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One year later, you have to wonder if the situation is actually a little worse.
The Denver Broncos gave us the same dispirited backslide, falling out of the postseason at the most desperate hour. Four straight losses to finish the season – including a pair to the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs – surely was as disappointing as the three-game bomb Mike Shanahan delivered at the end of 2008. But when you step away and look at the Broncos in the bigger picture, how is this team not worse than a year ago?
Star receiver Brandon Marshall(notes), who has always been mercurial in the best of times, has once again gone into the tank mentally. Their pass receiving tight end, Tony Scheffler(notes), can't get off the roster quickly enough. Vital parts of the secondary look old. And the quarterback, Kyle Orton(notes), suffered one of his poorest games at the worst possible time. And the head coach, Josh McDaniels, continues to have moments where his best and worst asset – his emotion – gets the best of him.
Oh, and they're out of the playoffs. Lest we forget, that's an important point, too.
Which is why, one year later, you have to wonder exactly what was accomplished. And that might depend on whose message you are buying. If you listen to McDaniels, it's all about the long run. It's about building a team that has character and foundation. So finishing 2-8 after a 6-0 start, while disappointing, isn't really the prevailing issue. McDaniels is selling the idea of building a foundation. But that still doesn't explain his team's finish. A 2-8 finish speaks to a larger issue.
And McDaniels has to take ownership for part of it. I don't blame him for benching Marshall, or even Scheffler, if other veterans felt like some players needed to be reined in for their behavior or selfishness. But like the situation with Jay Cutler(notes) in the offseason, McDaniels aired the issue with Marshall far too publicly. He's not the first to suggest a player was faking an injury, but McDaniels' public disclosure of the matter and the way he expounded on it makes you question his maturity as a coach. Particularly his comment that "there's a lot of players that play with things that are more difficult to play with than what [Marshall] has."
That's a hit below the belt. As was Marshall's retort, pointing out that McDaniels was never an NFL player. It's childish, much like some of the comments in the war of words with Cutler. But players are like this. They can be immature and prone to snapping remarks. McDaniels should be above it. And if he's not, this is going to continue to happen. If it's not Marshall, or Scheffler, who suggested that McDaniels never spoke to him about his benching, it will be someone else.
Surely Shanahan helped foster some of these problems with a diva like Marshall. But I guarantee that when he fixed the issues with Marshall and Scheffler – and he would have fixed them eventually – he wouldn't have aired them so publicly. He wouldn't have helped make them into the frenzied distraction right before the finale against the Chiefs. I'm not saying that's the right approach, but considering the alternative that is now facing the Broncos, you have to wonder if handling it after the finale might have been more prudent.
Surely it would have helped Orton, who continues to be a work in progress. But this is the path McDaniels chose. He embarrassed two of his best offensive players to set an example, and he contributed to a loss in the process. And he only magnified questions about his team in the process. Now he's got a quarterback who is heading for free agency and hasn't proven he's worthy of a major long-term deal. He's got a wide receiver who he suddenly has a personal beef with (or who, at the very least, has a beef with him). And he's got a tight end who seemingly wants out.
So how has the 2009 version of the Broncos moved forward? That will be the question dominating the offseason in Denver. And maybe that lesson is one for McDaniels. He's the architect of all of this. When he talks about accountability, the first finger he wags after this lost season should be at himself.
Here are some of this week's other winners and losers …
• Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson
He rushed for 134 yards and finished with 2,006 on the season. He's only the sixth NFL player to achieve that plateau, and after watching his explosive ability this season, you have to believe he belongs there. Adding 16 combined touchdowns to the portfolio, he was clearly the best running back in football this season. You have to wonder what Minnesota's Adrian Peterson is thinking, considering he's coveted the 2,000-yard mark since entering the league. The fact that Johnson accomplished it in a hefty but not insane 358 carries has to be a good thing, too.
