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TGS NFL UPDATE: DENVER...THE END OF THE YOUNG JOSH ERA
by Bruce Marshall, Golkdsheet.com Editor


A little over month ago, we identified what we thought were the growing problems of the Josh McDaniels regime in Denver. And that was before the revelations of "Spygate II" with young Josh's video coordinator Steve Scarnechia charged with illegally filming a 49er practice before the game in London. Like most of young Josh's moves the past year-plus, the Broncos couldn't even cheat correctly, losing to the 49ers 24-16. So it was no surprise to us when owner Pat Bowlen hit the eject button on McDaniels after Sunday's loss to the Chiefs. For those wondering why we weren't surprised, we reprise this piece written October 27...


Considering the vagaries of what has thus far been a very strange NFL season, it would not be terribly surprising to see the Denver Broncos circle the wagons for their game on Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium against the 49ers. After all, Denver is coming off one of its worst-ever losses, a 59-14 massacre at the hands of the erratic Raiders in front of the horrified home folks at Invesco Field. Maybe it’s a good thing the team has been banished overseas this week, although the Broncos were going to be sticking around their Dove Valley team headquarters and practice center until Thursday, and at least for a few days subject to all of the local venom now spewing their way from the Bronco-centric local media, be it the Denver Post, local sports talk radio, or the TV stations. At least the 49ers. laboring themselves at 1-6, started their trek to Wembley almost 3000 miles from home, where they became the Carolina Panthers’ first victim of the season last Sunday in Charlotte. San Francisco headed straight from Bank of America Stadium to London, a long way from barbs in the Chronicle and from Ralph Barbieri and Tom Tolbert on KNBR’s sports talk, although the folks in the Bay Area are paying more attention to the World Series-bound Giants anyway these days.

As for those vagaries of the season, consider that the Broncos team that was steamrollered by Oakland was the same one that was one blown pass interference call away from beating the high-flying New York Jets the previous week. And, a couple of weeks before that, had gone into Nashville and handed the Titans their last defeat, 26-20, keeping prolific Tennessee RB Chris Johnson in surprising check all afternoon.

No big deal, because every NFL team not from Buffalo already have a highlight or two this season. It’s having the most highlights that’s truly meaningful. And the Broncos haven’t had many of them since their bye week in October of 2009. At that point, Denver was the talk of the league at 6-0. Since then, the Broncos are 4-13. And we don’t even have to ask about which are the "real Broncos" of the two.

Here’s a hint: It sure isn’t the team that started 6-0 last season.

Which brings us to well-intentioned but apparently overmatched young HC Josh McDaniels, and the increasing speculation that he was able to sell a bill of goods to Bronco owner Pat Bowlen and right-hand man Joe Eillis after long-serving HC Mike Shanahan was canned after 14 years on the job, at the conclusion of the 2008 campaign. At the time, Bowlen’s frustration with "The Shan" was understandable, as the Broncos had just completed an NFL version of the 1964' Philadelphia Phillies collapse by blowing a 3-game lead in the AFC West with three games to go on the schedule. A 52-21 blowout loss at San Diego in the finale, which awarded the division to the Chargers, was the final straw for Shanahan, whose team had committed an even more egregious act the previous week when losing at home to a lowly Buffalo team, a game in which Denver could have sewn up the West in front of the home folks. A few weeks before that, an underdog Oakland side strode into Invesco Field and manhandled the Broncos 31-10, first setting the wheels in motion for the Shanahan dismissal.

Although the Broncos had mostly gone sideways during Shanahan’s last decade on the job after John Elway’s retirement and the back-to-back Super Bowl wins, Denver was always competitive and at least in the playoff picture during those years. The Shan got back to the postseason in 2000, 2003, ‘04, and ‘05, one game from the Super Bowl in the latter. But it was blown opportunities due to those last-day losses to miss the playoffs in 2006 & ‘08 that grated on Bowlen, who decided that change was needed.

What Bowlen didn’t realize was that the presence of Shanahan over the previous 14 years had relieved the Canadian owner of having to make any football-related decisions, just as it was with Dan Reeves from when Bowlen bought the franchise in 1983, up until Reeves’ dismissal after the ‘92 season. The only time in the first 25 years of Bowlen’s ownership that he didn’t have Reeves or Shanahan, shrewd football executives, to make on-filed decisions came in the two years (1993-94) when Wade Phillips was head coach.

