Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
When Josh McDaniels and Mike Tomlin face each other Monday night for the first time as head coaches, the football world will watch two of the game’s brightest young coaches at work.
Observers will also see two men who took strikingly similar paths.
McDaniels and Tomlin are bright, engaging men who worked their way up from being small-school athletes to Super Bowl-winning, coveted assistant coaches. Both took over for Super Bowl-winning legends in cities steeped in football tradition.
“These are two similar guys,” said retired safety John Lynch, who played under both McDaniels and Tomlin during his career. “Both Mike and Josh are highly intelligent, strong-minded football men. They really are similar.”
As we prepare for a pivotal AFC matchup in Denver, let’s look at the career paths taken by these 30-somethings who look as if they will be roaming the sidelines for a long time:
McDaniels: 33 (33 when hired).
Tomlin: 37 (34 when hired).
The playing field
McDaniels: The son of a legendary high school coach in Canton, Ohio. He went to John Carroll, where he was a receiver.
Tomlin: Grew up in Newport News, Va. Tomlin was a standout receiver/tight end at William & Mary.
McDaniels: A great quarterback coach who uses an energetic, friendly personality. But he’s not afraid to hurt feelings for the greater good of the team, and can be stern when needed. He’s a detail-oriented coach who has a firm grasp of the X's and O’s part of the game.
Tomlin: A high-energy, never-say-die defensive-minded coach whose brain is like a sponge. He craves football knowledge. He is not afraid to challenge stars to be better.
The other side of the ball
Last week, I spoke with Gary Horton of Scouts Inc., who said he was impressed by McDaniels’ ability as a defensive coach. McDaniels has a strong knowledge of defenses, Horton said, enabling him to prepare his offensive players for what to expect. McDaniels has experience coaching on defense and Tomlin has some history coaching on offense.
McDaniels: He was a defensive assistant in New England for 2002-03. He worked with the defensive backs in 2003.
Tomlin: In 1995, he was the receivers coach at VMI and in 1997, he coached the receivers at Arkansas State.
Highlights as an assistant
McDaniels: He was with the Patriots during all three of their Super Bowl-winning seasons. He was the offensive coordinator when the team went 16-0 in the regular season and set an NFL record for scoring.
Tomlin: Tomlin was Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach when it won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. In 2006, he turned around Minnesota’s defense in his one season as a coordinator.
Highlights as a head coach
McDaniels: The Broncos won their first six games this season despite being expected to be a bottom-feeder in McDaniels’ first season. Denver is 6-1 and McDaniels is a favorite for the NFL Coach of the Year award.
Tomlin: Taking over for Bill Cowher, Tomlin cemented his own name in Pittsburgh’s history by winning the Super Bowl last year in just his second season as a head coach.
View from the field
Tomlin was Lynch’s position coach for three years in Tampa Bay. Lynch spent the preseason in New England in 2008. While he knows Tomlin much better (the two are close friends), Lynch got a good glimpse of McDaniels while with the Patriots. Here are his impressions as a player about these two coaches:
McDaniels: “You could tell he was something special. Just talking to guys like Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, they would point McDaniels out and say, ‘He’s going to be a head coach soon and a darn good one.’
“What struck me about Josh was that he’d get in there and coach Tom Brady. If Brady made a mistake, Josh would let him know it and he wouldn’t mince words about it. He had great control.”
Tomlin: “Mike’s first year with me, I was coming off a year in which I was All-Pro. Yet, when he got me, he said he needed more from me and he was willing to help me get there. Coach [Jon] Gruden would allow assistants to address the team once in a while and when it was Mike’s turn, the entire team was blown away. I’d have an offensive guy come up to me and say what a special guy he was. Everyone knew that Mike was destined to be a great head coach."
What they say about each other
McDaniels on Tomlin: “He is a great role model for all coaches in this league, young coaches [and] older coaches alike. He is very, very intelligent [and] has a great background history. He learned from a bunch of really great men in this league and does a great job of teaching [and] motivating his players [and] his team. His team is always well-prepared. His team is always going to play with great emotion and energy. You never see them with a lack of effort, and I think that is a testament to what he does on a weekly basis or a daily basis with his football team. He is a positive influence on a lot of people. That didn’t really affect whether or not I thought I could do this or not, but [he is] certainly a guy that most of us would emulate, winning a Super Bowl in his second year and being as successful as he has been so far in his coaching career.”
Tomlin on McDaniels’ influence in Denver: “It looks very similar to New England to me, at this point. When I talk about some of the things that Eddie Royal is doing, it’s very similar to how Wes Welker attacks people. They personnel you, they formation you, their wide receiver screen game is very good, their running back screen game is very complex and developed, their misdirection passing, and when necessary, they’re very capable of taking shots downfield.”