When Browns running back Peyton Hillis hurdled Patriots safety James Sanders on Sunday, it seemed as if for a second he was leaping over all the backs on the Broncos roster. Every thought bubble at Cleveland Browns Stadium must have said, "Thank you, Josh McDaniels."
A lot of people have been silently thanking McDaniels lately. The Hillis trade last March is just one of several moves that worked out better for everyone besides the Broncos. While any GM/head coach can bungle a trade now and then, several of McDaniels' moves just haven't panned. Rather than grill him in this space, it would be more appropriate to ask the simple question: What's Denver's plan?
In order to answer that, we have to review some of the wheelings and dealings of the head coach/de facto co-GM (with Brian Xanders).
» Traded Hillis to Cleveland for Brady Quinn, a sixth-round pick in 2011, and a conditional pick in 2012. Need there be any more words to describe this trade, other than that Hillis has more rushing yards this season than the entire Broncos' stable of backs? McDaniels kept using Knowshon Moreno in short-yardage last season in lieu of the bruiser Hillis, with negative results. It smacked a little of "playing my guy" instead of "my predecessor's guy." Now Hillis is running over everyone's guy in Ohio.
» Traded their 2010 first-round pick to get cornerback Alphonso Smith in the second round of the 2009 draft. After only one year, Denver traded Smith to Lions for tight end Dan Gronkowski. Smith has almost as many interceptions (five) as Gronkowski has receptions (six) this season. Smith has more touchdowns than Gronkowski as well (1-0).
» Traded Brandon Marshall to the Dolphins for two second-round picks. While the Broncos' passing game has no doubt thrived without No. 19, is there anyone on the roster that could make a play to win a game like Marshall's catch-and-run vs. the Cowboys last year? In fairness to the Broncos, they were not likely going to be able to re-sign the petulant receiver after the 2010 season when his contract in Denver was set to expire.
» Traded quarterback Jay Cutler to the Bears. McDaniels whisked two first-round picks, Kyle Orton, as well as a third, for Cutler and a fifth-rounder 18 months ago. From the highway it looks like a heckuva deal with Denver getting a king's ransom of picks as well as Orton's big stats this year. But from the campsite, you begin to see some dead trees, starting with the fact that Orton's 2010 numbers are Enron-esque. No one cares if you put up 300-yard games if you lose two out of every three games like the Broncos have this season. While Orton has played well, McDaniels has already made it clear he's not the future by drafting Tim Tebow. The first-round picks in the Cutler trade eventually became Robert Ayers, a linebacker with promise, as well as Demaryius Thomas, who could eventually be a good receiver if he can stay healthy.
(Interesting sidebar to the Cutler deal: The only Pro Bowl player involved in the trade was Johnny Knox. who was acquired by the Bears with the fifth-round pick and went on to make the Pro Bowl as a kick returner.)
Compiling draft picks is nice; it helps build for the future. Problem is, so many people felt the future was already there in Denver.
Cutler is 27, Marshall 26, Smith 25. Hillis seems like he's been around forever, but he's only 24. While the Broncos had what appeared to be solid drafts in 2009 and 2010, none of the players taken are of Hillis' or Marshall's ilk -- at least not yet.
So what's the deal? Apparently they weren't McDaniels' guys, and he felt he could channel his old boss in New England and stockpile picks. Hey, it worked, sort of. While Denver bagged a bunch of early-round picks, it doesn't do good to draft young talent if they're not playing.
Knowshon Moreno, a first-rounder in 2009, has missed too much time this season with injuries. Even when he has played, he's averaged just 3 yards a crack. Thomas was inactive for the opener, has been on the injury report a couple of times, and has started just one game.
While the injuries aren't McDaniels' fault, he must be held accountable for dealing a wideout that caught more than 100 balls each of the last three seasons and a running back that's outrushed his entire team.
Then there's Tebow. Denver is 2-6 and last in the AFC West, and Orton is not considered the future. McDaniels might as well play him. Even if the offense and blitz schemes are a little much for Tebow to grasp, he can still play.
The former Florida standout is different from Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers, both of whom sat on the bench early in their careers, because he can play out of a wildcat set. He's a great athlete that could definitely use some reps in real games and witness NFL game speed. That's one big part of the learning curve for young quarterbacks, and Tebow could benefit from the experience without hurting his team. And yet, McDaniels has rarely dialed Tebow's number in their "Wild Horse" set.
Having arguably the greatest college football player ever rot on the bench is a head-scratcher. That said, not everything McDaniels has done has gone awry.
Free-agent acquisitions Jamal Williams and Kevin Vickerson have done a decent job on the defensive line. Several of McDaniels' draft picks look to be okay -- Ayers, cornerback Perrish Cox, and center J.D. Walton, to name a few. But the reality is the team on the field in Mile High is not as talented as the guys traded away. And the guys traded away were in their prime.
So was Mike Nolan, who despite transforming the Broncos' defense from the NFL's 26th-ranked unit in 2008 to seventh overall in 2009, was allowed to leave for Miami to coordinate the Dolphins' defense. Whatever the circumstances were surrounding the end of that relationship, McDaniels must take some responsibility for a very talented defensive coach exiting the building when the Broncos defense has struggled like it has (currently 23rd in the NFL). Nolan, meanwhile, has improved Miami from 22nd overall defensively to 13th.
While new defensive coordinator Don Martindale doesn't have injured pass rusher Elvis Dumervil at his disposal, the club hasn't done a strong job of drafting building blocks to fit its 3-4 system, one more small indication that the plan, not necessarily McDaniels the coach, is in question.
Make no mistake, McDaniels the coach has struggled. The Broncos have lost 14 of their last 18 games after getting off to a 6-0 start under McDaniels. That would be easier to swallow for Broncos fans if a plan was apparent. While all the results certainly aren't in, the ones that are don't look so good. Some of the many draft picks could end up panning out, but the question is whether McDaniels will be around to bear the fruit.