And evidence is mounting that when it came time for Bowlen to make a big football decision on his own, he dropped the ball, not as much with the Shanahan dismissal, but with the hiring of the young McDaniels, then just 32, from Bill Parcells’ New England staff.

What has since happened in Denver has alarmed longtime Bronco fans who never again wanted to revisit the dark days of the ‘60s or early ‘70s when Denver was the laughingstock of the old AFL and the first couple of years of the merger. It was a hopeless existence most of those years for Broncos fans, stuck competing with more dynamic and talented division foes Kansas City, Oakland, and San Diego. After a surprising 7-7 mark in 1962, Denver’s lone non-losing campaign of the decade, only when the expansion Bengals briefly joined the AFL West in 1968-69 did Denver avoid the cellar in the division until after the merger, in 1972. That’s when Denver nosed out the Chargers (5-9 to 4-9-1) to claim as much as third place in the West.

Highlights for the early Broncos were few and far between. Denver did win the AFL’s inaugural game on Friday night, September 9, 1960, when unheralded Gene Mingo returned a punt 76 yards for a score and Frank Tripucka tossed the AFL’s first TD pass, a 59-yarder to Al "Hoagy" Carmichael, in a 13-10 upset over the Boston Patriots at Boston University Field. Later that season, Tripucka rallied the Broncos from a 38-7 deficit in the 3rd Q to salvage a 38-38 deadlock vs. the same Patriots. Under coach Frankie Filchock, however, the Broncos were sorely one-dimensional (sound familiar, Denver fans?), relying almost solely upon the aging Tripucka’s arm, although one byproduct was WR Lionel Taylor setting a then-pro football record with 100 pass receptions in 1961. And ‘61 was also the last year of the Broncos’ infamous "Copper Bowl" uniforms of brown and gold with the vertically-striped socks, replicas of which Denver donned for a pair of games in the 50th anniversary season a year ago.

After winning just 7 games in two years, however, Filchock was replaced in 1962 by Jack Faulkner, who authored a surprisingly quick break from the gate that had the Broncos level in the AFL West with the Dallas Texans at 7-2 into mid-November, before a debilitating five-game losing streak again triggered by a lack of balance (RB Donnie Stone led Broncos rushers with only 360 YR all season) presaged arguably the darkest era in team history. Denver rarely even flirted with success the rest of the decade, collapsing to 2-11-1 under Faulkner in 1963, winless in its last 10 games after Tripucka abruptly retired after 2 games and the promising start by ex-Minnesota Vikings backup QB John McCormick ended with his knee injury just one game after leading Denver to what is still its highest-ever point total, a 50-34 win over the eventual AFL champion Chargers. Thereafter, rookie Louisiana Tech QB Mickey Slaughter was unable to generate a win despite the presence of the Broncos’ first-ever true rushing threat, powerful Villanova rookie FB Billy Joe. It was more of the same in 1964, another desultory 2-11-1 campaign that saw Faulkner canned and replaced by ex-Browns WR star Mac Speedie after just four games, but not until Faulkner completed a Euro soccer-like loan deal with the Oilers for QB Jacky Lee, who was to remain with the Broncos for 1964-65 before being shipped back to Houston. It didn’t work, as Lee and Slaughter combined for 31 interceptions in another brutal campaign.

The losses continued in 1965 under Speedie, although the brief appearance of ex-Bills star RB Cookie Gilchrist, along with ex-Texan and Chief Abner Haynes, plus exciting rookie and future Chief Wendell Hayes, made Denver a run-first team for the first time in its history. The Broncos, however, were still unsettled at QB, with McCormick, Lee, and Slaughter all ineffective, and the defense still a mess in a 4-10 slog. The team did avert relocation, however, when the Phipps brothers saved the Broncs from bolting to Atlanta with their last-second purchase of the franchise, and suddenly Denver embraced its lone major pro sports entry. The Broncos, amazingly, became one of the best-supported teams in football in a time in which they were also one of the pro game's biggest losers. On the field, however, things didn’t improve much in 1966, the first Super Bowl year, and the Vince Lombardi Packers certainly didn’t have to worry about running into Denver anytime soon as the Broncos floundered again to a 4-10 finish. Speedie had seen enough after two games (one of those a 45-7 loss at Houston when the Broncos didn’t record a first down, scoring a TD only on DB Goldie Sellers’ 88-yard kickoff return). and resigned, replaced by assistant and future Rams HC Ray Malavasi, who oversaw the league’s worst offense.