• Buffalo Bills coach Perry Fewell
It sounds like a forgone conclusion that the Bills' coaching job will go to another man. That's too bad because Fewell has done more than enough in the interim to deserve a fair shake. I blame owner Ralph Wilson who, with the promotion of Buddy Nix to general manager, seems intent on sticking with comfort-zone hires. Whatever the case, Fewell has shown he can keep players motivated, focused and fighting. And I have to believe wherever he lands, he has put himself on the head coaching radar for future years.
• Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler
Just when you thought there was no way to dig out of that interception vs. touchdown passes hole, Cutler throws eight touchdowns and only one pick in his final two games. He finishes with 27 touchdowns against 26 interceptions. Most importantly, he goes into the offseason with positive momentum, and seemingly a more complete set of receivers with the emergence of Devin Aromashodu(notes). Lovie Smith has to be safe for 2010.
• The Minnesota Vikings
Finally, they looked like the team we saw in the first half of the season. The offense was dominant and the defense looked nasty against the New York Giants. The Vikings needed this type of performance going into the playoff bye. And how about Brett Favre's(notes) final regular-season numbers: 4,202 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The MVP conversation should boil down to Favre and Peyton Manning(notes). In that event, you have to wonder how Favre's mini-fallout with Brad Childress will play in the voting process.
• Carolina Panthers coach John Fox
How about his last five games: 4-1, with wins over the top two seeds in the NFC playoffs. That's impressive, even if this week's win came over the Saints' backups. The Panthers never gave up on Fox, and the offense got much better when quarterback Matt Moore(notes) took over for Jake Delhomme(notes). This will be a very interesting team to watch this offseason. There are some big decisions to make – the pending free agency of Julius Peppers(notes) sitting atop the list.
• Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini
He deserves a tip of the cap for making the stretch run interesting. Four straight wins, even with some of them coming against struggling teams, made for an interesting final month in Cleveland. I still can't believe he'll be retained by team president Mike Holmgren, but Mangini has given pause to the decision. Like John Fox and Perry Fewell, his roster was playing for him in December. That has to count for something.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers
It was appropriate that their final game of this season ended with a fourth quarter which saw them give up a pair of touchdowns. They eked out a win, but it was in the nail-biting, inconsistent style that we've seen all season. The defense needs at least one upgrade at cornerback. And this has to be the offseason that the offensive line gets a significant amount of attention. No matter how you slice it, this was one of the most disappointing teams of the year.
• Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak
He should be safe after a four-game winning streak to finish the season, but it might have taken the gutty victory over the New England Patriots to truly turn the tide. The 9-7 record wasn't exactly the step forward that we all expected, but it was progress. The defense still needs to work on a consistent pass rush and could use another playmaking cornerback. 2010 has to be the big step forward. No more waiting.
• The San Francisco 49ers defense
It closed out in appropriate fashion, terrorizing the Rams in a win that pushed the team to an 8-8 final record. Even against St. Louis' atrocious offensive line, the 49ers' eight sacks were impressive – particularly the 3½ from Justin Smith(notes), who had been a little disappointing this season from a pressure standpoint. The 49ers have to feel good about what coach Mike Singletary got accomplished this season. The offense found some valuable pieces, and the defense will only get better with a few offseason additions.
• St. Louis Rams
It sounds crazy, right? Putting the team with one win on the winners list. But the loss in the finale was actually a good thing, with dominant Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh actually being worth it. Even if the Rams don't want Suh – and that might be the case – the pick has legitimate value. It has been a few years since the No. 1 selection in the NFL draft was worth trading up to get. That means only good things for the Rams.
• Atlanta Falcons running back Jason Snelling(notes)
His 147 rushing yards Sunday give him 613 for the season. Not bad for a limited starter situation. I can't imagine the punishment that would be inflicted with Snelling and Michael Turner(notes) both healthy. Fourth quarters would be a brutal experience for opponents, assuming Atlanta can find a way to keep them both in the mix next season.
