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Krieger: McD fumbles in us vs. them rift

By Dave Krieger
The Denver Post
Posted: 01/03/2010 01:00:00 AM MST

On the bright side, players aren't pulling guns on each other in the locker room. The Broncos are clearly less dysfunctional than the Washington Wizards. So they've got that going for them.

On the other hand, they end the season pretty much as they started it, with a young coach who says he's all about team unity and manages to wreak havoc anyway.

For the first time, players are publicly acknowledging a division in the locker room. Tight end Tony Scheffler, deactivated along with receiver Brandon Marshall for today's regular-season finale, said the move "doesn't sit very well with me or some of my teammates."

Meanwhile, first-year coach Josh McDaniels insists that a team without Marshall and Scheffler gives the Broncos their "best opportunity to win" today, an analysis so dubious from a football standpoint that it suggests McDaniels would rather lose with players loyal to him than win with players who are not.

The locker room appears to have broken into two camps - the roughly 60 percent of the roster McDaniels brought in and the roughly 40 percent remaining from last season. McDaniels has now feuded publicly with Marshall, Scheffler and former quarterback Jay Cutler, while substantially reducing the roles of Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokley, Peyton Hillis and Ben Hamilton, all holdovers from the Mike Shanahan regime.

Unfortunately for McDaniels, the best players on the team are mostly Shanahan holdovers. Of the six Broncos named Pro Bowl starters, reserves or alternates, five were here when McDaniels arrived. As he makes the case that his acquisitions - players such as Jabar Gaffney and Knowshon Moreno - give the Broncos their best chance to win, fans who actually watch the games begin to wonder if this is about ability or favoritism.

McDaniels has gone to great lengths, for example, to rationalize Moreno's declining production by blaming an offensive line dominated by Shanahan holdovers, even as other backs exceed Moreno's per-carry averages behind the same line.

The rift with Marshall, the team's most productive offensive player, is of the old-school variety. The coach wants the player to play through a hamstring injury after an MRI showed no major damage. The player, who submitted in a similar situation last season and wound up needing hip surgery, says he can't.

McDaniels chose to escalate this dispute by publicly questioning Marshall's injury. This reflects a rather dramatic double standard on the subject of team unity.

Last summer, Stokley criticized the treatment of long snapper Mike Leach, whom McDaniels cut for no apparent reason other than to bring in his own guy. Scheffler was unhappy with McDaniels' treatment of Cutler. Both players have been on the outs with their coach since, a status reflected in their decreased role in the offense.

In short, under McDaniels, criticism of the coach is destructive of team unity, but criticism of a top player is not.

In response, Marshall suggested McDaniels is seeking scapegoats for his team's collapse since starting the season 6-0. No one in the locker room would have said so publicly had McDaniels not opened the door with his shots at Marshall.

The upside of this divisive strategy for McDaniels is if the Broncos get past the 3-12 Chiefs today, it will be mostly his guys getting it done.

McDaniels' double standard is fairly typical of NFL coaches, but he has made his retribution against those he considers disloyal more visible than most.

It appears now that Marshall played McDaniels during the season. His public hugs of the coach, which so delighted McDaniels, were interpreted by some as a victory for McDaniels' stern discipline in training camp. In retrospect, they look more like Marshall understanding exactly what it took to get back in McDaniels' good graces long enough to put up another 100-catch season, which he did. Now, with the season unraveling, so is the pretense of any loyalty between them.

McDaniels' approach can work if he wins. There have been lots of autocratic NFL coaches, some of them very successful. But in order to win with players loyal to him, McDaniels is going to have to pick better players. Except for 36-year-old safety Brian Dawkins, few of McDaniels' 30-odd additions to the roster have turned heads this year.

He has little choice now but to clear out more of the Shanahan holdovers this offseason in an effort to make the entire locker room "his guys." It seems increasingly clear that it is not so much loyalty to the Broncos that Josh McDaniels requires as it is loyalty to Josh McDaniels.

Dave Krieger: 303-954-5297, dkrieger@denverpost.com or twitter.com/DaveKrieger



 

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