Friday Feature: McDaniels’ Messengers

Denver Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels is well aware of the challenges facing his team as they host a talented competitor firing on all cylinders. If not for a misfire from their passing game in a week one loss rapidly fading from view, the New York Jets would be undefeated, and undeniably the best team in football. For now they hover in the conversation, edging closer to earning unequivocal respect from their critics. But heavy is the head wearing the crown, or at least getting close enough to touch. As a team’s stature rises, so too does the perceived pressure surrounding each of their games. Stakes increase, and while players and coaches can contain themselves from the storm, an almost overwhelming swarm of negativity is just a single slip-up away. Such is life, for athletes, or anybody really, forced to shoulder the burden of great expectations. But while sportswriters psychoanalyze [with our imaginary degrees!] it’s the task of coaches to maintain an even keel. Momentum is a fickle beast, choppy surf to traverse, an erratic wave.

Within seasons, it always seems certain teams are capable of riding specific themes to spark themselves to victory, before adversity hits and morale dashed. Message teams are easy to identify. They are convinced “nobody believes in them.” They may have been “left for dead,” or rallied around their coach on the “hot seat.” Maybe they believe in their new coach, or want to prove an old coach wrong, or maybe they hate one particular enemy coach and live to see him squirm. There’s always some sort of storyline revolving around a coach, you can guarantee that. They might be looking to overcome an injury, or yes, the media, which, obviously, “doesn’t believe in them.” Give the 2010 Jets ample credit in this regard: They don’t seem to have a message, besides “we’re good.”  But man, we’ve seen some teams stoop as low as rising against their own fan-base. Whatever works… but these tactics usually don’t mean success for long…. Talent is ultimately the trump card, followed closely by discipline, camaraderie down the list.

Last season’s Denver Broncos were reminiscent of some of the brilliant, self-aware crime noirs which hit cinemas in the 1990’s. Like Pulp Fiction, they didn’t try spinning just one cliché plot or character element into utter brilliance; instead inhabiting them all. Featuring a new, often unfairly maligned quarterback, nobody believed in them. Indeed, they were left for dead, picked by many to finish last, and sure, their new coach, Josh McDaniels, quite shockingly found himself on the hot seat before commanding his troops in one regular season game.  But the Broncos definitely believed in him, forced to overcome his downright messy trade of franchise signal caller Jay Cutler. Driven by their grit, persevering through an unimaginable amount of clichés, Denver stormed the league, starting out 6-0. But, as message teams often do, they soon fell apart, imitating similar collapses under previous Boss Mike Shanahan. This one was real ugly, the Broncos sliding to a 2-8 finish.  Usually message teams reach the playoffs before receiving their comeuppance, but McDaniels, a highly regarded offensive coordinator plucked from the Patriots, would not even receive that feather in his hat.

After an exhaustive search, McDaniels received the job from Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who had surprisingly dismissed Shanahan following the 2008 season. It appeared McDaniels had overcome the Cutler divorce upon his strong start, which included a victory against former mentor Bill Belichick at home, but questions about his methods lingered following the disappointing ’09 finish. He continued overhauling the potentially elite offense Shanahan had begun putting together before his exit, dealing off unhappy wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the Miami Dolphins. What could have been an explosive decade defined by downfield connections from Cutler to Marshall is now a muddy mystery. Is Kyle Orton, performing spectacularly in his second season operating McDaniels’ offense, the long term solution? Will the late first round pick expended on Tim Tebow, he of the questionable mechanics for a pro Quarterback, eventually pay dividends? Despite Cutler’s change of scenery, and Marshall’s departure, passing the pigskin certainly isn’t Denver’s weakness. Far from… in fact, the aerial attack piloted by Orton is one of the most dangerous in the league.

So, it’s an odd team McDaniels has assembled, currently 2-3, transcending narratives through their utter strangeness. They have no discernible identity. Building for the future would be a proper sell to the fans, considering the present isn’t exactly earning rave reviews.

McDaniels must now find a way to derail the Jets. He has certainly been impressed by the rejuvenated LaDainain Tomlinson. “He’s certainly is off to one of the best starts of his career.  He’s got great quickness.  Again, we’re familiar with him out here because we played against him a few times last year and I’ve played against him a number of times in my career.  He’s a complete back.  He can run with speed.  He can run with power.  His quickness has really shown up this year.  His ability to find holes behind that big offensive line has certainly gotten off to a good start this year. It’s going to be tough to handle.  They do a great job of scheming things for him and he does a great job of complementing the other back.”

McDaniels is well aware of the distinct lack of balance currently holding back Denver’s pass obsessed offense.  “It’s certainly not what we wanted.  I think we’ve really had to be one-dimensional in some instances and then in other instances we just haven’t been able to get our running game on track for whatever reason…  We’re striving to become more balanced and we’re working hard to do that during the course of the week.”

Bronco fans must want to believe McDaniels’ possesses a master plan, long term. The quick fix of an underdog, against the world mentality will not sustain a successful successor to the savvy Shanahan. In the ever precious present, here comes a tough team wearing green and white, carrying a message of their own.

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