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32 Disasters/32 Days: Denver Broncos

The Beginning
''It's time for me to move on. I can't do it physically anymore, and that's really hard for me to say.''-John Elway at his retirement press conference
With those words, the Broncos star was gone. The greatest player the Broncos have known or will ever know had left to his Rocky Mountain sunset. Elway, who was famous for having the personality of a lineman and the toughness of a linebacker, fit in like a glove in the whole Rocky Mountain region. The California Kid’s grit and never-say-die attitude resonated across the area. The Broncos, unlike most NFL teams, have no surrounding competition. Several of their surrounding states, most of which are largely rural and agrarian, have no pro teams of any kind.
Upon his retirement, the Broncos identity was gone. For 16 years they had put their faith, hope, and dreams into #7. No game was unwinnable, no drive was unsalvageable. It didn’t matter what the down and distance was, it didn’t matter who were his receivers or backs; Elway was a threat to score and change the tide of the game. He retired as the winningest QB in NFL history for a good reason. He had a unique knack for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The unique brand of Mile High Magic football defined by insane late game heroics culminating in Broncos come-from-behind wins was the bread and butter of the Broncos.
The Broncos would be stuck in quarterback purgatory for a little over the next decade. Woody Paige has christened this time as the After Elway era in Broncos history. They wandered through the wilderness of the NFL trying to find that star. They’ll never be able to replace the Duke, but maybe they’d be able to get pretty darn close. They sure hoped so. The first hope was Brian Griese. He looked promising in 2000 and had a pretty good year. The offense was firing on all cylinders and the Broncos were back in the playoffs. Except Griese hurt his shoulder and then had many other injuries (and “falls”) over the next couple of seasons that derailed any hope they had. The Griese project was over as soon as it started.
Jake Plummer was the next attempt. He signed with the Broncos after a few years with the Cardinals, including a very memorable 1998 playoff season. Plummer won a lot of games in Denver and could execute Shanahan’s offense phenomenally, but he had one major problem. Turnovers. He had 20 INTs in 2004. Plummer also had a contentious relationship with Mike Shanahan, the Broncos media, and the fans. No image defines Plummer more than this. Love him or hate him, Plummer was going to be the free spirit he always was.
In 2005, though, things looked bright. The Broncos went 13-3. Plummer cut his turnovers way down and made the Pro Bowl. The Broncos receiving corps of old man Rod Smith and a bunch of unknowns were playing relatively well. The two-headed beast of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell was great. The defense was also brilliant. They had great LBs anchored by Al Wilson and a phenomenal secondary with Champ, Lynch, and Williams. Plummer wasn’t Elway, but the Broncos had returned to their heights of the late 90s. Could this team go to the big game? For the first time since Elway’s retirement the answer to this question wasn’t a resolute no.
As the Broncos hosted their first playoff game at the new Invesco Field, they couldn’t have drawn a harder match. The Patriots. Under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots were a stunning 10-0 in the playoffs and were looking to become the first threepeat in NFL history. But the Broncos weren’t a lock to lose. In the BB era, the Pats were 2-3 against the Broncos with the only win at Mile High occurring when the great Danny Kanell logged one of his two starts as a Bronco QB. In the 2005 season, the Patriots lost 28-20 to the Broncos. That was in the regular season though. Brady, and the Patriots as a whole, were a different beast in the playoffs. Their hard-nosed defense and grind-it-out offense was built for January. That day, however, it wasn’t. The Broncos won 27-13 thanks to one of the greatest non-scoring plays in NFL history. The Broncos were moving on to the AFC title game and thanks to the Colts lost to the Steelers, the game would be held a mile above sea level.
Where the game was held didn’t give the Broncos any advantage as they got embarrassed 34-17. Plummer threw two picks and had two fumbles. The Broncos backfield combined for only 67 yards and the team had less than 100 yards rushing all together. Pittsburgh dominated time of possession and had an incredibly efficient offense. Ben Roethlisberger, the 2nd-year QB of the Steelers who grew up idolizing John Elway, would hoist the Lamar Hunt trophy in Elway’s city. The Broncos, meanwhile, would go to the locker room with a whole lot of questions and not a lot of answers.
