On the subject of Josh McDaniels, his former Patriots offensive coordinator, quarterback Matt Cassel's feelings run as deep as Randy Moss on a go route. "Josh is a great coach," says Cassel, who was traded to the Chiefs this off-season. "He's young and energetic and bright—I'd even go as far as to say brilliant when it comes to football." That would be news to many folks in Denver who've come to view the Broncos' rookie coach through skeptical eyes. Since replacing Mike Shanahan in January, McDaniels, 33, has been criticized and second-guessed for trading franchise quarterback Jay Cutler and failing to address the team's defensive needs in the draft.
McDaniels, however, has been unwavering in his commitment to the Plan. He is trying to build not an offense or a defense, he says, but a team. For that he wants tough, smart, versatile, high-character players who fit his offensive and defensive systems, and he's unwilling to compromise.
That was evident in the draft. After months of workouts, interviews and film study, McDaniels and his staff identified fewer than 100 players worthy of being listed on Denver's draft board. The number was down to 24 when the second day kicked off—with 192 players still to be chosen.
Unorthodox? McDaniels used his first pick, No. 12, on Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno despite having signed three backs in free agency. He also traded next year's first-rounder to Seattle to move up in the second round and snag Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, who joins a crowded secondary that includes three more players signed in free agency. Asked why he spent only one of the Broncos' 10 picks on a front-seven defensive player—Denver is switching to a 3--4 and released five starters from 2008's D-line and linebacking corps—he was direct: "We're not looking to draft players to cut them," he said, "and we're certainly not looking to draft players early to cut them."
McDaniels was with the Patriots when they won three Super Bowls with sixth-round pick Tom Brady and finished 11--5 last year with the undrafted Cassel. While he gets high marks from former coworkers, one of them wonders if McDaniels might be a bit naive, at least when it comes to his QB situation. "There is an element of confidence there," says the colleague, "but it's important that it doesn't evolve into overconfidence. Matt Cassel ... had a very strong supporting cast and a Hall of Fame coach in [Bill] Belichick."
With the Broncos, McDaniels has journeyman quarterbacks in Kyle Orton and Chris Simms, a defense that ranked 30th in points allowed and special teams that contributed to Denver's ranking last in average starting field position. "I feel we're doing it the right way," McDaniels says, "but the results in September, October, November and December are when everybody is going to get answers to their questions." And possibly find out just how thin the line really is between brilliance and brazenness.
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Price of Success
The Cardinals' NFC title defense is off to a rough start. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and wideout Anquan Boldin, unhappy with their contracts, sat out mandatory minicamp with "hamstring" injuries. Linebacker Karlos Dansby, also seeking a new deal, cited a "misunderstanding" after missing much of the first practice. Management is taking a hard line. Dockett, with three years left, won't get an extension this year. Boldin (below) has two years remaining and wants a trade, but his request won't be addressed until Dansby and safety Adrian Wilson—both slated for free agency in '10—are re-signed. Such distractions can't help a club that's trying to avoid becoming the eighth Super Bowl loser in nine seasons to miss the playoffs the following year.
RON CHENOY/US PRESSWIRE (SIMMS AND MORENO)
RESTARTING BLOCKS Simms (2) and Moreno are key pickups for McDaniels (below), but he needs to address Denver's D.
ERIC LARS BAKKE (MCDANIELS)
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BOLDIN)