- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For a franchise that was accused of turning stale a few years ago, the Denver Broncos have become pros at taking fresh approaches.
For the second time in three training camps, Denver has a new head coach. John Fox takes over after the disastrous 23-month Josh McDaniels regime. From 1995 to 2008, the Broncos were the picture of coaching constancy. It was the Mike Shanahan show. Everyone knew it.
But the Broncos have been in flux and have gone from one of the better-run organizations in the NFL to a team that is grasping for an identity. Denver hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2005 season. It hasn’t had a winning record since 2006.
In comes Fox, who is experiencing a rebirth himself after spending the past nine seasons in Carolina. Fox’s biggest task in Denver is to restore normalcy after the rocky McDaniels era and rebuild a winner.
“There has been instability here, good, bad or indifferent, that’s just the way it has been,” said Fox, whose team will be on its sixth defensive coordinator (former New Orleans secondary coach Dennis Allen) in six seasons.
“We have to build our program here. But I think it can be done. There are good pieces here.”
Many Denver players have raved about Fox. They appreciate his professionalism, his structure and his attention to detail. They believe there is a plan in place, and they trust Fox’s experience. The players also seem to appreciate the fact that Fox is simply in Denver to coach. The front office is run by legendary Denver quarterback John Elway and general manager Brian Xanders. Both Shanahan and McDaniels made personnel decisions.
“I get a great feel for Coach Fox,” star cornerback Champ Bailey said. “He’s one of the better coaches I’ve been around ... I like it that he is focused on coaching us on the field. That’s where he wants to be.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Fix the defense. While the Tim Tebow-Kyle Orton competition has garnered much attention, the real key issue in Denver’s camp has been the defense. This unit was ranked No. 32 in the NFL last season and was generally awful in every major statistical category. Fox and his defensive staff have taken a hands-on approach to improve this group, which is a mix of veterans and youngsters.
If the reconstructed defensive front plays well and rookie linebacker Von Miller makes an instant impact, this group has a chance to improve quickly. It seems to be working early. Denver’s defense has been capable in camp and it looked solid against Dallas in the preseason opener Thursday. Injuries to defensive tackles Ty Warren (who signed to a two-year, $8 million deal) and Marcus Thomas create more uncertainty at a key spot for Denver. It needs to get help there by Kevin Vickerson, Brodrick Bunkley, Jeremy Jarmon and Derrick Harvey in the rest of the preseason. Warren could be out for a long period and Thomas will miss the rest of the preseason.
2. Clarity at quarterback: The Broncos’ camp has been about getting the first-team ready to go with Orton. There is no question Orton is the starter now. If the team struggles, Tebow could enter the picture, but players love playing with Orton and the team thinks he currently gives them the best chance to win now.
Of course, the lack of clarity was team-induced. It spent the immediate days after the lockout trying to trade Orton to Miami. After that fell through, Orton took control of the offense quickly and has given Denver no choice but to make him the starter, TebowMania be dammed.
3. Establish a ground game: Although Fox is a defensive-minded coach, he has a strict philosophy on offense. He believes in stuffing the ball down an opponent’s throat and killing the clock. Denver struggled to run the ball under McDaniels, and Fox said adding a veteran tailback was paramount.
The Broncos jumped on Willis McGahee when he was cut by the Ravens. Expect McGahee and third-year player Knowshon Moreno to combine for plenty of carries. They have worked well in camp, and they combined for 40 yards on six carries in the preseason opener at Dallas. This camp has been spent getting these two involved in the offense as much as possible.
ELVIS IS BACK IN THE BUILDING
The Broncos are raving about the play of Elvis Dumervil. After leading the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009 and getting a contract worthy of that performance, Dumervil tore a pectoral muscle in early August last year and missed the entire 2010 season.
There was concern that his rust and a move back to the 4-3 under Fox could hamper the smallish Dumervil. He flourished in McDaniels’ 3-4 system after being a solid player in Shanahan’s 4-3 defense. Dumervil beefed up to more than 260 pounds, and he‘s been impressive under Fox.
The Broncos expect Dumervil and Miller to become one of the better pass-rush tandems in the league.
RELYING ON THE ROOKIES
One of the most exciting aspects of this camp for Denver has been the play of its rookies. The Broncos thought they drafted well in April, and after three weeks, they are thrilled with what they see.
“I think we had an excellent draft,” Fox said.
Added Dumervil: “This is the best group of rookies I’ve seen here in awhile.”
Leading the way is Miller, who was the No. 2 overall draft pick. The Texas A&M product has been as advertised. Teammates rave about his speed, explosiveness and his ability to make plays. They expect instant success.
Second-round pick Rahim Moore is vying for a starting spot with Kyle McCarthy at safety and has shown he is ready for NFL play. Right tackle Orlando Franklin, middle linebacker Nate Irving, tight end Julius Thomas and safety Quentin Carter are all expected to be major contributors. This is exactly what this 4-12 team needed -- a solid group of youngsters to build around after a couple of shaky years of drafting by McDaniels.
Safety Brian Dawkins may be turning 38 this year, but the Broncos are still getting a lot out of him. He works well with Fox’s staff, and his leadership has been uncanny during camp.
Defensive end Robert Ayers has been getting chances to break out in camp, but he has been slow to show progress. He was the No. 18 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Receiver Brandon Lloyd has been slowed by swelling in his knee. Still, the team expects him to contribute. Lloyd had a breakout season in 2010 -- 77 catches for 1,448 yards.
The second-round draft class of 2009 has been a bust. Tight end Richard Quinn is hurt and could be the odd man out. Safety Darcel McBath has yet to develop, and cornerback Alphonso Smith (who Denver traded its 20101 first-round pick for) was shipped out to Detroit last year. This was supposed to be the nucleus of future success, and Denver hasn’t seen results.
The Broncos’ passing game struggled in red-zone and third-down situations. That has been a point of emphasis during this camp.
Franklin has struggled in pass projection. Still, the team is committed to him.
Denver is excited about second-year receiver Eric Decker. Expect Decker to get a chance to contribute a lot.
The Broncos like what they have in new tight end Daniel Fells. He is solid as a receiver and as a blocker. He should help in both phases of the game.
Right cornerback Andre' Goodman has been steady, and the team is confident he can play well in 2011.
Second-year center J.D. Walton continues to improve, and he has shown strong leadership for a young player.