Pats' prodigal son McDaniels returns

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It started with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. Then Eric Mangini. Josh McDaniels got his big shot, and then Bill O'Brien.

Five times in Bill Belichick's 13-year tenure as New England Patriots head coach, he has had to replace a coordinator who landed a head-coaching job elsewhere. Filling the voids has been a drain at times.

So what unfolded Friday at Gillette Stadium -- where McDaniels met the press for the first time since his postseason return to the franchise -- represented a nice changeup for Belichick. Instead of mapping out a succession plan to replace the Penn State-bound O'Brien, he had the perfect one, McDaniels, fall right back into his lap.

"I see a lot of familiar faces," a smiling McDaniels said, as New England reporters gathered around him for the first time since 2008, his final season in New England.

A lot has happened in McDaniels' career since that time. His head-coaching tenure in Denver, which high-pointed with a dramatic "Wild Horses" win over Belichick's Patriots in 2009, didn't turn out the way he hoped, and he didn't make it through the 2010 campaign. Then there was a challenging 2011 season as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator.

Now, it could be said he's back home, circling back to where his NFL career began as a personnel assistant, under the coach who gave him his start. While he surely would have liked things to have turned out differently, he seems happy.

"I think we all learn things about ourselves each year, and I think I've had some experiences that hopefully have taught me a lot of things about me as a person. And certainly as a coach, I've learned a lot of things about different ways to do things," the 36-year-old McDaniels said.

"I've been around a lot of different people that have different philosophies, and some I thought were really interesting, and some I learned some of maybe what I don't want to do. I think you learn both of those things as you meet new people, and experience new things. You just try to take the best from all those experiences and apply them to what I do every day and try to be a better coach."

McDaniels, who had joined the Patriots in the playoffs as a coaching assistant after being let out of his contract by the Rams, described the last few months as a re-orientation period in which he has familiarized himself with some of the organizational changes since his departure.

Why come back instead of trying to carve out a niche somewhere else?

"I think it's more about what I have to learn. I think this is a great environment for a young coach to learn. As old as I might feel, I'm still really young and have so much more to learn and understand," he answered.

"There is not a better teacher than Coach Belichick, and [Patriots owner Robert] Kraft and the way we do things here, how we adapt each year, I think that gives any coach -- young or old -- an opportunity to really grasp those things and really improve.

"I obviously feel very strongly about the people here, and my relationship with those people hasn't changed. I just wanted an opportunity to come and learn and get better myself, while at the same time hopefully help our organization in any way I can."

McDaniels naturally fielded one question on whether he'd like to be a head coach again, and he was quick with the reply, saying it wasn't on his mind while redirecting the discussion back to the Patriots.

Along those lines, McDaniels uttered the word "exciting" three different times when dissecting the team's offense. The receiver group is stacked with diverse targets, and it's unique that many of them have experience in the team's system. There is promising potential at running back, but with a good mix of experience. The tight ends have shown special qualities.

McDaniels was calling the shots in 2007 when the Patriots were putting up record numbers, and the pieces are in place for this attack to potentially rival that version. The system is essentially the same, although McDaniels will take an organic approach.

"I think it's important as coaches to go back to your foundation each spring [and] don't assume anything," he said. "Sometimes as coaches, it's really good for you to go back and get to the nuts and bolts of why it started where it did and progress to wherever it needs to go that year, for that team, to do the best it can.

"Each year, every team is different. This team, the players we have here, are different than any players I've had. Tight ends. Backs are younger. I think you just have to go back, re-teach your foundation, establish what you believe in and your core each year, and then build it from there and allow the personnel to kind of dictate which direction you go."

As part of that process, McDaniels has dissected the 2011 season, with the idea of improving things in 2012 "within what Bill wants the structure of our team to be like."

In some ways, McDaniels' situation could be compared to when Belichick joined the Patriots in 1996, reuniting with Bill Parcells after a five-year stint at Browns head coach. Belichick got another chance at a head-coaching job a few years later, and maybe that will happen for McDaniels, possibly right here in New England as a potential successor to Belichick, whenever that time comes.

For now, though, the focus is on 2012. The past few years didn't necessarily unfold the way he hoped, but McDaniels has landed back on his feet, his return a coup for Belichick and the Patriots.

"Obviously, it's great to be back here," he said.