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How Josh McDaniels’ and Dave Ziegler’s past could pay off for Raiders

HENDERSON, Nev. — There’s no room for subtlety in Las Vegas.

And for an organization like the Raiders, who established prominence during Al Davis’ “Just win, baby” years, there’s no excuse for a lack of urgency within their drive to contend.

As such, general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels have quickly made their mark in their first year together in the desert. They inherited a team that reached the playoffs last season, they made a pair of high-profile additions to the roster and they declared their intentions to compete immediately.

“Let’s go try to be as good as we can right now, try to compete right now,” Ziegler told The Athletic from his office that overlooks a beautiful indoor practice facility at the Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center. “For me, it’s just like, why wait? Let’s try to be great now. Let’s try to be as good as we can now, build the best football team that we can now. And in doing so, you’re going to have to make some aggressive choices to do that.”

Ziegler and McDaniels played together at John Carroll University in the late 1990s and began working together in 2010 with the Broncos. They rejoined forces for nine seasons with the Patriots — McDaniels as offensive coordinator and Ziegler climbing his way to director of player personnel — and have long shared similar football philosophies.

Raiders owner Mark Davis, right, and Dave Ziegler watch training camp at Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center. (Lucas Peltier / USA Today)

So they were fully aligned when they signed edge rusher Chandler Jones to a three-year, $51 million contract a day before acquiring wide receiver Davante Adams from the Packers for a first- and second-round pick and giving him a historic five-year, $140 million deal. The Raiders also extended quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Hunter Renfrow and edge rusher Maxx Crosby to big-money deals despite each having term left on their contracts.

There’d be no rebuild in Vegas.

“I think you have to (take some swings), in my mind,” Ziegler said. “The reality in this league is you have to win games. Obviously, if you’re going to tear something completely down to the ground, there’s a level of patience and discipline that comes with that, from the top of your organization all the way down. And everybody has to be on the same page with that. Ultimately, we didn’t feel like that’s where this team was, so we were going to take some aggressive swings. Let’s build on what they had done last year and find some spots where we felt we could improve the team, and let’s go do it.”

Coming from the Patriots, who have a reputation for being financially conservative operators, Ziegler and McDaniels surely caused some heads to turn this offseason. But to understand how they got here, it’s important to know where they’ve come from and how those experiences shaped them for potential success in their new roles with the Raiders.

‘A person of conviction’

Ziegler has always acted with conviction. Because of that, his former colleagues in New England complimented his approach as aggressive by nature.

He was so diligent with his film study and preparation, so if Ziegler had to compile a scouting report or deliver a presentation in front of Bill Belichick, he was as thorough as possible. Ziegler wasn’t timid about challenging others’ ideas, whether it was Belichick or anyone else, so long as he felt his opinions were backed by substance, which was often the case.

Ziegler was comfortable taking chances long before his career in the NFL. After graduating from John Carroll in 2001, he taught history at Kenston (Ohio) High for a year while coaching wide receivers and defensive backs for the freshman team.

Ziegler later quit and moved to Arizona with enough money to get by until he found his next stop, a job at Arcadia High in Scottsdale.

He returned to John Carroll in 2004 as a graduate assistant before taking over as the receivers coach at Iona in 2006, when he also finished his master’s degree in school counseling.

When the college coaching route didn’t progress as quickly as Ziegler hoped — he also got rejected for a job on Dirk Koetter’s staff at Arizona State — he again went back to Arizona, this time to work for a prominent Chaparral High program in Scottsdale to coach running backs, tight ends and special teams while also serving as a guidance counselor.

“There was a long time there when I was just trying to find my way in football,” Ziegler said.

McDaniels eventually changed the scope of Ziegler’s trajectory. In 2010, McDaniels, who took over as the Broncos head coach in 2009, called up his college friend to see if he’d be interested in becoming a scouting assistant.

Ziegler didn’t know anything about scouting, but he did know the coaching avenue wasn’t going as planned. Ziegler established a new career goal shortly after taking the job in Denver — he wanted to become a general manager.

“Those experiences gave me the confidence — like, ‘Hey, you’re going to figure it out,’” Ziegler said. “‘You can take some risks. Ultimately, if you put in the work and treat people the right way, (if) you’re diligent and intentional about being really good, it’s going to work out.’ I keep that same mindset now. I’ve always been a person of conviction.

