Chaotic first year...
By Mike Klis
The Denver Post Posted: 03/28/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT
Josh McDaniels' first year as the Broncos' coach (6-0 start, 2-8 finish) was full of fireworks and not playing favorites. (John Leyba, The Denver Post )
Call him too young to be coaching the Broncos. Criticize his methods. Question whether he is stubbornly principled to a fault.
But say this for Broncos coach Josh McDaniels: No one can accuse him of playing favorites. Unless, of course, a few players held over from the Mike Shanahan regime do.
During McDaniels' initial whirlwind, tumultuous first season with the Broncos, he let it be known no player is above what he views best for the team. Not the star quarterback. Not the superstar wide receiver. Not the talented tight end.
In going to the extremes of essentially banishing star quarterback Jay Cutler shortly after McDaniels' arrival, and benching standout wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the team's final game, all for the sake of instilling a team-before-self culture, McDaniels quickly became one of the most polarizing coaches to pace a Denver sideline.
Heading into his second year, McDaniels makes it clear he won't change his approach, though he would prefer far less drama. That shouldn't be difficult after a chaotic past 12 months of trades, suspensions, locker-room unrest and a historic on-field collapse.
"In terms of going through adversities, the goal would be to not have to deal with many, if any," said McDaniels, 33. "When there are things that come up that you feel contradict your belief or your message that you've extended to your players, I think you have to react and hold yourself accountable to what you're saying you're all about.
"Or else your words become hollow and they stop listening. If you don't do that, you ask whether you really believe in your own message. And I do."
McDaniels made his point early on when he traded Cutler, igniting a firestorm among fans. Condemnation was muffled into commendation when the Broncos unexpectedly started 6-0. And then, almost as suddenly, the Broncos collapsed, losing eight of their final 10 games - the only team in NFL history to win its first six
Josh McDaniels' first year of calling the shots for the Broncos got off to a bumpy start in the locker room when he cut a mistake-free long snapper, of all players. (John Leyba, The Denver Post )games but not finish with a winning record.
More controversy erupted when McDaniels benched Marshall and top pass-catching tight end Tony Scheffler for the season finale, an embarrassing 20-point home loss to Kansas City. Neither player is expected back for the 2010 season, leading some to wonder about the wisdom of running off top talent to install your system.
"You can't keep getting rid of good players," said former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a network TV analyst. "At some point, it catches up to you. All players are not alike. You can't treat them all the same. Mike (Shanahan) never treated John (Elway) like he did everyone else. Josh needs to realize that. He has a lot to learn about dealing with players."
Sharpe never played for Bill Belichick in New England, where the Joyless Pursuit of Perfection, as it was dubbed during the Patriots' undefeated run in 2007, is considered so severe that individuality is scorned. Even cover-boy star Tom Brady is considered the epitome of the team concept.
In benching Marshall on the Friday before the 2009 season finale, McDaniels preached team concerns but also implied his star receiver was jaking an injury, a tactic rarely used by coaches regarding his own player.
"You don't question a guy's toughness in public," said former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, now an ESPN analyst. "When you basically say, 'I don't believe Brandon is as hurt as he's pretending to be,' that doesn't sit well in
Coach Josh McDaniels, celebrating a Brandon Marshall touchdown last season, brought a fistful of emotion to Denver. (Doug Pensinger, Getty Images )a locker-room envionment. As a player you're thinking, 'When is it going to be me?' "
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, though, seems fine with the hard-line approach McDaniels brought to Denver. Bowlen is steadfast in his belief he chose the right man not only to coach the Broncos, but, like his predecessor, make all key football decisions.
"He comes from New England seed," Bowlen said. "He uses a lot of the experience he had there. And that doesn't bother me. He wants people to toe the line. He expects his coaches to be working hard. It's not like you have a veteran coach in there who's comfortable with his position and happy with all his staff. You've got a young coach trying to make his mark."
Some struggled to adjust
Change, in any organization, usually means tension. When Bowlen hired McDaniels, the atmosphere at Dove Valley was altered. Shanahan was a feared dictator who nevertheless believed in a locker-room pecking order, where veterans earned freedom.
A similar atmosphere permeates the locker room of the Indianapolis Colts, who won more games this past decade than any other NFL franchise.
"I would agree with that," said Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, a Super Bowl legend with New England. "In New England, it's a little more strict. More drill instruction. Fear plays a bigger role. Here, it's a little more relaxed."
Some Broncos, especially those who had grown comfortable with Shanahan's style, where disagreements usually were kept private, struggled to adjust.
The first moment of locker-room unrest - hours before the infamous soap opera known as McJaygate exploded - occurred in late February 2009 when McDaniels replaced long snapper Mike Leach with Lonie Paxton. Leach had been a locker-room bond for players on both sides of the ball. Paxton, though, was a bigger, more physical snapper who came from New England. If McDaniels could dump a long snapper who had never made a bad snap for one of his own, the more insecure "Shanahan players" were left to wonder if their days were numbered too.
The impact of former Patriots proved minimal, however. McDaniels brought in six former New England players in year No. 1, all of whom were role players. Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney and guard Russ Hochstein got the most playing time.