Plummer was a controversial figure within the Broncos. He was loved by his teammates because of his attitude. He was the everyman that resonated with an offense that really didn’t have a lot of stars. He never was one to crave the limelight nor did he take credit for the team’s success. He was just another cog in a machine. Shanahan, however, never was the biggest fan of Plummer. He thought the Broncos could also do a little bit better than the Snake. Gary Kubiak, then the OC, and his offensive assistant Troy Calhoun were the big pro-Plummer advocates and were credited for molding his Pro Bowl season in 2005. Both of them went to the Houston Texans in 2006. Plummer’s big advocates were gone. In their place was Mike Heimerdinger (or Dinger), a former Broncos assistant who was previously with the Titans and the Jets. Dinger did not like Plummer at all and wanted to replace him immediately. During his time in Tennessee, he was in close proximity to Vanderbilt and developed an affixation on the Commodores’ QB, Jay Cutler.
The Draft
Entering the 2006 NFL draft Shanahan had his eyes locked on one man, Matt Leinart. Shanahan was convinced that the Broncos had reached the highest they were ever going to reach with Jake Plummer. Yes, the Broncos had made three straight playoff berths and had just appeared in the AFC title game but that wasn’t enough for the Broncos. Pat Bowlen wasn’t going to settle for being just in the dance. With Leinart, the Broncos would be able to take their incredibly talented roster and perhaps return to the Super Bowl within a few seasons and be set for the next decade. However, the Broncos had the 29th pick and likely all these QBs would be gone by then. They weren’t planning to trade all the way up just to take a chance at QB.
Plans have a way of changing.
The Jets were in talks to trade Pro Bowl DE John Abraham to the Falcons. However, a third team was needed to make the numbers all line up. The Broncos stepped in to fill this role and the Broncos ended up trading up from #29 to #15 (the Broncos sent #29 to the Jets and their 3rd and 2007 4th to the Falcons). Now, purely by the actions of other teams, the Broncos were in position to take one of the QBs if the board fell in a certain way. Or not, as Broncos GM Ted Sundquist put it, ”I liked the deal for us. It was a chance to land a top-tier player (regardless of the position) before the draft even started, a rare opportunity in Denver. A third and a fourth seemed like pennies to gain the leverage that normally costs at least a second-round pick—or perhaps the alternative of losing eight to 10 games to earn the rights.”
When the draft started, Sundquist and Shanahan cautiously watched the draft unfold. One pick after another fell perfectly for the Broncos. The Texans and the Saints didn’t take QBs (for fairly obvious reasons: Kubiak wasn’t giving up on Carr yet and the Saints signed Drew Brees) and the Titans could take their potential superstar in Vince Young. Leinart (and Cutler) were both still on the board. The Jets, Packers, and 49ers were all not going to take QBs due to recent investments in the positions. Al Davis, who was operating at peak unpredictability, ended up taking Michael Huff. Two of the top three QBs were still available at #8. The Broncos were still at #15.
This prompted Shanahan to give the order to Sundquist, Start calling. Mike was going to get his guy.
The Bills were the first team, but they were locked in at #8 to take Donte Whitner. The Lions, who were giving up on Joey Harrington, could’ve taken a QB but decided to go with Ernie Sims. The Cardinals, who had old man (and at the time washed up) Kurt Warner on the roster were going to stay put at #10 to take their man. Their man just happened to be the Heisman winner from USC.
Shanny, as Sundquist would later recount, was ”visibly perturbed”
Sundquist then called the Rams, who were willing to trade their #11 selection for the cost of a third round pick. The Broncos, after internal debate, decided to do it and take Dinger’s (and to a lesser extent Sundquist’s) guy. Jay Cutler would be a Bronco.
With this selection, the Plummer era was over. There would be the illusion of a veteran incumbency and there would be the claims of wanting Cutler to ride the pine as he adjusts to the NFL, but Plummer would have a shadow lurking behind him for all the 2006 season. It may swallow him in camp or in the beginning of the regular season or even later in the season, but one day this shadow of the monolith would get him. The highest QB the Broncos have ever taken (still to this day!) in the NFL draft would assume his place soon enough. The Broncos, for the first time since the retirement of The Duke, looked like they may have found that young QB to be their star. The Broncos could find an identity again at the most important position in sports and could return to their glory days.
