Whether you like the path he's taking the Broncos on or not, it's hard not to admire Josh McDaniels for his willingness to stand by his principles. In a modern sports world where the tail more often than not wags the dog, Denver's new head coach has made it crystal clear that things are going to be different under his watch. At Dove Valley, the inmates won't be running the asylum.
And that's little what it's looked like since McDaniels was hired in January. Wackiness has been the prevailing theme with the Broncos. First, Jim and Jeff Goodman were axed, and a relative unknown, Brian Xanders, was elevated to the role of general manager. That was followed by the well-documented Jay Cutler saga. Then, it was a head-scratching draft. And now, it's the standoff with Brandon Marshall. Put it all together and it's one strange rebuilding process - one comprised of running a Pro Bowl quarterback out of town, alienating a budding star and drafting for character instead of "measurables." Through it all, however, one thing has remained consistent - McDaniels is in charge.
It's clear that he's trying to establish the same "team first" mentality that worked for the coach's previous employer, the New England Patriots. During their mini- dynasty, an era that has spanned the past eight seasons, Bill Belichick has taken a no-nonsense approach with his players. Those who didn't buy into the "Patriots Way" were shown the door. It didn't matter if they were a first-round draft choice, a Pro Bowl player or a fan favorite. If someone didn't fit the mold of what Belichick was looking for, they were gone.
It's a cold, callous approach to running a football team. But it's also one that has been hugely successful. The Pats have three Lombardi Trophies to demonstrate that fact.
It's also a high-risk proposition. Running players out of town is applauded when it leads to wins; it gets coaches fired when the losses start to pile up.
It's tough tactic to pull off when a coach doesn't have a star player to support his efforts. Without a leader in the locker room to echo the thoughts of the man in charge, a hard-line approach tends to fall on deaf ears and lead to mutinies. Belichick has Tom Brady to make sure the other Patriots don't revolt against the coach. Without the future Hall of Fame quarterback in his corner, it would be hard to keep a team together when popular players like Lawyer Milloy are cut less than a week before the season opener; someone has to talk everyone off of the proverbial ledge.
Who's going to fill that role in Denver? Who's the star player that's going to fill this all-important role? Given the Broncos roster revamping, the team is devoid of big names. Aside from Champ Bailey, there's not a perennial Pro Bowl player in the bunch. And the cornerback isn't exactly the talkative type. And his leadership ability is questionable at best (see: getting suspended for a preseason game because he "overslept.")
And it's a hard strategy to execute without wins to provide evidence that it's a formula for success. Belichick wasn't such a genius during his miserable tenure in Cleveland, where the losses mounted and eventually undermined his credibility. Given the Broncos previously mentioned lack of proven talent, not to mention their incredibly daunting 2009 schedule, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Denver racks up a lot of Ws early in the McDaniels era.
If it works in Denver, McDaniels will look like a genius, a throwback to a bygone era where the buck stopped with the head coach. He'll be canonized for ridding the Broncos of me-first personalities and building a team with a single-minded focus on winning. But if he's wrong, if the plan doesn't work as he hopes, he'll look like a buffoon.
McDaniels could have had Cutler-to-Marshall as the bread and butter of his passing game for the next decade. And he could have leaned on a veteran front office duo that put together strong drafts in recent years. Instead, he's hitched his wagon to the likes of Kyle Orton and Jabar Gaffney. That's an impossible decision to spin if things don't work out. And with the X man as the only other person making personnel decisions, there won't be anyone else to blame it on if things go awry.
So today, with training camp six weeks away, it's worth noting that McDaniels is taking a commendable approach to revamping the Broncos. But it's also wise to know that the path is paved with pitfalls. There's a reason the my-way-or-the-highway method is the road less traveled. It's very difficult to pull off.