As we push toward the playoffs, Shutdown Corner takes a brief moment to review the seasons of those teams that barely missed the cut. We'll start this series with the 2009 Denver Broncos.
It was supposed to be a disaster before it even began. When the Broncos fired Mike Shanahan and replaced him with former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, many wondered what was going on -- was owner Pat Bowlen overreacting to Denver's late-season slide? The 2008 Broncos stood at 8-5 after a Week 14 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and dropped their last three games to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. McDaniels came in carrying a blowtorch instead of an olive branch -- his biggest and most oft-debated move was the Jay Cutler(notes) trade, which netted Denver two first-round picks. McDaniels turned around and traded one of those picks to the Seahawks to move up in the second round and take Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith(notes). Seemingly without any of the benefits of the Cutler trade, stuck with Kyle Orton(notes) at quarterback, and doomed to an immature noob with a Napoleon complex in charge of everything, the Broncos were completely hosed. Or so the prognosticators said.
Except that it didn't start that way. The Broncos started 6-0, shocking everybody and taking a hammer to the AFC West. The real surprise was the defense. In 2008, Denver put up the second-worst Defensive DVOA in the 15-year history of Football Outsiders' stats (the 2008 Detroit Lions, the only team to go 0-16 in a regular season, were worse). Through the first six weeks of the 2009 season, Denver was well on its way to the biggest single-season defensive turnaround in NFL history. New coordinator Mike Nolan was doing a masterful job, and McDaniels' offense was working well enough to make people wonder if the Broncos didn't get the best of the quarterback deal while Cutler was dying on the vine in Chicago.
Then, as quickly as it started out well, the Broncos' season pulled a real faceplant as the team lost four straight. These weren't close losses, either -- Denver was demolished by the Steelers, Ravens and Chargers, and lost by 10 points to the Redskins, which should count as a rout. Meanwhile, the Chargers had started a run of victories after losing to Denver in Mid-October, a streak that is still going. San Diego's 32-3 beatdown of the Broncos seemed to indicate a changing of the guard in the division as much as it exploited weaknesses in the Denver infrastructure. After that 6-0 start, the Broncos finished 2-8, leaving them right where they were at the end of 2008, right before Shanahan was fired.
McDaniels' most questionable decision since the Cutler deal came before his team's season-ending loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, when he benched receiver Brandon Marshall and tight end Tony Scheffler before the game, then discovered that he'd also be without receiver Eddie Royal(notes). Denver's hopes ended in the same way the team's hopes began -- with McDaniels taking a stand, making a point, using napalm on a paper cut, and putting himself before the good of the team. The 44-24 beatdown by the Chiefs, in which Orton threw two touchdown passes to Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson and only one to his own team, seemed a fait accompli. And that formerly great defense gave up 259 rushing yards to Jamaal Charles(notes).
Hopefully, McDaniels will take some time to do a self-audit in the offseason. Former Belichick acolytes seem to have a problem with exercising their authority before they have the name to back it up. He'll have to buck that trend before his team will be able to break out of the same .500 holding pattern he inherited.