The 2006 offseason came and went. Cutler was elevated to backup and Plummer was kept at starter. No one in the media cared who was the starter though. It was all Cutler, all the time in the Denver sports media. Meanwhile, the Broncos started the year 7-2 (3-0 in the division and 7-1 in the AFC) and had one of the best defenses in the NFL. They looked like a safe bet to make the playoffs their 4th straight year with Plummer under center. Shanahan wasn’t happy with this start, however. He felt that with the Broncos defense they should be absolutely dominating the competition (he was right) and his response was to mount increasing pressure on Plummer (he was not right). After a late-game collapse against the Chargers, it was leaked to the press by an anonymous source (Hint: It was more likely than not Mike Shanahan) that the Broncos had given Plummer an ultimatum; win against KC next week or be benched. The Broncos lost 19-10 and true to his word, Shanny benched Plummer and Cutler would start the next week against Seattle. He gives us the best chance to win now, Shanahan said after the decision.
In retrospect, this decision was among the worst in Mike Shanahan’s coaching career. The veteran-heavy Broncos team loved Plummer’s attitude and style of leadership. His very down-to-earth, personal style made him loved by his teammates and a break from the Type A personality of Shanahan. They even named Plummer their captain. Much like seven years earlier when Shanahan went with Griese instead of Brister, Shanny would sacrifice winning today for a chance at winning tomorrow and would in the process alienate his team’s best players.
The Broncos would finish the season 2-3 and miss the playoffs thanks to an OT loss to the San Francisco 49ers. In the subsequent offseason, Plummer held to his promise and would retire (after a weird trade to the Bucs where the Bucs made $5 million off of a returned signing bonus check). Plummer was and still is one of the truest, realest people to ever play in the NFL. Broncos Country, and the NFL community at large, should remember his career better. During the After Elway era of 1999-2010 Plummer was unquestionably the best QB the Broncos had.
The 2007 season was fairly uneventful (sans Shanny icing Janikowski in Week 2). The Broncos finished the season 7-9 and were very inconsistent. Brandon Marshall emerged as a brightspot to group with Jay Cutler and the young Tony Scheffler. However, the writing was on the wall even then that Cutler would have his struggles. Cutler was sacked that season more than Plummer was in any of his seasons in Denver. The Broncos defense also struggled and wasn’t close to their 2004-2006 dominance. The Broncos were in a transitionary period. This was no more apparent than Shanahan’s sudden firing of Ted Sundquist in the middle of draft scouting in mid-March.
The Disaster
If the 2007 season was relatively uneventful, the 2008 season was the single most impactful season on the long-term future of the Broncos. What would unfold in this season would define and shape the Broncos to this day. The decisions made from the 2008 draft to the early months of 2009 would lead to the Broncos return to the Super Bowl and would once again give them identity and direction as a franchise.
Even though Shanny fired Sundquist, he did still go with his assessment that the Broncos needed to improve on the offensive line. With the 12th pick in the 2008 NFL draft (the highest first round pick not via trade during the Shanahan era) the Broncos took Ryan Clady out of Boise State. Clady was viewed as a prospect who may be a little too small to play left tackle at the next level and needed to improve some of his technical abilities. But he was a highly decorated lineman out of Boise State who played a key role in one of the greatest games in college football history. Clady would end up starting all 16 games his rookie year at LT and would give up only a half sack. He was named to the 2nd team All-Pro and started a 5 year stretch of domination at the position matched only by Joe Thomas from 2008-2012. He would end up being the last, and best, first round pick by Mike Shanahan in Denver.
The 2008 season as a whole showed how good the Broncos could become in the future and the great talent they had accumulated over the last few season. Perhaps Shanny’s gamble paid off. Brandon Marshall was a Pro Bowl receiver with over 1200 yards and 6 TDs. Tony Scheffler looked like he was becoming a pretty solid TE, putting up 645 yards. Ryan Clady became that anchor from which another dominating Broncos offensive line could be built around.
