DENVER – To those of us who concluded that the Denver Broncos' tumultuous offseason foreshadowed a meltdown of mile-high proportions, the final two minutes of Sunday's game at Invesco Field provided some of the most surreal scenes imaginable.
With the score tied late in the fourth quarter and 76,440 fans screaming, quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) dropped back in the pocket, cocked his lightly regarded right arm and delivered a brisk pass more than 20 yards downfield to the right sideline. Reaching above Dallas Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman(notes), Denver wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) – the trouble-prone player whose childish behavior on the practice field in late August got him a nine-day suspension for insubordination – made a terrific catch, cut to the middle of the field and darted back to his right, spinning away five defenders to complete a spectacular 51-yard touchdown reception.
And then, naturally, Marshall and rookie coach Josh McDaniels hugged on the sidelines, a scene that a month ago seemed as likely as Brett Favre(notes) and Packers general manager Ted Thompson taking simultaneous sips out of the same milkshake glass.
Weirder still was the sight of the Broncos, by far the NFL's most surprising team through the first quarter of the season, relying on the league's stingiest defense to close out the game. First safety Brian Dawkins(notes), a Philadelphia Eagles castoff eight days shy of his 36th birthday, ran down 24-year-old Cowboys wideout Sam Hurd(notes) after a 53-yard fourth-down catch-and-run to save a touchdown. Then, with the ball at the Denver 2-yard line and nine seconds remaining, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo(notes) twice tested Champ Bailey(notes), the Broncos' perennial All-Pro cornerback, by firing crisp passes to Hurd in the end zone.
Not since Romo's infamous trip to Mexico before the Cowboys' 2007 playoff defeat to the New York Giants had the quarterback made such a regrettable decision: Bailey broke up both throws, and the Broncos celebrated one of the most inconceivable 4-0 starts in recent NFL memory.
"We're not supposed to win," said veteran defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday(notes), who had one of Denver's five sacks Sunday. "People probably still don't believe in us. It doesn't matter. We believe in ourselves."
The most unbelievable statistic of all: The Broncos have allowed 26 points in four games. To put that in perspective, think back to Denver's most celebrated victory before Sunday's, a last-minute win over the San Diego Chargers in Week 2 of the '08 season – the infamous Ed Hochuli game.
On that day alone, the Broncos gave up 38 points.
Then came the colossal collapse at the end of the '08 season, a three-game losing streak in which Denver allowed 112 points; owner Pat Bowlen's surprising firing of longtime coach Mike Shanahan; his decision to hire McDaniels, the soon-to-be-33-year-old Bill Belichick protégé; and, most shockingly, the swift collapse of McDaniels' relationship with Cutler – and the eventual decision to trade the quarterback to the Chicago Bears for multiple draft picks and Orton.
When Marshall, upset over his contract and the team's misdiagnosis of a hip injury during the '08 campaign, also asked to be traded in June, it seemed as though the franchise had become a theater of the absurd. The unintentional comedy intensified in late August as Marshall, in a videotaped practice-field hissy fit, provoked his suspension by intentionally knocking passes to the ground and kicking balls across the field rather than hand them to a waiting ball boy.
So yeah, a lot of outsiders like yours truly thought these developments were a harbinger of very bad things to come for McDaniels and the Broncos. In fairness, some current Denver players shared those concerns.
Holliday, signed as a free agent just eight days before the start of the regular season, was more forthcoming about his doubts.
"I was on the outside, too, and believe me I came in with the same questions that you and everybody else had," Holliday said. "I was thinking, 'What is going on here?' Brandon Marshall … Jay Cutler … A young coach with a big ego? Is he out of his mind? What's he doing out there?"
Holliday, 33, wasn't sure what to believe. Phone conversations with Dawkins and two of Denver's other offseason free-agent signees, safety Renaldo Hill(notes) and cornerback Andre' Goodman(notes) (each of whom was a former Miami Dolphins teammate of Holliday's), convinced him that despite the drama, McDaniels was a knowledgeable coach who'd gotten most of the team to buy into his program.
Still, before he put pen to ink, Holliday wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with McDaniels. The two men, who happen to be the same age, met in the coach's office, and Holliday wasn't shy about sharing his concerns.
"I didn't know what to expect," Holliday recalled. "I've played a long time, and I wanted to know, 'What am I signing up for?' I don't have time to beat around the bush. I asked him about the Brandon Marshall situation, and he held his ground. He said, 'Look, this is what I had to do for my team going forward. If you want to be part of this, come on. If not, we'll go on without you.'