“I’ve never been worried about getting fired. I’m not scared of that. I’ll figure it out. Five years from now, whether I’m going to be a school counselor or a teacher and coaching high school football, then that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll do the best job at that. Because of my life experiences, I don’t operate with a lot of fear of failure. If I fail and that’s how it is, then I’m going to keep moving forward. That’s just how I am.”

Josh McDaniels brought Dave Ziegler to work with him with the Broncos while McDaniels was the head coach in Denver. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images)

Ziegler joined the Patriots in 2013 and climbed the ladder by quickly impressing many in the organization. He was promoted in 2020 to Nick Caserio’s assistant director of player personnel before taking over the top job a year later when Caserio left for the Texans.

Those last two years wound up being vital to Ziegler’s personal development. The 44-year-old has always been so task-driven that he would write a daily list of everything he needed to accomplish, and he became proficient at getting through it all in meticulous order.

But while overseeing the personnel department, Ziegler learned that no two days will ever be the same. He had to be flexible and learn to overcome certain levels of stress when a day went off the rails — maybe because of a contract situation, an injury, a trade negotiation or any number of things that could routinely pop up.

“At first, there was a lot of stress and strain and frustration that came along with not being able to execute my plan for that day,” Ziegler said. “It was a really great learning experience to challenge some areas where I was weak.”

Ziegler still keeps his lists. And he pointed to a sign behind his desk with the acronym “WIN,” or “what’s important now.”

“The last couple years — really last year — prepared me from a mental toughness standpoint,” Ziegler said. “I don’t think I was as mentally tough when I first started those jobs because I would get overwhelmed by some of those things. Those last couple years in New England really helped me sharpen some of the areas where I was weak. I’m now much more comfortable. I understand that I may not get all of those things done. I’m much more focused and intentional.”

Ziegler was grateful for those experiences in New England. Real-time opportunities for self-reflection and evaluation became critical to his growth.

The same was true for a somewhat unconventional career path as a 20-something. He bounced between stops to learn about himself and how to advance as a professional. The path might not have been linear, but he knew he’d get there by being true to his values, treating people the right way and working with purpose.

“How is a guy who was a guidance counselor so many years ago now a GM?” Ziegler rhetorically asked, smiling. “Looking back, the path that I took is odd, but I wouldn’t change it because I think it’s benefited me a lot in a lot of different ways. It just ended up being one of those things where I got this opportunity, and I wanted to be great at it.”

‘I’m at peace’

McDaniels knows the results in Denver were a failure. That’s why he spent a decade working to make sure the experience wasn’t.

“The best part about my career,” McDaniels told The Athletic, “was I was able to go through that and learn from it.”

Consider that sentiment. After a 6-0 start, the Broncos lost 17 of McDaniels’ final 22 games before he was fired. He traded quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall and drafted Tim Tebow in the first round.

And McDaniels, 46, has gained the perspective to refer to that learning experience as the best part of his career.

There’s been a perception that McDaniels tried to be too much like Belichick during his first coaching tour, and there’s a dose of truth to that. There’s also a logical explanation behind it.

McDaniels joined the Patriots as a 23-year-old in 2001 and took over the Broncos at 32. He grew up as a coach under Belichick and only saw one way to do it.

“I think you do what you know,” McDaniels said. “I wasn’t trying to do that when I was there (in Denver). I probably resorted to the answers that I was familiar with when things came up. Sometimes that fits me, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“For me, it was humbling to learn that you don’t go and do it that exact same way. Because you can’t. I’m not (Belichick). I haven’t won six Super Bowls. I’m just trying to figure out how to get our team to practice well, improve now, be myself, communicate and be honest with them. I think that’s the right way to do it. Whether we win or we lose at the end of the day, or how successful we are, we’ll find that out as we go. Doing it the way that fits me the best, I’m at peace.”

McDaniels’ points of emphasis are working.

One key, he has believed, is relaying the why behind every decision. Time to practice outside under the vicious desert sun? OK, here’s why. Or in the rain? Again, express why. Setting up a new focus in practice or meetings? Explain why.

“I don’t think I’ve earned the right to tell them to do it without that. It’s a really important piece of information that I’ve gathered for myself,” McDaniels said. “Once you explain why, everybody is on the same page and understands it. If you just say, ‘We’re going to do this; just shut up and do it,’ I don’t have that. I can’t do that.

“(The Patriots) didn’t do it either when they started. I was there in 2001. There was a lot of, ‘Here, we’re going to do this, and here’s why we’re going to do it.’ We’re not 20 years in. We’re 20 days in. I need to keep doing that. I need to continue to drip water on the rock, and at some point, something is going to sprout. It may take a little while, but that’s OK. That’s OK.”

