Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
As the New England Patriots continue their immense success throughout this decade, the coaching tree of Bill Belichick also continues to grow in the NFL.
In that respect, Sunday will be a landmark day as two assistants Belichick raised from the ground up will face off as head coaches when Eric Mangini’s Cleveland Browns (0-1) travel to play Josh McDaniels of the Denver Broncos (1-0) at Invesco Field.
Former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel was another Belichick assistant, but Crennel also learned mostly under Bill Parcells before arriving to New England. McDaniels, 33, and Mangini, 38, are more considered Belichick prodigies as former entry-level assistants with the Patriots.
McDaniels and Mangini, both friends, were part of the same staff in New England from 2001 to 2005. McDaniels was a defensive assistant in 2002-03 under Mangini, who at the time was a defensive backs coach. Now they’re adversaries and a significant part of the NFL’s current youth movement of head coaches.
"Back then I’m sure neither one of us really thought much about that, but we are where we’re at," McDaniels said. "I’m sure he’s looking forward to the game as I am."
All indications are that McDaniels left New England on good terms, while it’s no secret the ire Belichick has for Mangini after the "Spygate" fiasco.
Therefore, Mangini said he doesn’t expect any good-luck notes from Belichick this week, despite two of his former pupils facing each other Sunday.
"I’m sure [Belichick is] concentrating on whoever they’re playing this week; I don’t remember who they’re playing this week," Mangini said. "I’m sure that’s what he’s focused on. Hopefully, it won’t come down to luck. It will come down to the way that we prepare."
Jury still out?
Overall, Belichick’s disciples have had mixed results as head coaches.
Mangini was 23-25 in three seasons with the New York Jets before he was fired in 2008. Crennel was 24-40 in four seasons in Cleveland, and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis currently faces a lot of heat in South Bend during his fifth season.
McDaniels is the only undefeated coach of the bunch after winning his debut in miraculous fashion. After trailing 7-6 late, Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass and turned it into an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to take a 12-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The sequence already is an early candidate for play of the year in the NFL.
"We’re very fortunate to be 1-0," McDaniels admitted. "But we also feel we played hard for 60 minutes and never gave up."
Was it all beginners’ luck or Belichick-like skill?
"They did a lot of things right leading up to that point," Mangini explained. "They were in that position. Sometimes the ball bounces that way."
The Browns actually interviewed McDaniels for their coaching opening that eventually went to Mangini. McDaniels said the experience was very valuable, and later that offseason he wowed the brass in Denver to land the Broncos’ job.
A lot was being made of McDaniels' inexperience after some early run-ins with star players Jay Cutler, who was traded to the Chicago Bears, and receiver Brandon Marshall. But in Week 1 Denver played very hard for its rookie head coach and looked organized down to the final seconds in beating the Bengals.
"One of the early lessons that I learned is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, you could be 80, you could be 20, right on down the line," Mangini said. "If the players know that you’re giving them an opportunity to get better, and a chance to win, that’s what they respect. With a guy like Josh, he does that."
Broncos middle linebacker and former Brown Andra Davis said it’s clear in Denver that McDaniels is seasoned despite his youth.
"He’s been around football all his life," Davis said. "His father is a legendary coach out there in Ohio. He’s coached under a Hall of Fame coach in Belichick. So he knows football.
"It doesn’t matter the age. If you know what you’re talking about, guys are going to follow and pay attention."
This is a big early-season matchup for both teams and its head coaches.
Mangini and McDaniels are working hard to change the culture and quickly put their imprint on their teams. The easiest way to do that is by winning games.
The Broncos are off to a good start, and going 2-0 in the AFC West would put them in a great spot where many are automatically crowning the San Diego Chargers (1-0). The Browns (0-1), meanwhile, are trying to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start, where they would quickly fall behind in a tough AFC North.
Cleveland also has a tough road game next week against a division rival and AFC contender in the Baltimore Ravens (1-0), making this week’s game even more important.
But to get their wish, one Belichick pupil will have to outcoach the other this Sunday.
“It’s a very difficult preparation,” McDaniels said of facing Mangini. “He’s going to test you in every way, shape or form possible. You know his team is going to be very well-coached.”