However, no young player garnered more attention than Jay Cutler. The QB who represented the Broncos change from short-term winning to long-term potential was finally playing like a #11 pick. Jay Cutler’s statline was nothing short of amazing for a 25 year old QB. He had 4526 passing yards, 25 TDs, 18 INTs, and an 86.0 passer rating. Those 4526 yards were the most for any Bronco in a single season at the time as was his 282.9 ypg. His 25 TDs were the 5th most for a Bronco QB in a single season at the time, but the seasons above him (Plummer in 2004, Elway in ‘95-’97) were all at least 30 years old. Cutler was only 25. His ceiling was sky high. The future looked bright for the Broncos and a great deal of that brightness came from #6, who looked like a surefire franchise QB. He wasn’t Elway, but he could be the exciting, marquee QB who gets people excited and talking. The next decade (or more!) was going to be a great offensive era in Broncos history.
This Mile High dream of Bronco fans everywhere didn’t work out.
It didn’t work because of three games. 180 minutes changed the course of Broncos (and NFL history) forever. If just one of those three games went the other way. If a fumbled ball rolled the other way, a FG missed, or any other of these little things happened the entirety of the next decade of the Broncos look different.
The 2008 season featured a weak AFC West. The Chargers had regressed from their 2006 and 2007 success and the Raiders/Chiefs were still in the dumpster. After Week 14, the Broncos were sitting pretty at 8-5 following their 24-17 victory over the horrid 2-11 Chiefs at Arrowhead when Brandon Marshall had 2 scores and Cutler had a 102.7 passer rating. The Chargers were in second place in the AFC West at 5-8 following their 34-7 victory over the hapless 3-10 Raiders.
It doesn’t take calculus to see what the magic number was for the Broncos. One. One win and the Broncos would have their first playoff berth since 2005. One single win would give the Broncos their first AFC West title since 2005. One meager, measly, little win would have the Broncos make the playoffs for the first time with this group of young offensive stars. All the defensive problems over the last few years with a revolving door at the CB2 spot and problems generating any pass rush or consistent defense would be gone. Any concerns in Mike Shanahan’s ability to adjust to an ever-changing football landscape would be gone. The man who Pat Bowlen called his “Coach for Life” may very well be able to live up to that title.
The Broncos first chance came in Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were among the best in the NFL during the 2008 season. They finished the season 12-4 and the NFC #2 seed. They were lead by the dual-headed backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart along with a great receiver in Steve Smith. The Broncos were good, but not that good, and lost 30-10 to the Panthers. Steve Smith has 165 yards and a TD on 9 catches and the backs combined for 2 TDs and 140 yards. Cutler had one of his weaker games of the season as he was sacked 3 times and had only 172 passing yards. This wasn’t an inexcusable loss, though. The Broncos were 7.5 point underdogs for a reason. A hostile road environment alongside a young team built around offense? That’s a recipe for a blowout loss. No problem, on to next week.
The Broncos next chance came the following week against the Bills. Before this game, the Bills were 6-8 (after starting the year 4-0) and looked defeated. They had just lost three straight games and were just waiting for another miserable season to be over and gone. This should’ve been an easy, home win for the Broncos who were 6.5 point favorites. Simply beat a weak Buffalo team and clinch a home playoff game.
This was easier said than done.
In one of the coldest games in the history of the Denver Broncos (kickoff temp was 17 degrees) the Broncos came out with a hot start. Shortly after the start of the 2nd quarter, the Broncos opened up a 13-0 lead after a 30 yard Matt Prater field goal. That FG (and an earlier 23 yarder) were foreshadowing of what would be the Broncos great downfall in this game. The Bills would score 16 unanswered points to stun the crowd at Invesco Field. The Broncos were in for a dogfight.
