like a head coach and not an offensive coordinator would have addressed. He allegedly benched Peyton Hillis for fumbling too much two years ago only to draft someone in the first round who…well, fumbles a lot in key situations (believe me- I have Knowshon Moreno on my fantasy team, so I know). He traded Brandon Marshall who was a malcontent (how very Belichickian). I’m sorry, but if you’re an NFL coach, and you don’t have the people skills to make it work with, say, 90+% of the malcontents you come across in a league full of malcontents, (that’s an A-, folks) you shouldn’t be coaching in the NFL. We learn at a very young age that we don’t always have control of the people we work with, go to school with, etc. I don’t quite understand how this life lesson seemed to escape McDaniels in his football life. Love the ones your with, and most of them will love you back. A real leader doesn’t need to manufacture his/her own people to get buy-in. A real leader can take people who once belonged to someone else and not only endear them to his/herself, but can make them better than they were under the old leadership. Again- I’m no football expert, but to my eyes, it seemed that the only people who improved (when it counted) were quarterback Kyle Orton and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. If my math is right, that’s 2 out of 53. Definitely not an A-.

I feel like the McDaniels era has given me a greater appreciation for what it must take to be the face of an entire organization, and to do so at a young age. The pressure must be tremendous. I don’t know how Dudamel does it, or anyone else for that matter. It might be glamorous if it works out, but if it doesn’t, it’d be downright scary. Maybe I don’t want the keys to my own organization at 29 years old after all. Maybe no one my age SHOULD want that. At least not without an army of incredibly wise advisors behind them- some of whom they choose, and some of whom are forced on them.

In the music business, I know I still have a lot to learn. I think I have the tools to be a leader in the music world; the dreaded “potential” and “passion” that Bowlen saw in McDaniels, the first-class mentoring, and of course the lack of real “head coaching” experience. But as long as someone else can keep track of my receipts, I think I’d be worth the risk.


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