"I respected that. By the time I left his office, I was a believer."
Not everyone in the Broncos' locker room was such a quick sell.
"It took a long time for me, actually," conceded inside linebacker D.J. Williams(notes), whose second-quarter recovery of a Romo fumble (forced by Hill on a blitz) set up Orton's nine-yard touchdown pass to rookie halfback Knowshon Moreno(notes). "Even up to the second preseason game, we still had a lot of kinks to iron out. But now I've bought into what we're doing, and I love it."
Before Sunday's game, it was easy to make the case that the Broncos' early success was somewhat fraudulent. It took a freakish finish for Denver to pull out its opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Broncos' next two victories, while convincing, came against the conspicuously inadequate Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders.
McDaniels' team's mastery of the Cowboys, however, was undeniably legitimate. Offensively, Denver did what it had to do: Orton (20-of-29, 243 yards, two touchdowns) avoided throwing his first interception as a Bronco while backs Moreno, Correll Buckhalter(notes) and LaMont Jordan(notes) ran for a combined 116 yards on 22 carries.
Denver's defense – coordinated by Mike Nolan, who was fired as the San Francisco 49ers' coach last October after an unsuccessful three-plus-year stint – was the real story of this game. Coming in Dallas had averaged a league-leading 193.7 rushing yards per game, and 6.8 per attempt; the Cowboys ran for only 74 on 25 carries (2.96 average) on Sunday.
Pass-rushing linebacker Elvis Dumervil(notes) had two sacks to push his season total to eight, tied with the Bengals' Antwan Odom(notes) for the NFL lead. Bailey made a brilliant, diving interception of a Romo pass at the Denver 3 to end a Cowboys scoring threat early in the third quarter. And, of course, he was a willing and able shutdown specialist on the game's final two plays.
"I love it," Bailey said of the Cowboys' decision to go at him. "Please do it. I want every chance I can to make a play."
Said Dawkins: "That surprised me both times, for them to challenge a [future] Hall of Famer. I'm glad they did."
After all, given what has gone down in Denver, no one on the Broncos is in position to question brash behavior. McDaniels and Cutler … McDaniels and Marshall? Apparently it was all a big, silly, overblown misunderstanding that was part of a larger plan to which the rest of us were not privy.
Now, with Belichick and the Patriots coming to town next week, McDaniels is free to bask in the glory of a sizzling start that only he and his players – well, some of his players – saw coming.
At his media session following Sunday's game, McDaniels was asked about his sideline hug with Marshall and the words they exchanged. While maintaining the requisite secrecy – remember, he learned from Belichick – McDaniels began to giggle, seemingly overwhelmed by the sheer improbability of it all.
Suddenly, Marshall swooped into the room and up to the podium, and he and his coach embraced once again.
"I'm not gonna tell 'em [about our conversation]," McDaniels said as the wideout walked away. "So don't you."
Of course Marshall won't.
Welcome to the Surreal Life, and don't bother trying to make sense of it.
All you need to know is that McDaniels and his players believe in one another, and for now, that seems to be enough
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• If that wild Week 1 victory over the Bengals propelled the Broncos to their unexpected 4-0 start, give coach Marvin Lewis credit for not letting his team go the opposite way. On Sunday Cincinnati improved to 3-1 – tied with the Ravens for first in the AFC North – with a 23-20 overtime victory over the Browns made possible by some bold leadership from quarterback Carson Palmer(notes). Down 20-14 with 2:02 remaining, Palmer converted a fourth-and-goal by throwing a two-yard touchdown pass to Chad Ochocinco(notes). However, a blocked extra point by Cleveland's Shaun Rogers(notes), who earlier had blocked a 23-yard field-goal attempt, kept the Bengals from taking the lead. Then, with 1:04 left in an overtime period in which neither team's offense had much success, Palmer successfully talked Lewis into going for it on fourth-and-11 from the Cleveland 41. One thing that ultimately swayed Lewis was the coach's profound faith in his defense. Even if the conversion had failed, Lewis said via text, "we still thought we would stop them." That would have given the Bengals their second tie in as many seasons, but Palmer avoided that potential fate with an unlikely play, scrambling 15 yards for the first down. "Running scared," Lewis said. Whatever – it set up Shayne Graham's(notes) 31-yard game-winner with time expiring and reminded us why, with Palmer healthy, the Bengals always feel like they have a chance.