Before the end of the 3rd quarter, the Broncos would regain a 20-16 lead after Jay Cutler’s second rushing TD of the day (the only game of his career with two). Steve Johnson scored a 3-yard TD to give the Bills a 23-20 lead. Prater had a 43 yard field goal to tie the game up early in the 4th, but Fred Jackson’s 8 yard rush with 8:54 remaining gave the Bills their 30-23 upset over the Broncos.
A lot went wrong for the Broncos in this game. They went 2-6 on converting TDs in the Red Zone. Prater missed a 54 yard field goal at the end of the 1st half. Jay Cutler threw a goal-line pick in the 4th quarter which left more points on the floor. Regardless of the causes, the effect was clear. The Broncos blew their chance to win the AFC West before Week 17 and at home. After the Chargers won their previous two games, it would all come down to a play-in game at San Diego the following week.
The Broncos proceeded to get demolished 52-21 by the Chargers. It was a complete collapse and failure for the Denver Broncos. Philip Rivers only had 5 incompletions (on 20 attempts) and LaDainian Tomlinson hit paydirt three times on the night. Darren Sproles also got in on the action with two scores and a 115 yards rushing of his own.
The Chargers and the Broncos have always been one of the weaker AFC West rivalries. It doesn’t have near as much sheer contempt and open hatred that the Broncos have with the Raiders nor does it have as many really meaningful games (usually slugfests at Arrowhead) that they have with the Chiefs. However, from 2006-2008 the rivalry heated up to its hottest it has ever been due to the rivalry between Cutler and Rivers. The two young QBs, who looked like they’d be the class of the division (and maybe the conference) for years to come, had an animosity that started in a blowout Chargers victory against the Broncos. Rivers, along with some of his teammates, said some things to Cutler after the Broncos failed to convert on a fourth down. Cutler then proceeded to make an obscene gesture to the Chargers bench and after the game said “I’m just not that big of a fan of the guy,” Cutler said. “I don’t like how he carries himself, some of the stuff he does on the field.”
This Week 17 divisional championship game was played under the backdrop of this rivalry and also the events of the first Broncos/Chargers game of the season. This was the infamous “Hochuli” game where Ed Hochuli, the league’s most recognizable official, had one of the worst blown calls in the modern NFL. The Chargers held a 38-31 lead with less than a minute to go in the game. Jay Cutler went back to pass and clearly dropped the ball and the ball was subsequently cleanly and visibly recovered by a Chargers player. However, Hochuli ruled that it was an incomplete pass. Instant replay showed that it was a fumble, but because of NFL rules the Broncos retained possession. The Broncos then proceeded to score off of a 4 yard Eddie Royal reception and then made the two-point conversion to win the game 39-38. After the game, Hochuli admitted he made the wrong call. While it isn’t known for certain, one has to imagine the Chargers’ locker room was well aware of this going into Week 17 and was going to leave nothing to chance. They would allow no room for the error of an official to cost them a playoff trip.
The Firing
After the Broncos loss they fell to 8-8 on the season and would miss the playoffs for the third straight year. This would be the start of the longest streak of missing the playoffs in Pat Bowlen’s tenure as owner. Now, Bowlen had been really patient with his coaches. Almost too patient. With the exception of Wade Phillips (who was really a lame duck coach until Shanahan accepted the job), Bowlen only had two coaches in his 24 years of ownership. He kept Dan Reeves a few years longer than he probably should have and only fired him when it became apparent that he was going to trade Elway. He probably kept Mike a few years longer than the Broncos should have.
But Bowlen and Shanny were really close friends and he was the constant presence for the Broncos over the last decade and a half. He was the greatest coach in team history and was one of the greatest football minds ever to grace the gridiron. While he was always a bit aloof with the people side of coaching and had a revolving door at defensive coordinator, he could look past it all for his friend. Winning cures all.
However, there wasn’t winning anymore and winning is what Bowlen cared most about and everything else was second to that. The Broncos were the first team since 1967 to blow a three game division lead with only three games left. That was simply unacceptable. The fans were angry. Pat Bowlen was upset. The players were stunned.
But no one seriously thought there was any chance that Shanahan would’ve been fired over it. After all, the young players he hand-selected were the foundation of the Broncos success during the 2008 season. As they matured and became more refined, developed NFL players, it stands to reason that the Broncos would’ve done even better. If Cutler was already this good at 25, imagine how good he would be in a few years! Right?
