McDaniels may be star branch of Belichick tree

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson

Perhaps it will be Josh McDaniels who saves the Bill Belichick coaching tree.

It needs some nourishment, no doubt about it. Former Belichick assistants Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis all either had or are having their share of struggles as head coaches. But if the first four games of McDaniels’ head-coaching career are any indication, he may be the protégé most like Belichick. McDaniels, who came to Denver after being New England’s offensive coordinator, is 4-0 and an early-season candidate for coach of the year.

McDaniels will put his perfect record, along with his growing reputation as a game manager and planner, up against his mentor Sunday when the Patriots visit Denver.

For McDaniels, the game is an opportunity to face the man he fully credits for his NFL success. McDaniels lives the Patriot Way.

“The philosophy is about how to win, that comes straight from Bill,” McDaniels said. “Most of them, if not all of them, do. I was there for eight years and had a great deal of success being a part of that organization. It is a great organization with a great coach and great players and a lot of great coaches. The things that they do to try to win games, we are doing many of those things here. We are trying to do many of those things, and not because we are copying some other team but because they have been successful, and it is a way of trying to win games in this league. It is showing itself as a very successful way to do that.”

Belichick believes McDaniels, 33, has what it takes to continue his fast start. McDaniels was known for his thorough game preparation and detailed game plans while with the Patriots.

“They don’t beat themselves,” Belichick said of the Broncos. “It doesn’t surprise me. It certainly doesn’t surprise me. I have all the respect in the world for Josh, both as a coach, personnel evaluator and in general for his football knowledge and his ability to manage the game, whether it is as a coordinator or as a head coach. I think he has great insight into the game, so it doesn’t surprise me.”

Don’t expect a handshake dis this week. Unlike Mangini’s frosty relationship with Belichick, McDaniels is one young former Belichick coordinator who still has a strong relationship with the Godfather. The two talk often. They’ve made trades together and Belichick has congratulated McDaniels after wins.

Perhaps that’s why McDaniels talks so glowingly about Belichick.

“Most of the things that we do with our football team in some way, shape or form I get from Bill,” McDaniels said. “His preparation, the way he prepares his team, the way that he feels you have got to approach each game a little bit differently in terms of you have got to beat New England differently than you beat Dallas, you have got to beat New England differently than you beat Cleveland, and I am sure he is saying the same thing. You are going to have to beat Denver a little bit differently than you beat Baltimore.”

While McDaniels reveres Belichick, he clearly wants to beat his former boss. While it would be an upset, a Denver win is not out of the question. McDaniels’ team is playing very well, and in some ways, better than New England.

Here are some areas that McDaniels’ team is playing better than Belichick’s team as they head into the game. If the trends continue, McDaniels could beat his mentor:

Defense: It’s ironic because McDaniels is an offensive specialist and Belichick cut his teeth on defense. But Denver’s defense is playing better than New England's, or any other team in the league. McDaniels works closely with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Denver has allowed a league-low 26 points. The Broncos are excelling against the run, rushing the passer ferociously and creating turnovers. That is how teams win. Even against an offense as powerful as New England’s, which McDaniels knows all about.

Preparation: You have to say McDaniels has prepared better than Belichick so far, because he is undefeated. The Patriots are 3-1. Everyone whom I have talked to about McDaniels’ early success points to his incredible preparation. McDaniels has stressed game situations in practice since minicamp. His players feel as if they are prepared for anything.

That may give McDaniels the edge against the Patriots. He knows everything about New England. New England knows everything about McDaniels, but he’s only one guy. McDaniels has an entire organization to glean information from.

Mistake-free football: Denver won’t break any scoring records as McDaniels’ Patriots did two years ago. The Broncos have scored 79 points. New England has scored 87 points.

But the Broncos aren’t making many mistakes. Quarterback Kyle Orton has not thrown an interception. New England quarterback Tom Brady has been intercepted twice. Denver and Orton are managing games well and playing timely football. The Broncos are not lighting up the scoreboard, but they are doing enough to win.

Still, McDaniels knows that to beat his mentor, his team is going to have to play nearly perfect football.

“It is going to come down to whoever tackles better, who blocks better, who throws better, who catches better,” McDaniels said. “It is not going to be a big game of tricks and gimmicks, I don’t think. I think they are going to know plenty of what we are doing, if not all, and we are probably going to know a lot about what they are doing. It is going to come down to whose players play the best and who can make the plays and avoid the big mistakes in the game, like most games come down to. I don’t think this game is going to be about deception. I think it is going to be about us trying to play good football, and they are going to do the same thing. Whoever plays better on Sunday will win the game.”

That’s the Patriot Way. Next to Belichick, McDaniels seems to understand it better than anyone else.