At least the Bronco fans thought they were seeing some light at the end of the tunnel at the end of the ‘60s when the accomplished Lou Saban, who had coached the Bills to AFL titles in 1965 & ‘65, only to abruptly leave Buffalo in a contract dispute with owner Ralph Wilson, was hired from the University of Maryland to take over for the 1967 campaign. Along the way, the Broncos were able to sign their first-ever first-round draft choice, Syracuse RB Floyd Little, in the initial common draft with the NFL.

Within this background of abject failure before his arrival, you can see why Little’s future accomplishments have such a soft spot in the hearts of longtime Broncos backers, and why his recent enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was such a powerful moment for longtime Denver fans.

Saban’s years at least were never dull, as he embarked upon a full-blown rebuilding project from the outset. Along the way were a few highs, such as the first-ever win for an AFL team over a NFL entry in a 13-7 preseason win over the Lions in ‘67, and a trio of memorable wins over Joe Namath’s Jets, knocking them out of the Eastern Division lead late in the ‘67 season when the underdog Broncos won 33-24 at Shea Stadium, capped by a 72-yard Little punt return TD.

Denver was at it again in ‘68, a year in which Saban completely remodeled the team’s uniforms and introduced a colorful combo that included red pants with the newly-designed blue helmets along with the road white jerseys. The Broncos’ ‘68 win at Shea, by a 21-13 score, still stands as the biggest pro football upset since 1960, as Denver won outright as a 22-point underdog. 1968 was also the year in which injuries to QBs Steve Tensi, McCormick, and Jim LeClair opened the door for rookie Marlin Briscoe to become the first-ever black QB in the modern game. And Briscoe was exciting, throwing 14 TD passes while starting only 5 games, while having a role in arguably the most-exciting AFL finish in its history, completing a desperation 66-yard bomb to Little in the final seconds to set up Bobby Howfield’s last-second FG in a 34-32 win over the Bills.

Saban began the ‘69 season encouragingly at 2-0, including yet another upset of the Jets, who this time entered Mile High Stadium as Super Bowl champs. And that 21-19 thriller still resonates in NFL record books as the game in which Jets punter Steve O’Neal cracked a record 98-yard punt, thanks mostly to the wickedest roll, 30 yards or so, ever seen on the gridiron (although to this day I still think Bronco punt returner Billy Thompson might have inadvertently kicked the rolling punt back to his own goal line, where he picked it up and was swarmed at the 1-yard line). Eventually, however, another season was sidetracked due to injury, with Little out for 5 games, costing him a sure AFL rushing title and likely a pro football rushing crown as well in the last pre-merger year. Saban concluded the decade with a 5-8-1 mark in ‘69, a slight improvement over the 5-9 in ‘68 and 3-11 in ‘67.

Broncos fans, however, began to get used to "win thing" when John Ralston, the ex-Stanford coach who arrived in 1972, began to turn things around, and recorded the Broncos’ first-ever winning mark in 1973 at 7-5-2, with veteran QB Charley Johnson leading Denver to the brink of its first-ever playoff berth, denied only on the last day of the regular season by a narrow 21-17 loss at Oakland in a showdown for the AFC West crown. Earlier that year, the Broncos made their first-ever appearance on Monday Night Football, an exciting 23-23 draw vs. the Raiders.

The Broncos had arrived, and for most of the next 37 years have been a contender, with multiple division titles, playoff berths, Super Bowl appearances, and those two precious Super Bowl crowns. Which makes the current demolition job being done by McDaniels all the more irritating to old Bronco fans. And young Josh is in the midst of creating an unthinkable scenario as well, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Although McDaniels convinced Bowlen that he had all of the answers when hired, he’s never convinced a lot of important Denver fans that he has what it takes. We thought it was rather illuminating on draft night last April how various members of the media reacted to the Broncos’ wheeling and dealing tactics and eventual two picks in the first round, Georgia Tech WR Demaryius Thomas and highly-publicized QB Tim Tebow from Florida.

One of those was ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, gushing over the Tebow selection in particular. "What a winner!," said the excited Gruden. "They’ll love Tebow in Denver. And with Thomas? Wow, what a combination (coach) Josh McDaniels got in the first round!"

Fellow ESPN analyst Tom Jackson, who knows a thing or two about Bronco football after starring at LB for some outstanding Denver teams between 1973-86, had a slightly different take on the proceedings. "Tebow and Thomas, compared to Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall?," asked the skeptical Jackson. "We’ll see."