• Since I'm of a mood to acknowledge mistaken preseason assessments, I guess my notion that the Colts were headed for trouble in '09 needs some revising as well. Four games (and four Indy victories) into the season, I've simply concluded that Peyton Manning(notes) is too good for his team not to contend, and that's the way it's going to be for the foreseeable future. It's weird that I would underestimate Manning – it's not like the guy's magnificence is a mystery, but apparently I needed to be hit over the head with it. On Sunday, once again, Manning's performance (31-of-41, 353 yards, two TDs) in the Colts' 34-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks smacked me upside the head. For that matter, remind me not to underestimate Eli Manning(notes), either. Last year, after Plaxico Burress(notes) committed career suicide, Manning struggled to complete passes to wideouts, and the Giants were upset by the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs. So far this year Manning is making Steve Smith, Mario Manningham(notes), Hakeem Nicks(notes) and company look like elite pass-catchers. The Giants, like the Colts, are 4-0, and they're obviously hoping that the bruised right heel Manning suffered in Sunday's 27-16 victory over the Chiefs doesn't cause him to miss any action.
• The vast majority of NFL players will be watching Favre and the Vikings take on the Green Bay Packers at the Metrodome Monday night, and perhaps the most interested viewer will be New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper(notes), who has history with both teams. If Sharper decides to kick back with a brewski and plop his feet on the couch, he will have earned it. On Sunday Sharper keyed the Saints' 24-10 victory over the Jets in a battle of teams that were 3-0 coming in, twice intercepting New York's rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez(notes) – giving him five for the season and improving his career total to 59 (ninth on the NFL's all-time list). Even more impressive: Sharper, who gave New Orleans a 10-0 lead by taking a Sanchez throw 99 yards to the house early in the second quarter, now has 10 career interception returns for touchdown, second only to Rod Woodson (12) in NFL history. Other NFC contenders, be warned: The Saints have now won consecutive games in which Drew Brees(notes) didn't throw a touchdown pass. They're no joke.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• The Ravens had a great chance to pull out Sunday's game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, which would have cemented their internal belief that they are better than last year's surprising AFC championship participants. They still may be, but the 27-21 defeat they suffered to New England didn't cast them in the most positive light. For all their obvious improvement on offense, the image of wideout Mark Clayton(notes) dropping a fourth-down pass from Joe Flacco(notes) that would've given Baltimore first-and-goal with 28 seconds left will be hard for me to shake. And while I'm a card-carrying member of the Ray Lewis(notes) Fan Club, and the great linebacker was probably correct in his assessment of the roughing-the-passer penalties that aided the Patriots' cause as dubious, I thought it was a bit beneath him to complain about it so forcefully after the game. In a game that arguably featured the best offensive and defensive players of this era, Lewis and Tom Brady(notes) (there I go again, short-changing Peyton; at the very least let's say no offensive player is greater than Brady), guess which one of them is going to receive more coddling under the current rules? It's not fair, but it's business as we know it in the NFL, and Lewis would be better served taking out his aggression on the Bengals next week. I know, he will. Meanwhile, Brady's old teammate Rodney Harrison(notes) was surely messing with his friend when he said at halftime of NBC's Sunday Night Football telecast that the quarterback should "take off the skirt and put on some slacks. … Toughen up." Hey, it was a day when many NFL players wore pink cleats and other accessories in support of the league's breast-cancer awareness campaign. And, you know, some of us bleed for college football teams that might as well have worn pink Saturday night.
• After hiding in the shadow of the Detroit Lions' 19-game losing streak, the St. Louis Rams are now feeling the harsh shine of the floodlights – and have I mentioned that they're a bad, bad, bad, bad team? On Sunday the Rams (0-4) lost their 14th consecutive game, a 35-0 drubbing by the San Francisco 49ers that featured three touchdowns off St. Louis turnovers. The Rams have been shut out twice this season and have been outscored 108-24. If they're still winless when they play the Lions in Detroit on Nov. 1, we may have a nominee for the least-appealing NFL game of the decade. I'm just saying …
• After three weeks of losing close games that kept people like me from believing they were in deep trouble, the Tennessee Titans got a legitimate spanking from the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, losing 37-17 to drop to a stunning 0-4. And I suspect they're similar to the Arizona Cardinals, who are 1-2 and had a bye on Sunday, in that they are missing a departed coordinator more than they expected. Weirdly enough, neither of those former coordinators is thriving in his new gig: Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who formerly oversaw Tennessee's defense, is 1-3 after a 48-24 defeat to the Chicago Bears, while Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley, who was Arizona's offensive coordinator, is 0-4. When I say the Titans miss Schwartz and the Cards miss Haley, I'm talking about temperament as well as schemes: Schwartz projected a brainy confidence that helped give the Titans' defenders some of their swagger, and the exacting Haley helped keep the Cardinals' offensive players focused and motivated. The good news for both franchises is that they have terrific head coaches (the Titans' Jeff Fisher and the Cards' Ken Whisenhunt) whose area of expertise is on the side of the ball in question. Still, transitions can be choppy sometimes.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How I was able to order a 24-ounce Bright Eyed and Blueberry smoothie at the Denver Airport's Jamba Juice Sunday morning without incident, less than nine months after a far less successful effort. Either someone who works there reads Morning Rush, or evolution has taken its blessed course in a rough economy.
2. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's assertion, to Fox's Jay Glazer on Saturday, that the alleged incident in which Raiders coach Tom Cable assaulted defensive assistant Randy Hanson "is not getting pushed under the rug." Um, really? Look, I'm a big Goodell fan, and I have no reason to believe the commissioner is being disingenuous. But in this case, he isn't doing a very convincing job of making people believe that the league's code of conduct is enforced as aggressively when it comes to coaches as it is with players. Think about it: If Brandon Marshall or Pacman Jones or Chris Henry or Steve Smith had been accused of striking a teammate and sending him to the hospital, do you really believe we'd have gone this long without some sort of highly publicized investigation on the league's part (if the team in question didn't take action first)? In this case, the Napa, Calif., police reportedly have taken statements from Hanson and three other witnesses; has the NFL interviewed any of these people? Considering the apparent (and pathetic) lack of engagement from Cable's bosses – specifically owner Al Davis – shouldn't Goodell be taking it upon himself to get to the bottom of the incident in a suitably conspicuous way? He should be less encumbered than when he deals with players, in fact, because there is no collective bargaining agreement or union limiting his ability to investigate. If I were Goodell, I'd have sent someone to the Raiders' facility immediately after news broke of Hanson's hospitalization and demanded answers from all parties concerned. Anyone who refused to cooperate would have been subject to my discipline, including Davis. But Goodell either hasn't done a thing, or he has done things behind the scenes to which the public isn't privy. Either way, it gives the appearance that this isn't a priority for him – that he's, you know, sweeping it under the rug. I'll take his word for it that he isn't, but it would be great if we started getting some answers.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Eric Mangini, you slay me. Two days before your Browns fell to 0-4 with Sunday's defeat to the Bengals, in an effort to convince fans they should be patient, you compared Cleveland's early struggles to those experienced by Belichick, your ex-boss, when he took the Patriots job in 2000. I have one slight issue with your analogy, however: You're not Bill Belichick. You're the guy who narc-ed on Belichick, remember? Let's compare and contrast. Belichick shook off a slow start, got a huge break in '01 when Tom Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe(notes) and took the Pats to four Super Bowls, winning three. He's going to the Hall of Fame as soon as he retires. You? A surprise playoff appearance in your first year with the Jets and a cameo on "The Sopranos," followed by two out-of-the-money finishes and a pink slip … and now the whole 10-hour-bus-ride, $1,701 water-bottle thing. Though you coach in Cleveland, you're pretty damned far from Canton at this stage. Oh, and one more thing: If you're trying to soothe Browns fans by telling them you're the second coming of a brilliant coach, you might want to choose someone other than the man who benched Bernie Kosar and became one of the most reviled sports figures in Cleveland history. Just a thought.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Those guys are playing well. Defense is carrying them. It's a good scheme. 3-4 is tough if u do it right"
– Text Sunday night from Cutler, appreciating his former team's triumph over the Cowboys. (I told you this is all very surreal.)
"Keep the faith"
– Text Sunday night from Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, referring to the disheartening display we witnessed in Berkeley the previous evening. (As awful as it was, I will.)
"I'm pissed I dropped those 2 I was trying 2 run b4 I caught them"
– Text late Sunday night from Steelers wideout/perfectionist Hines Ward(notes), who wasn't overly impressed with his eight-catch, 113-yard performance in Pittsburgh's 38-28 victory over the Chargers. .
"Thanks bro. Fight on"
– Text Sunday night from Palmer, responding to my congratulatory text – and rubbing some 'SC salt in my Golden Bear wound.
- Josh McDaniels