On his tippy-toes, Cleveland Browns wide receivers coach Mike McDaniel is 5-foot-8.
"When they walk in the room for the first time, [players] say, 'Who's this skinny short guy?'" said McDaniel, with a wry smile after a recent practice.
A former wide receiver at Yale, McDaniel helped Pierre Garcon set a franchise record in receptions last season with the Redskins, eclipsing an almost 30-year mark held by Hall of Famer Art Monk. Like his superior's Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan, McDaniel is an outside of the box thinker.
Shanahan and McDaniel originally met when they were much younger in Denver. McDaniel was a ball boy with the Broncos, Shanahan had a role in assisting with his father's football team. Their paths intersected again with the Texans in 2006. Shanahan was now coaching wide receivers and McDaniel was working as an offensive quality control assistant. Their trust of each other's football knowledge grew throughout the years in Houston.
When Shanahan was named offensive coordinator in 2008, McDaniel drew up and put together the entire playbook. McDaniel witnessed an offense installed from scratch and his heavy involvement in the process was invaluable for the then 25-year-old.
After a small stint coaching running backs in the UFL, McDaniel and Shanahan reunited in Washington. Shanahan wanted to increase McDaniel's responsibilities. He already knew McDaniel knew how to coach receivers, so instead, he implanted his coach-in-training with the offensive group. Seeing the different perspective enlightened McDaniel. And last season Shanahan gave him the keys to the wide receiver group.
"He had been with me so long and I knew how he coached," said Shanahan. "He has been a guy who has been with me for almost eight of my 11 years coaching. He knows my system real well from the run game, the pass game, the techniques of the receivers. He can do just about anything for me."
Why is McDaniel having success coaching in the NFL at a young age? He treats players on a case-by-case basis.
"Personalities and individuals are different," said McDaniel. "One thing I learned from some real good coaches early in my career is that it's important to be yourself, whatever that is. So I took that to heart and my personality is different than a lot of coaches who are older. It's neither good or bad: it's just different. At the end of the day if you are yourself, I think players take to that."
To motivate Josh Gordon to start giving 110 percent around the facility, McDaniel showed him practice tape of Andre Johnson and Rod Smith. Gordon responded instantaneously.
"It's always a work in progress when you're dealing with a person that everything's been easy his whole life athletically," said McDaniel of Gordon. "Right now he's working harder than he's ever worked in his career and he hasn't reached his ceiling of work ethic. He'll continue to grow as he gets older and progresses as a football player."
McDaniel is blunt in his assessment of Gordon, which is a big reason why his players have been so receptive to his teaching style.
Wide receivers need to have swagger. That's why McDaniel lets Nate Burleson chime in with more authority when the unit reviews film together. McDaniel can read situations. He can read leadership.
"[Nate] breeds confidence," said McDaniel. "He encourages confidence, and really helps guys be able to overcome adversity in a practice, in a day; he's very instrumental with all that."
"Coach McDaniel is actually younger than me," said Burleson, with a hearty laugh. "But he's one helluva coach. I've learned more in a matter of a few weeks from him, that I've learned in a while."
It's McDaniel's attention to route running that Burleson raves about. The receivers have certain land mines they have to hit on the field. Say Burleson catches a slant route from Brian Hoyer and makes a nice run after the catch, McDaniel won't be happy with the play unless Burleson was at the exact spot he needed to be.
Andrew Hawkins agrees with Burleson's sentiment about the exact science McDaniel is teaching the Browns' receivers. It holds each player accountable. For Hawkins in Cincinnati, there were gray areas that often led to miscommunications and the offense being on the wrong page. Here in Cleveland, each play call is crystal clear.
"You expect the quarterback to put the ball in a certain spot," said Hawkins. "Just throughout the offense, that's literally every play and that's the way that you want it to be. That way we have a base to go off of and a definitive answer. If something goes wrong, we know what's wrong or we know why."
What McDaniel loves about his wide receiving group in Cleveland is that they are a fluid representation of him as a coach. Maybe at first glance they don't jump off the page at you. But the receivers, like the coach they work with every day, won't be outworked. They'll do everything in their power to make doubters eat their words.
"Here there is a bunch of hungry guys and each one of them has a lot to prove in their mind," said McDaniel. "It's very fun to work with people when they are passionate with what they are doing. Our guys are very strong minded people that are really out to prove something for each other and themselves individually."
It's a cliché, but it's the blatant true with coach McDaniel: don't judge a book by its cover.