Shanahan was briefed on the team’s salary cap that morning going into the 2009 season in order for the staff to prepare for free agency. After that, he was called into Pat Bowlen’s office. Shanahan has said he thought they were going to discuss their lunch plans for that day. He was blindsided with what the true nature of the meeting was. The “Coach for Life” was no longer.
After the news, Pat Bowlen and the Denver Broncos released this statement: “After giving this careful consideration, I have concluded that a change in our football operations is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos. This is certainly a difficult decision, but one that I feel must be made and which will ultimately be in the best interests of all concerned.”
The next day the team held press conferences. First Pat Bowlen spoke, then Mike Shanahan spoke. The most poignant and oddly enough foreboding piece of Bowlen’s remarks was when he said "I may end up regretting this decision. But right now, I'm very comfortable with the decision, that we've got to go in another direction."
Pat Bowlen didn’t know it then but the decisions made over the next few months would upend the entire Denver Broncos franchise and send it to the lowest of lows.
Jay Cutler was mad and critical of the firing of both Mike Shanahan and his positional coach Jeremy Bates. Sundquist said, ”Bates had a young and fiery personality that seemed to resonate with Cutler. His way of communicating with his young quarterback struck a chord, and many of the weaknesses we'd seen at Vanderbilt were slowly being chipped away: improved footwork, avoiding the sack, progression through routes, finding the outlet.”
The Hiring
The Broncos have had 15 head coaches in team history (well 16 if you count interim coach Eric Studesville). They’ve had good coaches, bad coaches, and coaches somewhere in the between. They’ve had coaches who have been very loose and easy going. They’ve had uptight, by the books coaches. They’ve had football savants and people persons. The Broncos have won with all kinds of coaches. John Fox was a bit more of a player’s coach than Dan Reeves, but both were successful in Denver. While the coaches in the early years of the franchise left a little to be desired (though to be fair so did everything else about the franchise), in more recent decades the Broncos have had very good coaching.
Except one. One big black mark on the post-merger Broncos. One giant failure of Pat Bowlen’s tenure as owner.
Josh McDaniels.
After the Broncos fired Shanahan, the wheels of speculation started turning in fan forums and local media about who would be next coach of the Broncos. Names like Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Jim Fassel, and Steve Mariucci were thrown around. Even Bob Stoops, from Pat Bowlen’s alma mater of Oklahoma, was tossed as a possible successor. With all this speculation, a clear consensus had emerged. The Broncos would be hiring a veteran coach and they would want a clear division between coach and GM. Perhaps Head Coach Mike Shanahan was worth the job, but General Manager Mike Shanahan wasn’t worth it. Teams were starting to specialize in this role and the Broncos were looking like they would hop on this bandwagon.
Enter a certain coordinator from the New England Patriots.
Josh McDaniels was hot stuff in NFL coaching circles. He was the architect of one of the greatest offenses in NFL history with the 2007 Patriots. After Brady went down with injury the following season, he coached Matt Cassel (who made no collegiate starts) to have a pretty decent season and lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record (without a playoff berth, becoming one of just three teams in league history to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs). As attractive as a coaching prospect he was, he really didn’t make sense for the Broncos. They already had a great offensive staff in place with coaches like Jeremy Bates and Bobby Turner. They also were (supposedly) wanting a veteran coach with experience in winning and leading a Super Bowl team. Hiring McDaniels would be a pretty significant and perplexing move by the Broncos. However, when the Broncos first starter their search, the wagons quickly started circling around McDaniels. On January 11th, 2009 the Denver Broncos hired McDaniels.
Following this, all hell broke loose.
While this picture from the 2009 AFL throwback jersey announcement may make people think all was peaches and creams in the Mile High city, it was not. On February 28th, 2009 it became public that McDaniels was trying to get involved in a Buccaneers/Patriots/Broncos trade that would’ve lead to Cutler being traded to Tampa Bay and Matt Cassel being traded to Denver.