We’re not even sure the jury is out anymore on Bowlen’s big experiment with the supposed boy genius coach who gained notice as Bill Belichick’s o.c. at New England. It is not lost on gridiron observers how most of Belichick’s disciples have struggled in their head coaching and front office careers. To this point, McDaniels fits in with the rest of that group that includes Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. All marked their arrivals in their new environs similarly, alienating established leaders while projecting a sort of self-assurance that borders on arrogance. Most agree that Belichick, with three Super Bowls under his belt, can get away with such power trips. With young McDaniels, for the moment, at least, the act seems a bit hard to swallow.

But it’s hard not to assume McDaniels is playing Belichick-style mind games, especially young Josh’s sloppy handling of interactions with Jay Cutler after unsuccessfully trying to trade him at the start of last year’s free agency. Subsequently, star TE Tony Scheffler ran afoul of McDaniels, landing on the wrong side of young Josh’s naughty-nice list before being benched in the season finale vs. Kansas City, and was eventually traded to Detroit. Marshall’s behavioral issues made his trade to Miami easier to understand, but in just over a year, McDaniels oversaw an almost complete overhaul of the roster inherited from Mike Shanahan. Moreover, respected d.c. Mike Nolan, who made lemonade from lemons for a time last year, departed abruptly for Miami in the offseason.

For a while it looked as if Bowlen had indeed found another Belichick a year ago when McDaniels began his career with a startling 6-0 mark, briefly becoming the talk of the league. QB Kyle Orton, acquired from Chicago in the Cutler deal, was proving a nice fit for young Josh’s ball-control passing game. Meanwhile, Nolan’s stop unit was a revelation, its new 3-4 looks appearing a perfect fit for an undersized yet speed-based platoon that was able to unleash hybrid Elvis Dumervil as a pass rush demon. After the "bye" week, however, the season quickly unraveled, with Orton’s limitations eventually exposed and further compounded by an ankle injury, while the smallish "D" began to wear down from the wear and tear. The playoff berth that seemed assured for much of the year disappeared with 8 losses in the last 10 games, including a humiliating home loss to the Chiefs in the finale.

And now a 2-5 start this season and that humbling 59-14 loss to the Raiders.

Something isn’t working. Young Josh looks strangely detached during the games, not interacting with players or staff, just studying his oversized play card. His draft and personnel moves have baffled. Amid all the proclamations of being a tough team, the Broncos are anything but, ranking a distant last in NFL rushing stats (only a puny 68 ypg) while ranking 30th against the run. Young Josh had already authorized a switch away from the trademark zone-blocking system that worked so well for Shanahan, instead looking to add more powerful drive blockers, but as you see, a lot of good that has done to the run offense. Instead, the attack is pure finesse, looking like one of those Sun Belt spread offenses from Middle Tennessee or Louisiana-Monroe. An opportunity to play the ballyhooed Tebow against the Raiders was missed, for reasons only young Josh seems to understand.

Meanwhile, injuries haven't helped the defense, with the aforementioned Dumervil lost for the year in preseason. Yet the stop unit is not only failing to do its job for its fifth different coordinator (Wink Martindale) in as many seasons, but it has become very old as well, thanks largely to some of young Josh’s FA acquisitions that included ex-Raven DT Justin Bannan, ex-Patriot DE Jarvis Green (subsequently released in September), and ex-Charger NT Jamal Williams, all over 30, which combined with an over-30 secondary gives Martindale something resembling George Allen’s old Redskins stop units. Hardly the launching point into the future.

McDaniels’ vision of stocking the roster with intelligent, high-character sorts who can execute his game plan sounds noble enough. But there have been enough peripheral distractions and mixed signals for fans to wonder in which direction it is all headed. Some have already made up their minds, and the danger for Bowlen is that McDaniels might be in the process of causing the unthinkable...losing the team’s prized customer base, something not even all of the losing done by Mac Speedie, Ray Malavasi, and Lou Saban ever caused in the dark Bronco days of the ‘60s. Sources tell us something is awry in the Mile High City. It’s one thing to lose your team. It’s another to lose your fans, especially those who think young Josh sold Bowlen a bill of goods.

Perhaps the Broncos can rebound and win the battle vs. the equally-discouraged 49ers this Sunday at Wembley. But we think we already know the result of the Broncos war going on with McDaniels as the general. It’s not working. We just wonder how long it will take Pat Bowlen to come to the same conclusion.


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