Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Josh McDaniels is the adjustment man
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- IN an atypically forthcoming bit of sharing, an unprompted Bill Belichick announced during a Monday morning conference call that Brian Daboll - a former Patriots assistant who has spent the past four years as an offensive coordinator in three different organizations - would be rejoining his coaching staff immediately.
His role is officially undecided, and after 21 games, including exhibitions, he's unlikely to have a major impact on what happens during the tilt or two New England has still to play. But, looking longer, it's not a move to be entirely overlooked.
Because it was the product of having made a similar hire a year ago that helped put the Patriots into this weekend's AFC championship game.
In Sunday's divisional tussle with the Titans, the Pats lost running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Rob Gronkowski to hand and arm injuries the first time each touched the ball. If all went right, both were probably going to touch the ball a lot that night, as "we had a whole plan built for (Gronkowski) and Woody," said Tom Brady - but instead those key contributors were both sent to the sideline, where some critical questions were being asked.
"What are we going to do now?" the Patriots wondered, according to Brady. "How are we going to adjust?"
Thankfully for New England, though, Josh McDaniels was on that sideline, too. And he had answers.
Last January, McDaniels was where Daboll is now, an out-of-work Belichick disciple who'd lost his job as offensive coordinator of a team that went home as soon as the regular season was finished, and who'd been asked to come lend a hand to a club with designs on winning a Super Bowl title.
A year later, however, McDaniels finds himself in a position where his own designs could well be the reason New England gets a ring. They were at least among the primary reasons the Patriots were able to post 41 points against the Texans in spite of losing a couple of go-to weapons early, and his ability to adapt and adjust figures to be just as important the rest of the way, as any remaining contests will come against both a quality defense and a familiar foe.
And if that's the case, Brady is cool with it.
"That's what Josh does best," the quarterback said after his team toasted the Texans for 457 yards and five touchdowns. "He gets guys in the best position to make plays and always comes up with a way to adapt and scheme things up (on) third down and (in the) red area. There's no one better in the league."
Sunday, those adjustments found a way to get the ball into the hands of his two best remaining receivers, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez (who combined for 14 catches and 216 yards) and also make the most of the players who stepped in - or, putting it in Patriot lexicon, who stepped up - for the guys who went down.
Reserve tight end Michael Hoomanawanui stepped in for Gronkowski did an effective job as a blocker in both pass protection and the run game, but even more impressive was the production of Shane Vereen. He had a hat trick, touching the ball only 12 times but scoring three touchdowns and totaling 124 yards from scrimmage when opportunity arose.
"I think credit goes to Mike and Shane for being able to go in there and fill in more than admirably in those situations," McDaniels said in his own conference call Monday. "The next man up stepped up for us yesterday and did a good job and again, they deserve the credit for that."
Certainly the players do deserve kudos, first for preparing despite the uncertainty of their playing time, then for producing. Vereen, in particular, is a player who over a two-year career had never caught more than two passes in any one game. In fact, Sunday was the first time since he was a freshman at Cal, in 2008, that he caught as many as five passes in a game.
Yet McDaniels knew exactly where Vereen could be most useful, particularly in the passing game, when the team needed him. And that sort of creativity, and recognition, and diversity of threat bodes well for a New England attack that'll need plenty of each if it is to punch its ticket to New Orleans and make the most of the trip once it gets there.
This weekend, the Patriots take on a Ravens team they played in September and by Sunday will have faced six times in a span of 40 months. Win there, and it'll be either a 49er team they faced in Week 15 of the regular season or a Falcon squad they practiced with in August, and is headed by Thomas Dimitroff, who spent six seasons as part of the Patriot organization before taking over in Atlanta.
Oh, and both NFC finalists finished the season ranked among the NFL's five stingiest scoring defenses, while the always-tough Ravens have allowed only three offensive touchdowns in two playoff games.
But there's reason for the Patriots to be confident that McDaniels will find a way to work around the predictability that comes from prior matchups and any tendencies traceable with 17 weeks worth of game tape available.
Generally speaking, over the second half of the season, the Patriots' points per game output climbed from 32.8 to 36.9, and in specific cases of repeat competition, the improvement was even steeper. In four games facing a team for the second time, the Pats averaged more yards and points than they did in those initial meetings.
So considering they combined for 64 points and 916 yards against the Ravens and Niners, there's reason to expect the guy they brought back last January can come up with a plan to help the Patriots score plenty. No matter, even, if the adjustments are made beforehand or in the course of battle.
"That's what Josh does better than anybody else that I've been around," Brady reiterated Monday on WEEI radio. "His ability to adjust."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.