By Dave Krieger
The Denver Post Posted: 08/30/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT
Josh McDaniels may be pointing Denver in a new direction, but he sure is following his mentor's ways. ( Joe Amon, The Denver Post )
When Bill Belichick took his first NFL head coaching job, in 1991, the quarterback he found was not exactly what he had in mind.
Bernie Kosar played by the seat of his pants, and frequently ended up there. He also produced some of the Browns' most memorable wins with his trademark sidearm improvisations. It took Belichick a while, but he ultimately dumped Kosar in favor of the more traditional Vinny Testaverde.
When Josh McDaniels took his first head coaching job, in January, the quarterback he found was not exactly what he had in mind.
Jay Cutler was about as willful as Kosar but a much more athletically gifted improviser. It took McDaniels only a couple of months to trade him for a package that included the more traditional Kyle Orton.
Among the factors that doomed Belichick in that first job - the Browns fired him with a five-season record of 36-44 - was he didn't have a replacement who could make fans forget Kosar. By contrast, in his second job, when he said goodbye to Drew Bledsoe in New England, he had a young fellow named Tom Brady ready to take over.
One of the many questions raised by McDaniels' tumultuous start in Denver is whether he has made Belichick's first mistake. When he followed the Cutler deal by trading away the Broncos' first-round draft choice next year - he retained the Bears' first-round choice acquired in the Cutler trade - he gave up a safety net that might have provided a young franchise quarterback if the Broncos struggle this season.
(I was being prepped for knee surgery the other day and a kindly nurse recognized me in pre-op. "Hello," she said. "We need Tebow.")
In 1991, Belichick was coming from the Giants, who had just won the Super Bowl. Similarly, McDaniels came from a highly successful organization. Many bright young coaches have come out of such environments believing that schemes and systems matter more than talent. In fact, young coaches not in that
situation sometimes believe the same thing.
They want nothing but smart, obedient guys to execute their system because they believe the system will win games, given a chance. Over a period of years, they often learn that at the game's highest level, it's also about elite athletic talent, about having better players than the other guy. Belichick's previous spinoffs - Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis - have yet to make his system work for them.
A bunch of good people doing what they're supposed to do often isn't enough. This is why older coaches sometimes reach for controversial characters, as Mike Shanahan did in his latter years in Denver.
In the NFL, there are lots of smart people thinking up lots of dynamic schemes and systems. When the West Coast offense stormed the league a generation ago, it allowed some ordinary quarterbacks to put up extraordinary numbers, not to bring up Elvis Grbac again.
But it took Joe Montana and Steve Young, a pair of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, to turn it into a championship system. Similarly, while New England's offensive system deserves its share of the credit for the Patriots' success, so does Brady, who will be joining Montana and Young in Canton whenever he's ready.
In fact, the list of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks is so impressive it has produced a general consensus in the NFL that you need a franchise quarterback, a star, to win it all. After John Elway retired, Shanahan spent nearly a decade looking for one of those guys. In Cutler, he thought he found one.
This is why the controversy over McDaniels' trade isn't going away. Shanahan, a former quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach who worked with both Young and Elway, was widely considered an authority on the subject. In many quarters, he still is.
Tonight's exhibition featuring Cutler and Orton on the same field makes for unusually good theater during the NFL's soporific preseason, but that's all it is. A game that doesn't count is not going to have much to say about McDaniels' first big move. But ultimately, that move is likely to be the defining moment of his Denver tenure, one way or the other.
Even though Kosar became a backup after leaving Cleveland, Browns fans never forgave Belichick for dumping their favorite son for a journeyman. Cutler may have lacked Kosar's personal charm, but he has a much higher ceiling as a player. After everything that's gone on, it can be hard to remember that Denver loved him just a year ago.
The Belichick examples suggest that when you blow into a new town and dump a popular incumbent quarterback, you need to have a capable replacement on hand. We should know reasonably soon whether McDaniels made his mentor's first mistake.
Dave Krieger: 303-954-5297 or firstname.lastname@example.org