ORLANDO - The irony is it worked in New England's favor this time. But had the Colts' well-chronicled courtship of Josh McDaniels unfolded next year instead of this year, chances are the Patriots long-time offensive coordinator would be attending the 2019 NFL annual meeting as Indianapolis' new head coach.
Though the league won't admit as much, the verbal agreement that fell through rather messily between the Colts and McDaniels last month proved to be the final push it needed to muster the needed support for a proposed rule change allowing teams to formally hire head coaches whose teams are still alive in the playoffs.
McDaniels might have never had the time and motivation to reconsider his agreement to take over the Colts had it been possible for him to sign a contract during the midst of another long Patriots playoff run. Those difference-making "deeper and longer and more in depth'' post-Super Bowl discussions that New England head coach Bill Belichick on Sunday said occurred between he and McDaniels probably wouldn't have unfolded in mid-January, changing the course of history for two teams.
While it'll likely be called the "Josh McDaniels rule'' once its adopted this week, in reality the NFL's competition committee has been considering such a move for two years. And Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons team president and chairman of the competition committee, has seen the need to update the league's hiring rules since he and his Falcons went through the anxiety of that waiting game in early 2015, identifying Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as their top coaching candidate, but then not being able to formalize the hire until after the Seahawks lost to New England in the Super Bowl.
"I've been through it and it was just three years ago with Dan Quinn,'' McKay said Monday, on the first full day of the league's annual meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "As much as it being about Josh's situation (this year), it's about the clubs, too.
"In Atlanta, when we were in that situation with Dan, we were exposed. The reason we were exposed is because we had pulled out of the coaching search, we shut everything down. I stopped calling people, assistant coaches are getting hired everywhere. So you're all in (on a guy), but in reality you have a promise. That's what you have.''
When McDaniels surprisingly opted to stay in New England, spurning the Colts after having agreed to terms and being seen as Indy's coach-in-waiting, the organization rebounded quickly, hiring Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich to replace the fired Chuck Pagano in a well-received move. But the episode was considered a bad look for the league in general, and McKay said he believes the proposal to change the rule has a very good chance to pass because it now has "ownership support.''
"We proposed this change last year and then we tabled it, because we were going to discuss it,'' McKay said. "I think this year we're not going to table it.''
In the past, any change to the rule has been opposed by ownership based on the belief that it would be difficult for a coach to serve two masters in the midst of a playoff run, even for a short time. The thought of having an assistant from a team in the postseason accept a head coaching job with another franchise was seen as a case of divided loyalties that could only cause trouble and create a distraction for the coach's original team.
But that has come to be seen as largely out-dated thinking that no longer fits the reality of the NFL's hiring cycle, with the intense scrutiny and media coverage that comes with every coaching search. Keeping up the appearance that a team's search remains open in order to conform to the rules, when everyone in and outside of the league knew that Atlanta was hiring Quinn in 2015, and San Francisco had struck a deal with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in early 2017, was akin to trying to stuff the Genie back into the bottle.
"People are saying, 'Well, then you have a contract in two spots,' '' said Quinn, who has lobbied on behalf of liberalizing the rule since he went through the process with Atlanta three years ago. "What we're saying is it's a way to say, 'Okay, make an agreement and then put that on hold and go do your job.' Because we're kind of doing that mentally any way.
"Sure the story will be on you as the new hire for a day or two, but then guys get right back to work. I think it's a step in the right direction in my opinion. It's time to say let's give it a shot and see what it looks like. Because it's still going to be an ongoing story every year. Maybe we try it for a year or two and then say, 'Okay, this is working.' If we don't like it, we can always go back to the way it was.''
In January 2015, as Seattle kept winning in the playoffs, earning a trip to a second consecutive Super Bowl, McKay was increasingly uncomfortable with no more security than Quinn's word to fall back on. When the Seahawks staged an epic late comeback at home to beat Green Bay in the NFC title game, thus extending their season, McKay watched that game rooting harder for the Packers than any Wisconsin-born Cheesehead.
"I did not like being in the situation where I was literally watching their game against Green Bay, and when that damn onside kick got recovered (by Seattle), it was terrible for me, terrible,'' McKay said. "Because I was rooting for them to lose and get eliminated. I was a Packers fan for all the wrong reasons. It wasn't like we needed (Quinn) on campus to get started. We just needed to know the deal we (verbally) agreed to was going to happen.
"They (the league) told me what I could say to Dan Quinn, and it was: 'Dan, we have every intent of making you our head coach. Would you want to be our head coach?' Literally that's it. Nothing in writing. So what happens if another team releases their coach two weeks later and had a way better situation than ours, and they decide to go after Dan? I'm out at that point.''
Shanahan said the fait accompli-like dance he did with the 49ers during hiring season last year proved no particular challenge to his work getting Atlanta's offense ready during its three-game postseason run.
"If you have an agreement with a team and they allow you to sign the contract, I don't think it really matters one way or another,'' Shanahan said Monday. "I don't think it's going to change much in how you approach your old job. To me it didn't affect me at all. I made a commitment to someone, and then it's about how you balance the two when you're preparing for something.''
In the always slow-to-change NFL, the time is seen as ripe for coaching candidates to be trusted with having one foot in two different worlds, at least for an abbreviated time frame. Had the league acted sooner on this front, the Patriots might have had to replace both of their coordinators after a Super Bowl season, as was presumed for weeks.
"College football has been doing it at a big rate for probably 10 years now,'' said McKay, meaning schools being allowed to hire away coaches before the conclusion of the bowl season. "Some guys have stayed (at their old school after being hired elsewhere) for five or six weeks.
"So I believe it can work and I think it's a good rule for the coach, and I think it's a better rule for the team. Because the team has invested so much in hiring a coach, to then have it not work out would be bad.''
Though McDaniels didn't wind up making the jump to the Colts, his decision still spawned a coaching change of sorts. He may be the last sought-after Super Bowl-bound coaching candidate who hasn't already signed on the dotted line elsewhere.