ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Mike Shanahan's successor in Denver will inherit an explosive offense that might be one healthy running back away from greatness. He'll also take over a dreadful defense that needs yet another overhaul.
Shanahan's 14-year tenure as the Broncos' head coach ended with the franchise mired in mediocrity: a 24-24 record over the last three seasons, largely the result of too many personnel mistakes and decrepit drafts that failed to stock the defense.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen discusses his decision to fire Mike Shanahan, saying "it was time for the organization to move on." Watch ...
» Video:Bowlen press conference
» Video:Shanahan press conference
Despite losing seven tailbacks to injured reserve in 2008, the Broncos' offense, led by young stars Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Ryan Clady and Tony Scheffler, ranked second in the NFL in yardage. Cutler also set several franchise passing records in his third NFL season.
The Broncos' defense, on the other hand, ranked 29th, allowed an NFL-high 448 points and managed a measly 13 takeaways under Bob Slowik, Denver's third defensive boss in the last three years.
The first two candidates who will interview for the Broncos' head-coaching vacancy are New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary coach Raheem Morris, team spokesman Patrick Smyth said Thursday. The Broncos expect to speak with Spagnuolo on Saturday and Morris on Monday.
When Shanahan and Bowlen held tearful back-to-back news conferences on New Year's Eve to talk about their divorce, both spoke proudly of the Broncos' high-octane offense and its bright future. They also spoke of Denver's desperate need to refurbish a defense that has been the franchise's Achilles' heel for way too long.
"I don't want to put any pressure on the new head coach, but if you take a look at the offense, the youth, the talent ..." Shanahan gushed. "Defensively, we lost a couple of our captains this year (in cornerback Champ Bailey and linebacker D.J. Williams). They'll be back. We get some guys that were out; they will be back. Through free agency and the draft, people want to be a Denver Bronco. This is the best organization in sports."
The Broncos' new boss will need to get right to work addressing needs along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. He doesn't need to tinker with the offense at all, unless he feels that running backs Ryan Torain (knee) and Peyton Hillis (hamstring) might not return to full health in 2009.
Shanahan said the team's offense will soon put the Broncos in the hunt for another championship. But if 2008 proved anything, it's that without a solid defense and a decent running game, Cutler can't shoulder the burden by himself, no matter his immense talents and strong right arm.
Only five players from the 2001 to 2005 drafts remain on Denver's roster, and two players from the four-man draft of 2007, defensive linemen Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, were inactive more often than not this season. The list of unproductive free agents is nearly as long as the list of draft busts.
Bowlen seemed a little bit fuzzy on how to move forward. He said he didn't want to give his next coach total control of football operations the way he did Shanahan.
"I don't anticipate the next coach will have both jobs," Bowlen said.
And Bowlen said he wanted to focus on hiring a coach, then a general manager. That unconventional approach could eliminate some potential candidates such as Scott Pioli, Bill Cowher or Bill Parcells from front-office consideration because they would presumably want a say in hiring the coach.
Bowlen said the current front office trio of Jim Goodman, Brian Xanders and Jeff Goodman would stay in place. Although Jim Goodman is the vice president of football operations and player personnel, Bowlen wouldn't call him a general manager.
Bowlen said he'll consult with chief operating officer Joe Ellis in selecting the next head coach. The owner also said most of Shanahan's assistants will be fired, although they'll be considered on a coach-by-coach basis.
Cutler wants quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates to stick around. Bates just signed a contract extension and has a budding relationship with the third-year pro who earned his first Pro Bowl nod this season.
Keeping Bates would soothe Cutler, who publicly criticized Bowlen's firing of Shanahan. Bowlen said he would keep Cutler in the loop on the coaching search out of respect for his star.
"I talked to Jay Cutler, and Jay understood ... I didn't get any negative feedback," Bowlen said. "I think he understands enough about the business of football, the game of football, that there are going to be coaching changes and changes in organizations. I didn't sense that Jay had any negative feelings about it, and I'm sure he is very interested in who is going to be the next head coach. Obviously, he is 'The Man' around here now, so I will be talking with Jay."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.