McDaniels has also become a vastly improved delegator, and that’s partly because of his staff. The Broncos had a good coaching staff, but McDaniels didn’t have as much experience with each coach, so he tried to handle too much on his own, which led to issues.

McDaniels has a flurry of former Patriots assistants in Las Vegas, and he’s comfortable giving them more responsibilities. And by proxy, McDaniels has established good relationships with everyone in the building.

“When I was younger, I was so intent on trying to fix everything,” McDaniels said. “If I didn’t know the answer or it hadn’t been fixed quick enough, I just tried harder. In some cases, that’s not necessarily the right way to do it. Sometimes you’ve just got to pull back a little bit and maybe make a different decision or let other people work on it, and they’ll figure out how to solve it, too, because we’ve got a lot of people who are capable of doing it.

“I’ve learned a whole lot from that experience. And then going back and seeing Bill after I had the opportunity to do it myself and really being able to compare what I was learning on a day-to-day basis in New England and then what I would probably need to do different. No two of us are the same. Just be yourself. Be honest and true to yourself every day, and give that to the players, the coaches, the staff and you have a great peace about that, which is where I’m at.”

Ziegler has a unique perspective of McDaniels’ growth. They’ve known each other for a quarter century and worked together on each end of McDaniels’ coaching spectrum.

Ziegler was there for the final season in Denver, the years of reflection in New England and the opening months in Vegas.

“He’s been able to have people in a lot of different positions here who he has confidence in and feels good about, and he lets those people do their jobs,” Ziegler said. “By doing that, it’s allowed him to take a lot of weight off his shoulders and concentrate more on the things that he needs to concentrate on as a head coach. He doesn’t need to concentrate on running the special teams or the scouting department. When you have less pressure, you fall back to being more yourself.

“Josh has always been Josh. He’s always been a good person. He’s always been very smart. He’s always been a hard worker. Now I think he’s just more comfortable with the people around him, so he doesn’t feel that internal pressure. He’s realized over time that there’s more of a relationship component that is important to running an organization, that’s important for buy-in. When you’re investing in people’s growth and more focused on the personal element, there are some good residual effects of that. People feel valued. People feel invested in. That returns a good work product and an environment where people feel like they can be themselves and feel like they can challenge ideas and be creative.

“He did a lot of self-reflection after that job of different areas that he could have improved, and one was the personal side, the relationship side. From 32 to 46, we’re all a lot more comfortable in our skin, hopefully. He’s more comfortable in his coaching skin. He’s more comfortable in what works for him and what his style is. We’re seeing that here day to day, and he’s just been outstanding. He’s been outstanding in being a really good presence day to day here. If you talk to people, they talk about the positive vibe in the building. That’s because Josh has created that. His coaches have then carried that message and created that. That’s been a big difference from Denver to here.”

‘Just be ourselves’

This offseason felt different, and maybe it was.

So often when there’s a regime overhaul, a roster rebuild follows. It’s certainly the exception when a new GM-coach combo trades away its first two draft picks for a wide receiver — let alone one who has widely been viewed as the best in the league — and secures three franchise pillars to long-term extensions.

But by taking over a team that made the playoffs and had a healthy salary-cap situation, Ziegler said they were mostly taking advantage of the opportunity. Similarly, he noted, the Patriots were loaded with cap space during the 2021 offseason and spent historic amounts of money.

The parallel between the two wasn’t the money spent or the aggressive strategy — it was about seeing an opportunity and pouncing.

“That’s our approach for Josh and ourselves,” Ziegler said. “There’s going to be an aggressiveness to the way we do things when we feel like it’s the right opportunity to make a good football decision. I think that’s the key in being aggressive and making good football decisions.

“When there’s an opportunity to make a decision that we think was really good for the football team at key positions, why not? Let’s go do it. That was really the approach. The aggressiveness was built off what was here and what we felt we could do with the team.”

Josh McDaniels takes over a Raiders team that was 10-7 and made the playoffs last season. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Ziegler and McDaniels are now unabashedly themselves. In many ways, that’s always been the case, but those characteristics — and their personal growth — led them to this moment together with the Raiders.

They learned a lot about football in New England, but they’re also their own men.

So far, they’ve been operating like it.

“We’ve tried really hard to just be ourselves,” McDaniels said. “I don’t know that anybody knows that any decision is right or wrong right away. You make the best decision you can with the information you have and then try to work like hell to make it right. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

(Top photo of Josh McDaniels: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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