If Cutler was mad before, he was absolutely livid now. He was quoted by Mike Klis as saying, ”My understanding at this point is they’re trying to trade me. We’ll see where I end up at. I liked it here, I liked playing with these guys, but obviously they’re not going to let me have that opportunity”.
McDaniels, in his defense, had only considered this idea because Cutler had twice previously (after the firing of Shanahan and the firing of Bates) demanded a trade. However, Cutler had cooled his demands a little bit and started thinking that working with the football genius might not be the worst idea in the world.
Communication wasn’t that great between McDaniels and Cutler. Twelve days later after that first trade report was made, McDaniels and Cutler met face-to-face in his office. Cutler was expecting a cordial meeting between two grown men to talk about their differences and problems and reach a peaceful resolution. All Cutler wanted was one assurance from his new coach (and new GM!); Can you at least tell me you won’t trade me?.
McDaniels handled this inquiry with all the grace of a hippopotamus and delicacy of a dump truck. He started his rant saying that All players can be traded. McDaniels then went on to say to Cutler’s face that he wanted to get Cassel in Denver because he raised him from the ground up and that he wasn’t going to apologize for trying to trade him. After this, Cutler left Dove Valley and would never return. His agent formally submitted a trade demand to the Broncos. Pat Bowlen tried to reach out to his soon-to-be star quarterback to see if he could mediate the feud between the two men but it was to no avail. Cutler wouldn’t take any calls from anyone associated with the Broncos. He was done with the team that tried to abandon him for a big question mark. He was done with the team that fired his coaches and ostracized him in the span of just a few short weeks.
Bowlen relented and gave McDaniels his blessing to trade Cutler, the player who just three years earlier the Broncos had more or less blown up their Super Bowl contending team for. Cutler would end up being traded to the Bears for a package involving draft picks and Kyle Orton. McDaniels didn’t get his coveted jewel as Cassel was traded to the Chiefs a month earlier. Everyone had a sour taste in their mouth after this situation. The Broncos were without their best asset. Perhaps Bowlen was already regretting this decision.
Cutler would go on to never reach the peaks of his 2008 season again. In his years in the Windy City, Cutler would never make the Pro Bowl and would only have one playoff berth. He had a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and a lot of injury problems. He recently came out of retirement to reunite with his former offensive coordinator Adam Gase in Miami. Perhaps the story of Jay Cutler has one more chapter left in it.
The Broncos fate was a lot would be a lot worse after that trade. The next two years would be the most tumultuous and stressful time in Broncos history. McDaniels clearly lacked the people skills to be a successful NFL head coach. Young players like Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler, and Peyton Hills were all ran out of town by McDaniels fiery, tyrannical personality. McDaniels got the Broncos involved in videotaping scandal reminiscent of the one New England was involved in a few years prior. He squandered a treasure trove of draft picks including the infamous Alphonso Smith trade that lead to Earl Thomas ending up a Seahawk. He had outbursts on the field that would put Bo Pelini to shame and his blowups at Dove Valley were magnitudes larger than those in public. After a promising 6-0 start to his coaching tenure, he went 5-17 the rest of the way. The Broncos were a disgrace. The Broncos were in the dumpster. For the first time in Pat Bowlen’s tenure as owner the Broncos were, well, a joke.
The Return
There was really only one person who could save the Broncos. Only one man could lead the greatest comeback in Broncos history.
Both parties say it was a coincidence and that the date was planned a while in advance, but on December 6th, 2010 John Elway (along with his wife) had dinner with Pat Bowlen (along with his wife) at Elway’s Steakhouse. This was the date that the Mistake was purged. A week after the SpyGate II news broke, Bowlen had enough. The losing, the roster being depleted were tolerable enough if Bowlen believed the coach had a long-term plan. But sullying the Broncos reputation and name? That crossed a line. Bowlen called McDaniels into his office and dismissed him from his job effective immediately. McDaniels’ mentor always did operate on the better to cut a guy a year too earlier than a year too late philosophy.
