Mike Shanahan churned the Broncos' roster again in search of a Super Bowl return, but he's farther away than ever
For most of the last seven seasons, Denver coach Mike Shanahan has acted like an impatient fantasy league owner, quickly turning over the starting lineup when things didn't go well. In five of those seasons he opened with at least eight starters who weren't in the lineup the previous September, including a league-high 14 this year. Such moves might have arched some eyebrows in past seasons but didn't elicit widespread second-guessing because Denver did relatively well on the field.
Things could be different this year, now that the Broncos (2--3) have lost three straight and are off to their worst start since 2000. Equally troubling is that each week the defense has allowed more yards and points than it did the previous game. At times in Sunday's 41--3 pounding by the Chargers at Invesco Field—Denver's worst home loss since 1966—there appeared to be a lack of urgency in some players. "I don't know if I've ever been more embarrassed," Shanahan said of the loss.
Some players echoed that sentiment. "Coming into this year we had great expectations," said veteran safety John Lynch. "We felt like we had a squad that could compete for a championship. When you go through a game like this, a stretch like this, that type of mentality can be broken."
Since winning their second of back-to-back Super Bowls under Shanahan in January 1999, the Broncos have a 1--4 postseason record. More often than not, Shanahan took a broom to the roster after each year. There were only four changes in 2006, largely because the Broncos were coming off a 13--3 record and an AFC Championship Game appearance.
After last year's 9--7 season, the turnover was radical: eight new starters on offense and six on defense (including cornerback Dre' Bly, replacing the late Darrent Williams). In addition D.J. Williams moved from starting outside linebacker to the middle. Overseeing the D is new assistant head coach Jim Bates, formerly coordinator in Green Bay and Miami. "We're always trying to upgrade our team," Shanahan said before the loss to San Diego. "That is quite a few guys [this year], but I thought it gives us the best chance to win a championship."
It's apparent, however, that even with the new players the defense lacks the right personnel for Bates's schemes. He requires big, physical tackles who can occupy blockers and allow the linebackers to flow freely to the ball. But free-agent tackle Sam Adams hasn't played up to expectations, and Williams is still feeling his way in the middle.
The inability to play opponents straight-up has caused Bates to take chances. On Sunday he put linebacker Ian Gold on slot receiver Vincent Jackson on second-and-33 from the San Diego 39. Jackson quickly got behind Gold for a 45-yard reception. Afterward, Chargers back LaDainian Tomlinson told a Broncos defender, "That's not right. You guys need to talk to your coaches."
This year's moves are drawing attention not only because of the Broncos' struggles but also because of the backgrounds of some of the new players. Shanahan never has been afraid to take chances on guys who have had troubles off the field (Dale Carter, Daryl Gardener, Maurice Clarett, Todd Sauerbrun) or underperformed on it (Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown, Ron Dayne). But this year's crop might represent Shanahan's biggest roll of the dice. He traded up to draft defensive linemen Marcus Thomas and Jarvis Moss, each of whom failed drug tests at Florida, and signed a free-agent running back, Travis Henry, who was one positive drug test from a one-year suspension. While Thomas and Moss have had no issues, Henry has since allegedly tested positive for marijuana; he's contesting the result in court, and if he loses, he'd be gone for the rest of the year.
"I don't think that Mike would ever jeopardize the character of this organization and this franchise for some wins," said wide receiver Rod Smith, one of four holdovers from the Broncos' last Super Bowl team and a respected voice in the locker room. "I know that for a fact; there is no way he would do that."
Perhaps not, but with greater scrutiny of NFL player conduct than ever before, the decision to willfully take a gamble on multiple players with character issues in the same year creates the impression of desperation, if not arrogance—particularly as it relates to Henry. Owner Pat Bowlen declined an interview request to discuss the topic. Smith did not.
"I think we all have to be desperate to go out and try to win a championship again," the wideout said. "I remember to this day how I felt when we won two Super Bowls. I'll do anything within my power that's legal to get that back. Coaches are the same way."
ONLY AT SI.COM Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
Albert Haynesworth's reputation certainly has turned. In '06 the Titans defensive tackle (right) was a pariah after he stomped on Cowboys center Andre Gurode; soon he could be the NFL's highest-paid defender. In his final contract year he's dominating for the 3--1 Titans, who are fifth in the NFL in run defense.... Chargers G.M. A.J. Smith can expect calls before the trade deadline from teams in need of a frontline runner. Michael Turner gained 147 yards on 10 carries at Denver and has averaged 6.2 yards per rush over four seasons. Smith insists he won't deal Turner, who'll be an unrestricted free agent after the season, but will some club (the Bucs? the Pack?) make him an offer he can't refuse? ... Niners fans might want to cover their eyes when the team comes off its bye and visits the Giants on Oct. 21. San Francisco had an October bye each of the past two years, and the subsequent games were losses of 52--17 at Washington and 41--10 at Chicago.
CHANGEUP Unproven QB Jay Cutler (6) is just one of many gambles by Shanahan (inset).
[See caption above]
DALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE (HAYNESWORTH)