There are few folks I envy less than Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels right now. Not only is his team 2-7, but his quarterback seems emotionally broken, he just lost to a TV analyst-turned-head-coach, and he has won just five of his last 25 games as a head coach.
It’s only natural to wonder: is firing him this early in his tenure the right move?
As I considered that question on the heels of his embarrassing home defeat to the Colts — a game in which he was out-coached by the laughingstock of the league — I couldn’t help but think of a similar situation that played out a year ago.
Forewarning: this involves a trip across the pond and a reinterpretation of the word ‘football’, but I think it’s worth it.
When Mikel Arteta was handed the reigns at Arsenal, the London club was admittedly in turmoil. They were still reeling in the wake of separating themselves from a club legend coach, and Arteta — a former Arsenal player — had never been the head man before. In his first two seasons, Arsenal finished in eighth place each time — just outside of the qualification zone for the bigger European tournaments.
But if the pressure was mounting, it reached a head after the first three games in his third season (his second full season) when Arsenal opened with three consecutive losses, having not scored a single goal.
To say that the calls for his firing were growing louder would be an understatement.
But the club stuck with him. The team went on a hot streak, and all of a sudden, qualification for the Champions League — the most important club-level tournament in the world — was within their grasp, sitting in fourth place with three games to go. And then, disaster struck — Arsenal lost two of their last three (including an embarrassing 3-0 loss to their cross-town rivals) and finished outside of the top four.
Again, calls for Arteta’s head rang out — and again, the club stuck with him.
Fast-forward to today, his fourth season as manager, and Arsenal have shocked the world and are in first place — well clear of second-place Manchester City and comfortably above the Champions League qualification line nearly halfway through the season.
As a guy who was loudly on the side of “ArtetaOUT”, I’ll admit that seeing how wrong I was has made me question whether my judgment of Josh McDaniels has been too quick and too rash.
And yet, there’s also a large part of me that sees glaring differences between the two situations.
The argument for patience regarding McDaniels is pretty straightforward: this Raiders group over-achieved last season by making the playoffs, and if they had merely average luck in one-score games (in which they are currently 0-6), then we’re probably not having this conversation. Oh, and let’s not forget the draft pick disasters under Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock.
On the flip side, compelling arguments can be made that McDaniels should bear far more blame than the first group would claim. They may have over-achieved by making the playoffs, but even if that’s conceded, a 2-7 start with losses to teams like the Jaguars, Saints and Colts is inexcusable. And yes, they’ve been ‘unlucky’ in one-score games, but wouldn’t a good coach be able to find small advantages to tilt the scales in his favor at least once or twice?
As for the talent, the whiffs on Jonathan Abram, Clelin Ferrell, Damon Arnette and Henry Ruggs are franchise-altering, but it seems like the signing of Chandler Jones (a McDaniels move) might fall into the same category. I’d add that for an offensive play-calling head coach, the mere optics of how lethargic and disjointed this offense has looked are a strike against McDaniels, even with some of the injuries they have endured.
The point of all this is to say it’s complicated.
McDaniels has been bad, unquestionably. His hire of Patrick Graham as defensive coordinator seems to have been an absolute whiff, and many of his personnel moves appear to be similarly unsuccessful.
And yet…we are just nine games into this thing. They are just a couple bounces of a football away from being 4-5, at which point we’re all disappointed but probably not having this conversation, right?
What makes things even murkier moving forward for McDaniels is that the best thing for the franchise at this point would be to keep losing games. They currently have the second-worst record in the league as we head towards a draft with multiple franchise quarterbacks (and a franchise pass-rusher) projected to be available. Even if they stick with Derek Carr beyond this season, they could either take a franchise cornerstone to pair with Maxx Crosby on the defensive side of the ball or move back in exchange for a franchise-altering package of draft picks.
This brings us back to the complicated piece: if the Raiders finish with a top-five pick, will McDaniels even be around to make it?
How the Raiders handle the next few months will be fascinating, to say the least — trying to balance the long-term health of the franchise (aka tanking) with evaluating a coach that has been disappointing during a stretch of games he was trying to win.
Should the Raiders get ahead of things and terminate a marriage that seems headed for an implosion? Or be patient and see if McDaniels turns things around both on and off the field?
Sorry, Mark Davis. Sounds complicated.