• The Dallas Cowboys
So much for that "can't win in December" cloud. Three straight wins to finish the season, including clinching the NFC East, is definitely a gold star on the résumés of Wade Phillips and Tony Romo(notes). But let's not kid ourselves: If Dallas loses in the first round of the playoffs, we'll all be rolling our eyes and saying it's the same team with the same problems. I never thought this team could beat New Orleans and Philadelphia, but with the way the defense is playing of late, the Cowboys look better than at any other point this season.
• The Green Bay Packers defense
You thought there would be a downhill slide when Al Harris(notes) and Aaron Kampman(notes) went down, but this unit has looked superb in back-to-back weeks. Granted, it was against an inept Seattle Seahawks team and an Arizona Cardinals squad resting its starters. But the Packers are playing nasty up front and they've been mixing up the back-end schemes in the 3-4. Charles Woodson(notes), who notched his ninth interception and third defensive touchdown of the season, is the defensive player of the year.
• Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles(notes)
He has put up one of the most impressive second halves of any NFL player this season. Despite only starting the final eight games, Charles finished the season with 1,120 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns. He has more than proven he can be a centerpiece running back next season. His 259 rushing yards on 25 carries in the season-ending win over Denver were superb, showcasing top-notch burst and speed. He looks like Cadillac Williams did prior to his knee injuries.
• Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee(notes)
From a locker-room perspective, he has been one of the truly underrated players this season. He played a huge role in the offense early, then dealt with injuries and had his role reduced in favor of Ray Rice(notes) being an all-purpose back. But to his credit, McGahee never flaked. He truly displayed the positive attitude that teammates raved about in the preseason. Then he came out and delivered when the Ravens needed someone to dominate and get them into the playoffs. His three touchdowns against the Raiders – particularly his 77-yard score – were thrilling.
• The San Diego Chargers
They pulled the perfect finish, playing mostly backups but still winning and retaining their momentum into the playoff bye week. Malcolm Floyd's 140-yard performance made you sit up more than a few times. If he's clicking, this passing offense will be unstoppable. The defense is playing about as well as it has been all season, too. But I can't get over the fact that when Shawne Merriman(notes) plays next, he'll have gone without a sack for more than two months.
• The New England Patriots
Playoff seeding implications aside, Wes Welker's(notes) knee injury is an extremely tough pill to swallow for the Patriots. He's one of New England's toughest, most relentless talents. You could make a solid argument that he is the perfect balance to Randy Moss(notes) and the element that allows the passing offense to function at its peak. I don't blame the coaching staff for his loss, either. It was just a fluke cut that could have just as easily happened in practice.
• The Indianapolis Colts
Say goodbye to every last shred of momentum. Maybe the Colts will say it means nothing losing the season's final two games heading into the playoffs. I think that's preposterous spin, particularly when this team now has to sit and wait to get back on the field. Having to go back nearly a month to remember your last win isn't a good thing. On the bright side for the Colts, they wouldn't have to meet the AFC's other dangerous team, the Chargers, until the conference championship.
• The New Orleans Saints
The finale was meaningless, but they have the same issue as the Colts – a tremendous start followed by a momentum crash. However, their descent might be even more concerning, with the offense sputtering significantly down the stretch. And unlike Indianapolis, New Orleans appears capable of being threatened by every other team in the NFC playoffs. This team hasn't won a game by more than three points in five weeks. Shaky.
• Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio
His stretch run was the polar opposite of guys like John Fox and Eric Mangini. The Jaguars wilted down the stretch, dropping five of their last six. It was bound to happen. Teams with phantom pass rushes don't hold up consistently. The offensive inconsistency might have been the most worrisome issue down the stretch. At some point, David Garrard(notes) and that offense has to raise the floor on the bad games.
• The Detroit Lions
This would have been a good year to have that No. 1 pick. Then again, this is a team that needs to move back and acquire draft picks no matter where it would have drafted. But it will be harder to move back from No. 2 than it would have been at the top, just because Ndamukong Suh is simply that good. It was a harsh first season for head coach Jim Schwartz. The amount of work ahead is mind boggling.
