|Ed Andrieski / Associated Press|
|When the relationship between coach Josh McDaniels (left) and Jay Cutler turned sour, the Broncos turned to Kyle Orton (right).|
DENVER -- He botched an attempt to acquire his former quarterback, setting off a firestorm that eventually led to his inherited quarterback's exit out of town. He has come under heavy criticism for his way of doing business, not having a plan, being too young, too arrogant, too brash, too bold.
But the past few weeks have brought Broncos coach Josh McDaniels some public acceptance and faith from his players. Once pushed down the plank after mishandling former quarterback Jay Cutler's ego and trading the Pro Bowler away, he seemingly has discovered a return walkway.
McDaniels was a hit at a recent Broncos fan festival and his once suspect on-field plan, now that it's been set in motion through a series of passing camps, has piqued players' belief that maybe this guy is on to something. At the very least, players feel they need to give McDaniels a shot because winning with him will feel better than losing, regardless of who's making the decisions.
"The main thing, as one of the leaders of this team, is to buy into what the coach is doing. That way, the others follow," veteran Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said after an OTA practice on Monday at the Broncos' practice facility. "You can't talk negative. I don't care if it is stuff that's real or not. You've got to be positive. You keep things positive, guys will feed into it and want to win for this guy."
Regardless of what players think of McDaniels, it won't do any good to doubt him until it's determined whether what he's selling works.
No need to go to players for that assessment, though. McDaniels is well aware that if he doesn't win, the heat he'll feel in one of the NFL's most passionate football cities will be enough to melt the snow off the caps of the Rockies.
"That's this game. I mean I know what's going to happen. This is about winning," said McDaniels, in the midst of the Broncos' final set of OTAs. "If you lose, you're going to get criticism, I don't care who you are. If you win, you're going to get praise. I don't' care how good you are or how bad you are. If you're lucky to win you're going to get, 'Look how good he is.' That's just football."
Some Denver players indicated that there was some doubt about what McDaniels was trying to accomplish after his flirtation with acquiring former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel got Cutler so bent out of shape, a trade was necessitated. What helped eventually swing things in McDaniels' favor were time, high character veterans and a slew of new acquisitions -- like former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins -- who put aside the high drama and concentrated on earning starting jobs or extending their careers.
"It was a crazy situation but it's the NFL and the NFL is always crazy," said quarterback Chris Simms, one of 14 free agents acquired by the Broncos since McDaniels was hired in January. "For the most part, after the trade was done, two or three days later, everybody kind of moved on."
Added Bailey: "There always is going to be some negative talk somewhere. I don't care where you are or who the coach is, it's always going to be there. It's hard for a coach to please everybody. It's all about making guys understand. He's trying to do what's best for the team. We just have to buy into it."
According to McDaniels, the coaching and front office staffs' unflinching commitment to the blueprint that was laid out to players upon McDaniels' arrival is what has helped get and keep his team's attention. Well, everything except the Cutler Saga. And to some degree, even that unforeseen situation fell in line with the plan.
A plan that says no one player is bigger than the team and that the team can beat any opponent if players focus only on doing their jobs. It's the model that has proven successful in New England under Bill Belichick -- the Petri dish of winning that spawned McDaniels.
"In New England, we had a mindset that if you didn't bring in people who were problems or who could be a problem, you don't' have that distraction to deal with," McDaniels said. "We've tried to do this right and make this thing jell from a roster standpoint. From what I see, this group has come together as a team. From the first team meeting in the middle of March we laid out our vision and we really stuck to the things we told them we were going to stick to.
"That is hard work, evaluating everything we're doing to try to make it the best we can make it and that every player's got a job to do. It's been my experience that if 11 players do their job on a play we're going to win that play. We've really followed through in pounding that message home."
Added quarterback Kyle Orton: "It's all about accountability here."
Look up and down the Broncos' roster and you won't find but a handful of household names, and even that might be a stretch. Bailey and Dawkins are two. They are among the few players who won't be battling for their jobs, either.
This, too, is part of McDaniels' plan.
Orton, the quarterback Denver received from Chicago in the Cutler trade (the Broncos also received 2009 and 2010 first-round picks as well as a 2009 third-round choice), is competing for the starting job with Simms. Rookie running back Knowshon Moreno and outside linebacker/defensive end Robert Ayers, taken with the first-round pick acquired from the Bears, aren't being given starting jobs. And the wide receiver rotation also remains in flux as standout Brandon Marshall is rehabilitating from hip surgery and awaiting possible discipline from a 2008 domestic incident.
With so many players worried about whether they'll earn a roster spot, there is little choice than to do what they're being told. So buying in isn't solely voluntary. For most, it's a method of survival.
Then, there are the Xs and Os. Defensively, the Broncos' porous defense from a season ago is being re-tooled under former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. Denver plans to use a 3-4 front, which is one of the reasons the Broncos took Ayers out of Tennessee with the No. 18 overall pick. Bailey said there is definitely a high learning curve, but players see the chance to succeed.
McDaniels, as he did in New England, will control the offense. He will attempt to get Orton and Simms, quarterbacks with career completion percentages below 60 percent, to run a system where quarterbacks typically complete well above that mark. Not only are Simms and Orton believers, knowing that Cassel, a career backup, completed 63 percent of his passes, threw for 3,693 yards and had 21 touchdowns in the same scheme in 2008, they've seen positive things happen in practice with the offense.
"It's a great system. It puts a lot of demands on us mentally. It gets guys open and it's your job to get them the ball and let them do what they do," said Orton, who registered career highs in yards (2,972), touchdowns (18) and completion percentage (58.5) last season with the Bears.
The main thing McDaniels has done and will do until his team goes on display this fall, is place himself, and no one else, in the line of fire. He is the singular voice and figure of the franchise.
Take the Cutler situation for example. Though trying to placate and then eventually dealing Cutler wasn't solely his idea, he made it appear publicly that way. Since arriving in Denver, every move made by the Broncos has been designed that way. Wins and losses will be placed at his feet, too, much like they've been with Belichick, his mentor.
It's not much different than the way things have been done in Denver for a long time. Mike Shanahan was the omnipotent force of the franchise for 14 years, two of which ended in Super Bowl championships. Players, coaches, as well as wins and losses arrived and left, but Shanahan remained a constant -- until last winter, when the seemingly impenetrable bubble around him was burst and he was fired after a third straight season of not making the playoffs.
In the short time he's walked in Shanahan's shoes, McDaniels hasn't done much to reconstruct the wall of security that allowed Shanahan such a lengthy shelf life.
However, with the Cutler saga behind him and the franchise and the reality of football starting to settle in, McDaniels has at least developed a following from those he needs to lead.
Though things might not have gotten off to an ideal start, a plan at least seems to be developing. And for McDaniels and the Broncos, that is a victory unto itself.