Denver Broncos' gallop slows to a trot

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

For six games, the Denver Broncos were the NFL's most surprising success story as a rookie head coach and an underappreciated quarterback strung together victories against the backdrop of an offseason filled with negative headlines and turbulence.

But the storyline has changed considerably over the last week and a half, and now it's unclear which version of the Broncos -- the one that beat three division leaders en route to the 6-0 start or the one that has failed to keep things from unraveling in consecutive lopsided defeats -- will play the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field.

"We have to go back to work," linebacker Andra Davis said after the first of the Broncos' losses 10 days ago in Baltimore. "Who said we'd go 16-0?"

Few observers, it seemed, expected the Broncos to be even competitive, much less unbeaten through October, when the season began. The Broncos' offseason melodrama began when owner Pat Bowlen ousted his two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, Mike Shanahan, and replaced him with Josh McDaniels, the boyish-looking offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots who, at 33, is the league's second-youngest head coach.

McDaniels didn't exactly get a chance to ease into the job, quickly finding himself in the middle of a clash with quarterback Jay Cutler that led to Cutler being traded to the Chicago Bears, and later being involved in more controversy with wide receiver Brandon Marshall during the preseason. Despite all that, McDaniels and the Broncos thrived and beat the Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys and the Patriots -- all of them now in or tied for first place in their divisions -- during the six-game opening run.

That has given way to defeats to the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers by a combined margin of 58-17, and now McDaniels faces the task of trying to find a way to recapture the early-season magic.

"You can find out just as much about one another and your team and your staff through the adversity of a loss as you can through six wins," McDaniels said in Baltimore after the 30-7 defeat to the Ravens. "We're going to find out how we respond. . . . This is always one of those things where you face a little adversity with a loss and then you realize that maybe some of the things that you thought were good enough just aren't good enough.

"Even the things that you feel like you're doing well, after a loss become more glaring and you really take the time to evaluate what you are good at and what you're not good at. Some of the things that you think that you're pretty strong in those areas, you need to address those and become stronger. . . . What matters the most is how you're playing at the end of the season, not in September. We've got a lot of work to do, and we can get better."

The winning formula for the Broncos early on included dominating play by a defense overseen by Mike Nolan, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and former defensive coordinator of the Redskins and Ravens. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil had 10 sacks during the 6-0 start, and the secondary, rebuilt in the offseason with the addition of cornerback Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill to go with holdover cornerback Champ Bailey, was more than doing its part.

On offense, the Broncos were getting steady play from Kyle Orton, the unheralded quarterback obtained from the Bears in the Cutler trade. Marshall was highly productive after returning from a preseason suspension imposed by McDaniels and the Broncos for conduct detrimental to the team. That was precipitated by a practice-field episode in which Marshall was reported to have performed lackadaisically in drills and punted the ball away following one drill.

The fast start had Bowlen talking publicly about Marshall being rewarded at some point with the sort of lucrative new contract that the wide receiver had been seeking during the offseason and preseason, when Marshall reportedly asked to be traded if a new deal was not forthcoming. The Broncos were running the ball well enough with their two new tailbacks, rookie first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno and free agent addition Correll Buckhalter, to keep opposing defenses honest.

But then came the loss in Baltimore and Monday night's 28-10 defeat at home to the Steelers, and suddenly the Broncos have issues to be addressed. The Denver defense, still ranked third in the league, allowed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to match a single-game team record by completing 80 percent of his passes in a 20-for-25 clinic, then permitted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw three second-half touchdown passes Monday.

Dumervil has managed only half a sack in the two losses, and the offense has been far from imposing. Orton hasn't managed a touchdown pass in either of the past two games and threw three interceptions against the Steelers, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The running game has all but disappeared lately, and the Broncos have been left searching for answers.

"Offensively everybody has to play better, myself included," Orton said in Baltimore. "I'm the leader of this offense and when it doesn't go right, it's on me. So we'll go back to work and make sure we get things fixed."

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