• Miami Dolphins quarterback Pat White(notes)
The hit that sent him out of the game on a stretcher was downright scary – one of the most frightening of the season. Thankfully, it appears White will be OK. But the hit illustrates one of the worries about White: his size. His scrambling is enticing, but some scouts lamented the hits he would take at quarterback. That has to be a concern after Sunday.
• New York Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan
His defense got trounced the last two games of the season, and you have to question whether he can get this unit right next season. Some injuries hurt along the way, but this was rarely an intense group this season. I think it's troubling how Osi Umenyiora(notes), Justin Tuck(notes) and Mathias Kiwanuka(notes) were used – too much zone blitzing for my taste. You've got the horses for a four-man rush that can create chaos.
• The Philadelphia Eagles
The shutout in the season finale qualifies as an eyebrow-raiser. A loss is one thing, but the Eagles were manhandled by Dallas – particularly the offensive line, which gave up four sacks of Donovan McNabb(notes). And I know we say it every year, but the lack of an established running game has to be worrisome, especially if the Eagles run into the pass rush of Green Bay or Minnesota.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The blizzard game between Buffalo and Indianapolis. I say it every year: the snow-filled games in December and January are some of the most pleasing to watch. The hits seem louder and harder, and every completion seems like an accomplishment. Every snap feels like an NFL Films highlight.
Loathed: Seeing Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) throw behind Terrell Owens(notes) and expose him to a brutal goal line hit against the Colts. It was a terrible throw and decision by Fitzpatrick. He had an otherwise stellar day, but his miscue to Owens makes you realize why wideouts want to play with proven, consistent quarterbacks.
Loved: Watching Browns multifaceted threat Josh Cribbs play quarterback in the Wildcat formation against Jacksonville. The more I watch him, the more I realize that he's one of the most exciting players in the NFL. His second-quarter touchdown run was elusiveness at its best.
Loathed: Hearing analysts make a case for the Colts' decision to sit their starters in Week 16 because of the knee injury to Patriots wideout Wes Welker. The apologists were just waiting for an injury to throw their hands up and acquit Indianapolis, without acknowledging that the situations were different. The Patriots weren't playing for perfection. It's not apples to apples.
Loved: Jonathan Stewart's(notes) cutback from left to right on his 67-yard first-quarter touchdown against New Orleans. Stewart has developed into a bona fide centerpiece running back. His feet are remarkable for his size. You have to wonder how long the Panthers will be able to keep both Stewart and DeAngelo Williams(notes).
Loathed: Adrian Peterson being lauded for protecting the ball at the end of a 23-yard run against the Giants. If you watch the replay, Peterson didn't protect the ball very well at all – until the play is almost over. Part of Peterson's problem is what he does in traffic. And he had been hit by three defenders before he finally put both hands on the football on the particular play. Watch the play for yourself. Poor analysis.
Loved: The 44-degree weather in Tampa for the game against the Falcons. It was the second coldest home game ever for the Buccaneers. Hilarious. A 44-degree game day in Chicago and Buffalo quadruples the shirtless fat guy quotient.
Loathed: The horrific tackling by the Jaguars on Chris Jennings'(notes) sideline-to-sideline Barry Sanders-esque run midway through the third quarter. It was an electrifying play, but Jacksonville missed a ridiculous six tackles. Had Jacksonville made the playoffs this season, it would have been one of the worst teams to make the postseason in the history of the NFL.
Loved: Sidney Rice's(notes) 12-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter against the Giants. It was an All-Pro level play. Rice came back for an underthrown ball and took the ball away from cornerback Terrell Thomas(notes). Rice has developed into a remarkable player this season.
Loathed: Seeing the Giants get blitzed right out of the gate for the second straight week. If last week's awful loss to Carolina was supposed to be about the postseason, then this week's should have been about pride. Seeing the Giants play so poorly in both makes you wonder if Tom Coughlin might shake some things up this offseason. It might be time for a new veteran leadership committee.
- Josh McDaniels
- Perry Fewell