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Down and out in Denver

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Dec. 13, 2010 @ 4:45 a.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

Too much, too soon.

To a man, those four words aptly summed up the thoughts of league insiders we talked to this past week regarding the firing last Monday of 34-year-old Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels.

It certainly didn't look like McDaniels was in over his head when he raised eyebrows leaguewide after winning his first six games as a head coach, triggering "Boy Genius" proclamations that couldn't have been more premature.

It wasn't long before his blazing start gave way to a steady downhill slide, with one poor personnel decision after another and an embarrassing videotaping violation in London that was immediately dubbed "Spygate II," ultimately ending McDaniels' 22-month run — a turn of events that not too many Broncos fans are complaining about.

The day after McDaniels was fired, Broncos chief operating officer Joe Ellis — the man widely believed to be wielding the most power these days in an organization that has become increasingly dysfunctional — stated the obvious when he said the team must be blamed for seeing fit to give McDaniels the full set of keys to the kingdom despite his obvious lack of experience.

"It's very likely that the plan will not empower the next head coach with the kind of authority that Josh (had) probably unfairly put upon him," Ellis said. And it's also fair to say that we'll stick to that plan."

Insiders couldn't agree more that the Broncos' decision to hire McDaniels was destined for disaster.

"McDaniels is one of the best offensive minds in football, but he was not a football (evaluator)," said one NFL personnel executive. "Denver knows the mistake it made. It's challenging enough coaching a team for the first time at his age with all that is involved nowadays with the position, handling your assistants. You can't do it all. You have to be able to empower people in your organization, put your ego aside and train them to be efficient. There is not enough time to do it all, let alone to handle the personnel side.

"You can look at it and say that Josh McDaniels failed. I look at it and say the Broncos failed Josh by putting him in a position in which he could never be successful — and I think the owner came to that realization."

Speaking of the owner, the extent to which Pat Bowlen is even involved at present in key team matters is open to debate, with concerns about his physical and mental health continuing to linger on the NFL rumor mill.

While the team has said Bowlen remains very much on the ball — he had dinner with Broncos legend John Elway just hours after McDaniels was officially let go — there is speculation that other people within the organization are currently calling most of the shots.

"He is a very sharp guy, but never before has he chosen to stay out of the way when such a critical decision is looming," one Broncos insider said of Bowlen. "He clearly is not as involved as he once was, and has put a lot of trust in Ellis to make decisions."

One decision the Broncos apparently have already made is to reach out to Elway, who quarterbacked Denver to back-to-back Super Bowl titles and has served as a business consultant to the team this season, to take on a primary role in the front office and, at the very least, help re-establish a connection with a fan base that has become increasingly upset with the product on the field.

There are a lot of people in the know, though, who wonder just how much Elway can really bring to the table.

"I see the stories about Elway, and I got to be honest — I laugh," one skeptical league insider told PFW. "Just because you played this game at a high level does not mean you know how to build a team. He does not have the training he needs to run it without a true football man by his side propping him up. He might be able to handle being the face, but he is not equipped with the knowledge that takes decades of trial and error to build."

Were there other candidates better-equipped than McDaniels to replace Mike Shanahan, who hasn't exactly set the world on fire in his attempt to return the Redskins to relevance?

"I thought they should have hired (Steve) Spagnuolo the first time," said one league exec. "If they did, they would not have had all these problems. The Matt Cassel situation (when McDaniels' interest in Cassel angered then-Broncos QB Jay Cutler) screwed everything up. They did not really know Cutler; they just made a decision to go without him. (Chiefs GM) Scott Pioli beat them to the punch (on Cassel). When word got out that they were shopping Cutler, they had a big problem. They mismanaged the trade, and that was the start of all their problems."

A closer look at the Broncos' current condition shows major problems on both sides of the ball. Two sobering statistics stick out: Denver currently ranks 29th in rushing and is next-to-last in run defense. 

"What's ironic is the problem in Denver was not the offense. It wasn't when Shanahan was there. Now it might be," said one league executive. "They have to figure out what they are looking at on offense. Is (first-round rookie QB Tim) Tebow a solution? Maybe he can do it. You can get away with Kyle Orton.

"They got rid of (RB Peyton) Hillis, Cutler, (WR Brandon) Marshall, (TE Tony) Scheffler — and they all had issues. The problem you have when you make too many changes — it's like Washington. If you change coaches and personnel people every few years, you change systems, and systems require specific skill sets. Continuity is so underrated in this business. But owners are not looking at it that way. They are just evaluating wins."

Another personnel executive believes Denver's defense remains the Broncos' major concern.

"If I am Denver, I'm looking within the division for the best defensive coordinator," the personnel exec told PFW. "I'd be taking a hard look at (Chargers defensive coordinator) Ron Rivera. They have gone back and forth between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. Rivera has run both. He'll look at his personnel, and he'll run whatever works best. It sounds easy, but most coaches cannot do that. They only coach what they know, and are very stuck in their ways."

It's unlikely the Broncos have really begun to seriously consider a permanent replacement for McDaniels. The only thing that's clear is that Bowlen will be paying through the nose for a long time to come for his ill-fated coaching decisions, with Shanahan and McDaniels still scheduled to receive $6.7 million and $3.5 million, respectively, from the Broncos on top of whatever the next head coach will be paid.

As for McDaniels, the consensus is that he still has a lot going for him besides the substantial amount of money still owed to him by the Broncos.

"I think he'll grow from this and learn from it, and you know his intellectual mind when it comes to football is ... superior, it's terrific," Ellis said of McDaniels, who just happens to be the fourth disciple of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to get fired from his first head-coaching job (Romeo Crennel by the Browns, Eric Mangini by the Jets and Charlie Weis by Notre Dame).

"(McDaniels) will land on his feet as a coordinator or quarterbacks coach," said one personnel executive. "Trust me, there are not enough good ones out there. He could drop down a level like Lane Kiffin did and run his own show.

"I could see Belichick bringing him back in the stable. Bill is very, very smart."

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