- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Big journeys often begin with the smallest of steps and Adam Gase's winding road from almost insurance agent to NFL play-caller really got the push it needed with one simple question.
"What do you like here?"
It is how first-year San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, a Broncos assistant for four seasons, started the ball rolling for Gase, who now calls plays for Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos' record-setting offense. The pair meet as opponents on Sunday.
McCoy didn't guard his turf with Gase. He didn't shut out those around him as he went about his business in pursuit of wins, touchdowns and perhaps the head coaching job that would come with them. He saw potential in Gase, and even as McCoy hoped his work would land him one of those coveted 32 jobs, he also saw the value in trying to prepare Gase to succeed him as his replacement.
"I was very fortunate when I was with Dan Henning for a numbers of years, Jeff Davidson and other people that gave me an opportunity to learn certain things ... and prepare so whenever your opportunity came up you were ready for it," McCoy said. "... We're all in this together ... They all knew during the game it was going to be an open conversation and I was going to throw ideas and I wanted answers."
"I think it's helped me more than anything," Gase said. "Mike's a special person to have done that when a lot of guys wouldn't. He's able to kind of let his guys do their jobs, to believe in how he goes about things. I'll never be able to thank him enough for all that."
McCoy showed the same stripes when he became a head coach this past offseason. Rather than choose himself as the Chargers' play-caller in his inaugural year at the top of the coaching flowchart -- a vocational double-dip that has derailed more than a few rookie coaches in the league over the years -- McCoy hired Ken Whisenhunt, a former head coach and long-time NFL assistant to run the team's offense.
It was the same kind of big-picture outlook that McCoy had when he and Gase joined the Broncos. Both were hired in Denver by Josh McDaniels in 2009, McCoy as quarterbacks coach, Gase as wide receivers coach. McDaniels was the team's game-day play-caller/offensive coordinator in '09, as McCoy was given the title of offensive coordinator in 2010.
McDaniels called the plays until he was fired with four games remaining in the 2010 season. And when Eric Studesville, the Broncos' current running backs coach, was named interim coach for those final four games, McCoy was suddenly the play-caller in the offense.
"And in that first game, it was rough day, I just didn't feel like I, me personally, was prepared, ready for what came at us," Gase said. "After that game I always felt like I had to make sure I was ready for whatever happened. That was really the starting point, that I always tried to make sure if he ever asked me a question that I had an answer."
They closed out that season and moved through an offensive rebuild in 2011 to fit Tim Tebow. Then came another complete overhaul after Manning was signed in 2012. The two carved out one playbook after another, side by side, exchanging ideas, often with McCoy challenging, asking for more of Gase along the way.
"Adam was really my right-hand man that I leaned on a lot," McCoy said. "We spent endless hours in there and did a lot of things together. I always told him, ‘Listen you've got to be ready for this opportunity because you never know.' ... I always told him, ‘Hey, you never know what could happen so let's get involved as much as we can and I'll try to help you in any way I can and see what happens.'"
"I always felt Mike was trying to get me to reach, to push," Gase said. "I had suggestions sometimes when he would say, ‘You can't do that because of this and this and this,' and I had not thought through that. He showed me how to think things through and see beyond just the play call."
McCoy's strength in guiding an offense is his ability to adapt, to build and to consider options, according to Manning. Not to simply jam everything and everybody into a scheme McCoy wanted to run no matter who was in the huddle.
In the weeks following Manning's arrival, many wondered if the Broncos would simply shove Manning's offense from Indianapolis into the copier and keep it going in Denver. However, this week Manning pointed out, as he has from time to time, just how diverse the playbook was that McCoy and Gase had put together.
"I just can't tell you how indebted and grateful I am for the support Mike gave me," Manning said. "We kind of put together a hybrid offense last year -- a combination of some of the Colts stuff, some of Mike's stuff, some of, I guess, Josh McDaniels' New England stuff. It was really a hybrid last year. It was pretty rare for the offensive success we had in that short period of time when you are putting an offense together and have new quarterback and a coordinator working together for the first time, it doesn't work that well, that often."
Sunday the two coaches will stand on opposite sidelines knowing exactly how the other thinks in any and all situations. And they will be happy in the knowledge they also helped the other get to that place.
"I've heard of other guys doing what Mike did, but I hadn't really experienced it, not to the extent Mike was willing to do it," Gase said. "He always made it so I had to be ready to go. I feel like that's helped me all the time, especially when we go up-tempo, because he always had me work at that pace, to be ready. I'll always be indebted to Mike for preparing me like that, for taking the time."
5dEric D. Williams