Around a month after this firing, Elway was brought in to run the football side of the Denver Broncos. This hiring was criticized by the media and by fellow executives due to the lack of experience and placing him in total control of football. Mike Florio lambasted the move, saying, Sorry, folks, but we remain very skeptical about this. Elway is getting the job without paying the dues. Watching film with his father and running an AFL franchise isn’t the kind of experience necessary to run an NFL team, and it’s sort of an insult to the men who have earned their stripes by grinding for years, learning the business from the bottom up and earning each next rung on the ladder. It’s almost as if Bowlen and Ellis don’t know what else to do, so they’ll give the keys to a guy whose only real qualifications are his ability to throw a ball and the fact that his presence will sell tickets and/or restore hope, false as it may be. A fellow AFC executive when asked about the rumors of Elway’s hiring said in a text, “Please let the Elway rumor be true!”
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
For a while there was this narrative that McDaniels was this good drafter who put the foundation of the Broncos success in the Elway years (especially early on) but this really couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, McDaniels did bring in young talent like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Zane Beadles, and David Bruton Jr. but it would be shocking if he didn’t. Teams are allotted seven draft picks at the beginning of each draft cycle so seven would be the “normal” draft. Over a two-year draft cycle that number would be 14. In McDaniels tenure as HC/GM, the Broncos had 19 draft picks (10 in ‘09 and 9 in ‘10). With five more draft picks (a 35.7% increase over the normal) it would be incredibly shocking if the Broncos didn’t get something out of those. McDaniels also made some incredibly boneheaded selections like Tebow in the first round, drafting Darcel McBath, and the aforementioned Alphonso Smith trade. Elway didn’t have a lot to work with when he took the reins because of the flamethrower McDaniels took to the Broncos. Elway also had to deal with the impending free agency of star CB Champ Bailey, who was showing hesitation to staying in Denver because of the direction the franchise had taken and McDaniels pulling a four-year contract offer in October of 2010. Lastly, Elway had the problem of fan support and interest being at an all-time low. The last would be the easiest to fix. With #7 back, there was hope again in the Rockies.
In his first major move as GM, Elway hired John Fox as coach. Fox would go on to win four division titles in four years and would give stability to the Broncos. Him being a very hands-off, player’s coach was the perfect type of coach the Broncos should’ve hired back in 2009. Shortly thereafter, he got Champ Bailey to sign a contract that would lead to the future Hall of Famer (and frankly someone whose jersey should be retired) ending his career a Denver Bronco. Then, in his first draft, Elway made perhaps the best first round pick in team history.
The Broncos held the 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft (the highest pick the Broncos have ever had in the post-merger era). In hindsight, some think that picking Von Miller was a no-brainer and everyone had him pegged as a future Hall of Famer and top 5 player in the NFL. Back in 2011 pre-draft discussion, this really wasn’t the case. There was a lot of pre-draft discussion that the Broncos should go to Marcell Dareus or Patrick Peterson to shore up their defense or perhaps even draft a QB like Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert. A lot of draft analysts and armchair GMs said that Von Miller wouldn’t fit in the 4-3 the Broncos would be running under Dennis Allen and John Fox. Nonetheless, the Broncos took the Aggie despite all the question marks.
The rest is football history. The Broncos were back. In the six years of football czar John Elway, he’s orchestrated perhaps the greatest era of Broncos history. They’ve been at or above .500 for six straight seasons. They’ve won five division titles. They’ve won two AFC title. From 2011 to present, the Broncos are 2nd in wins. And of course, who could forget the exclamation point.. The darkest days in Broncos history were behind them. All the bad personnel decisions, coaching hires, and directionless moves were gone. Pat Bowlen, who had wanted Elway in the Front Office since the day he retired all the way back in 1999, had gotten his man. His franchise was in good shape.
This wasn’t the most conventional or concise disaster in Broncos history. It wasn’t a singular loss, it wasn’t a boneheaded play. It wasn’t one individual moment. Rather, a series of bad decisions lead to one of the biggest collapses in NFL history. This collapse lead to a team inadvertently blowing up their entire young foundation and putting the franchise in the lowest point it has ever been. But like a good sports movie, it has a happy ending.
If you read all of that then I hope you learned as much as I did!
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