Nevertheless, the perceived split of "Shanahan" players and "McDaniels" players metastasized as the season crumbled. Wide receiver Eddie Royal wasn't getting the ball. Running back Peyton Hillis, recently traded, rarely got on the field. And in the end, Marshall and Scheffler weren't permitted to dress out for the season finale.
Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey said there was dissension, but it was a natural byproduct of losing, not who played for whom in the past.
"Nobody's happy when you lose," Bailey said. "There's always pointing fingers, problem here, problem there. Whispering. That's how it goes. You've got to win to have a good locker room. I know how much it means to a coach to have his own guys. But at the same time, it doesn't mean you can't go out there and win that coach over and make him believe you deserve that job."
Defensive end Darrell Reid said personality conflicts invade every locker room. "It doesn't matter if it's McDaniels or Shanahan," he said.
But, he added, talk of a rift between McDaniels players vs. Shanahan players became overblown. He pointed to star pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, star offensive tackle Ryan Clady and Royal as Shanahan holdovers who got along well with their new leader.
"Those three guys show me there is no split," he said.
Broncos tight end Daniel Graham, who played for Belichick early in his career, views McDaniels as a coach who is accessible to players, whereas players in New England weren't nearly as comfortable approaching their boss. "What everyone sees on TV with Belichick is what we (players) get. But Josh, he's approachable. Other than that, their philosophies . . . I mean, he learned from Coach Belichick. Everything we've done (here) was like we were in New England."
Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said he found McDaniels willing to talk through issues, but added some players aren't secure enough to question authority or know how to work through problems.
"If you're young, or things aren't handled the way you've been through before, you make a mistake. In this business, you need to hash it out with that individual. And then you move forward," Dawkins said. "It's not that I won't have disagreements with Josh. But those disagreements better be between you and that person . . . and nobody else will know about it."
Former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a network TV analyst, said nothing helps a coach get his players to buy in better than winning, but that's something former New England assistants have struggled to do on their own.
"All these (coaches) are taking what Bill did in New England and trying to bring that with them wherever they go," Esiason said. "The one thing they're missing, though, is the credibility Bill Belichick has. The Super Bowl rings lead the players to believe he's leading them to victory."
"Have to have thick skin"
To get his team to perform under pressure, McDaniels asks his players to be tough mentally. And that means being able to handle criticism.
After New England won its third Super Bowl in four years at the end of the 2004 season, Charlie Weis left as the Patriots' offensive coordinator to become head coach at Notre Dame. McDaniels was promoted from defensive assistant to essentially Weis' replacement as offensive coordinator, although he was given the title of quarterbacks coach.
So what happened in McDaniels' first season of coaching Brady, the league's best quarterback? The two went three weeks without speaking to each other. Brady went on to have a Pro Bowl season, and the Patriots made the playoffs. And, two years later, McDaniels, by then officially promoted to offensive coordinator, helped Brady set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes in a season.
Clearly, McDaniels and Brady got past their spat.
"You have to have thick skin," McDaniels said. "Charlie Weis was as good of a mentor and friend to me as I could have asked for. But at the same time, if my skin wasn't thick, he would have crushed me. That's not what I'm trying to do when I get animated. But I guess I don't react well in terms of trying to hold in whatever my emotions are telling me to do. I let it out.
"A lot of people like that. Other people may not. A lot of that has to do with whether you win or lose."
Besides his public squabbles with Cutler, Marshall and Scheffler, Mc-Daniels was caught chastising special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer on the sideline and delivering an obscenity-laced tirade to his penalty-riddled offense while a national cable network was asleep at the bleep switch. He also engaged in a pregame trash-talking episode with Shaun Phillips, the loudmouth linebacker of the San Diego Chargers.
He said he has one regret - exchanging trash talk with Phillips, whom he told, "When I was with New England, we owned you!"
"The Shaun Phillips thing I wish never happened," McDaniels said. "I could have avoided responding. I'll learn from that."
Bowlen believes as McDaniels gains more experience, he will do a better job straddling the line between zeal and commotion.
"He had never been a head coach," Bowlen said. "I think one year's experience is going to significantly help him in the way he deals with a lot of different things, including staff, including the press, including the public."
Beneath McDaniels' infectious optimism is a realism of having learned hard lessons in his first go-round.
"When you're in your second year, you're making better-educated decisions that are going to narrow in on improving the team in areas you know you have to improve," he said.
In his second offseason, McDaniels demonstrated an ability to learn from self-critique. While a likely trade involving Marshall continues to hover, it hasn't stirred nearly the contempt that swirled around McJaygate. Meanwhile, McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders dramatically addressed a defensive line that had become porous by season's end. Jamal Williams, Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green, all proven productive players from perennial playoff contending teams, comprise the new front three. The Broncos further excited their followers by acquiring well-known quarterback Brady Quinn, who figures to push Kyle Orton for the starting job.
As for McDaniels' fiery personality and passion for coaching, that's not about to change. Fine by Broncos chief executive officer Joe Ellis, who played a key role in recommending the hiring of McDaniels to Bowlen.
"Josh expects and demands a lot," Ellis said. "His belief and need for team and the team concept, he's not going to waver from that. In the interview process, that gave him a leg up on other candidates.
"With Josh, you're either in or you're out. And if you're in, I think you're headed for success."
The Broncos will find out in time. It's on to Year 2.