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Broncos have big mess following McDaniels firing

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Dec. 06, 2010 @ 8:32 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

The Broncos announced Monday that owner Pat Bowlen had relieved head coach Josh McDaniels of his head-coaching duties.

The Broncos lost to the Chiefs 10-6 on Sunday, falling to 3-9 on the season, and will miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season for the first time since 1976. McDaniels, who was the Patriots' offensive coordinator before being hired by Denver, was 11-17 during his time in Denver.

The Broncos and McDaniels were each fined $50,000 when now-former videographer Steve Scarnecchia taped the 49ers' walk-through before their game in London. McDaniels said he never viewed the tape, but he was fined for not reporting it to the league immediately.

Bowlen named RB coach Eric Studesville the interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

The PFW spin

Pat Bowlen is not known as an impulsive owner, and his recent comments that the team was not interested in making a coaching change appeared to keep McDaniels off the hot seat until season's end, at least. It didn't — and it's interesting to look at the sequence of events. Shortly after Bowlen told AOL Fanhouse that he had no interest in firing McDaniels, the team issued a statement that backtracked on that position, saying it would "continue to monitor the progress of the team and evaluate what's in the best interest of this franchise." The apparent contradiction was pretty revealing in hindsight.

Then the Broncos' offense short-circuited against the Chiefs, a team they had hung 49 points on earlier in the season. But we have to go back a few weeks and revisit the Spygate II scandal, as it's being called, to look at what might have been the beginning of the end for McDaniels in Denver.

The organization clearly was nonplussed when it learned that the videotaping incident occurred on McDaniels' watch, whether he was directly involved or not. Their confidence in McDaniels' leadership, considering his age and relative inexperience, seemed to waver quite a bit from that point on.

There also was clearly a disconnect between McDaniels, GM Brian Xanders and CEO Joe Ellis. Although Ellis was believed to be a McDaniels supporter, sources have told PFW that the relationship between them had deteriorated since the taping incident in London. And Xanders has made comments recently that didn't exactly defend the head coach.

There was talk this past week that if McDaniels was to come back next season, he'd have to accept a position that included far less say on personnel matters. In essence, his role in getting rid of QB Jay Cutler, who is leading the 9-3 Bears, and WR Brandon Marshall, not to mention lesser disasters such as trading a future first-round pick for CB Alphonso Smith (who has five INTs in Detroit) and later letting him go for peanuts. McDaniels struggled to evaluate talent properly, and the Broncos' management clearly regrets giving such an inexperienced coach so much say over the 53-man roster.

Despite McDaniels' errors, much of the problem was in the structure of the organization itself. Bowlen has stepped out of the spotlight the past few years and is not involved as heavily in the day-to-day operations. Ellis has a marketing background. Xanders is most experienced in handling the salary cap. McDaniels never had managed a roster, and despite working with one of the best in the business in that capacity in Bill Belichick, he was unable to pick up enough nuances in his time to show much proficiency in that area.

That's why McDaniels was allowed to draft Tim Tebow, the coach's pet project and a player who might not appeal to the next permanent head coach. We could be seeing another "franchise quarterback" — first Cutler, and then perhaps Tebow — go from savior to the trading block. They're still chasing the ghost of John Elway in Denver.

The losing, of course, didn't help matters. After starting 6-0 last season, the Broncos had lost 17 of their last 22 games, sitting at 3-9 currently following Sunday's loss. In retrospect, much of the credit for that 6-0 start probably should have gone to Mike Nolan, the defensive coordinator who engineered a great defensive unit last season but was allowed to leave and join the Dolphins this offseason.

Now, Bowlen is in a financial nightmare. Facing less-than-full crowds is one thing, but the owner now must pay Mike Shanahan $3.5 million next season and likely will be on the hook to McDaniels for $6 million over the next two years, meaning the team will have to pay three head coaches big money. That is, of course, unless the Broncos can claim that they don't have to pay McDaniels because of the video flap. Ellis had said that the incident was not a "fireable offense," but this situation could go to an arbiter, and Bowlen certainly would want to avoid spending dead money on a fired coach.

Studesville, the interim coach, got his start in football (no joke) as a video assistant at the University of North Carolina in 1991, but the team's sights clearly will be set high once the offseason hits. With the P.R. nightmare that the McDaniels situation has created, there's no way that the team would hire someone without previous head-coaching experience (which also will cost more money). Bowlen likely would want to make a home-run hire on the order of Bill Cowher or Jeff Fisher, should he become a free agent.

Both of those men would require some measure of personnel control, but they each have far more accomplished résumés than McDaniels had coming in. Both also could bring in their own personnel people, who would help with the scouting process. And there's little question that a home-run coaching hire could at least temporarily appease some of the irritated Broncos fans.

Will McDaniels get another head-coaching chance? Until he takes a step backward, no. In fact, it would not be out of the question for him to return to New England, earn some more coaching and personnel experience under Belichick and help rebuild his reputation as a coach. Remember, it wasn't long ago that McDaniels was viewed as a young genius, especially after leading the Patriots' offense to a record-breaking season in 2007 and following it up with an 11-5 campaign without Tom Brady, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury.

After all, Belichick was once fired in Cleveland, and he rejoined Bill Parcells as an assistant before he went on to take over the Patriots and become one of the more revered coaches in modern football. If that fate is to happen for McDaniels, it will require some more seasoning. He clearly struggled with aspects of leadership and accountability in running a football team, but his talent and drive suggest he's a coach worth watching down the line.

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