Josh McDaniels is suddenly no longer being compared to Mike Shanahan, the man he replaced in Denver.
In the past five days, McDaniels’ name has been more connected to Wade Phillips.
That’s what happens after one of the worst days in team history. McDaniels was in charge of the Broncos on Sunday when they were dismantled at home 59-14 by the rival Oakland Raiders. The Raiders came into the game with a 2-4 record, coming off a loss to the previously winless San Francisco 49ers and they were playing their backup quarterback.
It was a total embarrassment. The sold-out Invesco Field at Mile High crowd departed early in droves. Those who stayed until the bitter end savaged McDaniels as he left the field. It reminded longtime residents of the Rocky Mountains of the abuse Phillips took when Oakland beat the Broncos by 32 points in 1994.
That was Phillips’ second and final season as Denver’s coach. Denver owner Pat Bowlen quickly ended the Phillips era and hired Shanahan, who had a mostly good 14-year run before he was replaced by McDaniels after a late-season collapse in 2008.
McDaniels’ popularity in Denver was uneven prior to the Oakland game. He caught the ire of some fans for the handling of the departures of standouts Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. But others liked the energy of McDaniels, 34, and liked the direction he was taking the offense. In short, the jury was still out on McDaniels, whose team was competitive in the early stages of the 2010 season, even though it was 2-4.
But Denver doesn’t take kindly to being blown out by the Raiders at home. In the days since the loss, talk radio in Denver has been dominated by fans who are calling for his head. Readers have flooded my AFC West mailbag daily this week with questions about McDaniels’ job security. Adam Schefter addressed the suddenly hot-button subject this week in his mailbag on ESPN.com.
McDaniels was asked about fan frustration in his news conference Wednesday. He didn’t shy away from the subject.
“It bothers me because I understand the frustration and the passion of the people in this state, in this city and in this organization,” McDaniels said. “I think that we mirror that here. The players do, the staff does, I do -- I know that [Bowlen], [chief operating officer] Joe [Ellis] and everybody does. The best way for us to try to help remedy that is to work and to win."
The following is an examination of the pros and cons of Denver moving away from McDaniels at the end of this season.
Pros of firing McDaniels
The Oakland loss: This was a legacy defeat. It will be the signature game of McDaniels’ Denver tenure until he reaches the playoffs. You can’t be in charge of a team that has taken this type of whipping and make observers believe your team is going in the right direction.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. came away with this observation after the loss to the Raiders: “This thing was over in the first quarter, and the Broncos did not tackle, they did not play with any gap discipline and there was very little pride in this performance. And this kind of a loss can have lasting implications all season.”
McDaniels apologized to ownership, the team and fans after the loss. It is clear he knows the potential ramifications of the game.
4-13: McDaniels’ troubles extend beyond the loss to the Raiders. Since his team opened the 2009 season with a 6-0 run to begin his NFL head-coaching career, the Broncos have been one of the worst teams in the NFL. Denver is 4-13 since the 6-0 start.
Seventeen games is a large enough sample size to conclude that these are the real Broncos under McDaniels and not the team that started 6-0 (and ended up blowing a 3.5-game lead in the AFC West).
Another damaging statistic is that the Broncos are 0-4 at home against AFC West opponents under McDaniels. The Broncos were almost always competitive under Shanahan. That has not been the case so far under McDaniels. It is a legitimate question to ask if it will ever happen.
Questionable decisions: McDaniels is one of Denver’s primary decision-makers despite him never being in that role before.
Of course, his most scrutinized decision came before he ever roamed the sideline in Denver. McDaniels traded Cutler, a 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback, after the two fought when Cutler caught wind of McDaniels wanting to trade for Matt Cassel, who excelled for him in New England in 2008. Cutler was sent to Chicago for a load of draft picks after a five-week saga.
This offseason, McDaniels traded Marshall to Miami. While Marshall and McDaniels had their issues, Marshall had plenty of problems in Denver in his three seasons in Denver before McDaniels came to town.
McDaniels has had so-so success in free agency and the draft. In 2009, McDaniels traded Denver’s 2010 No. 1 pick (No. 14) to take cornerback Alphonso Smith in the second round. After Smith struggled as a rookie and in camp this summer, he was shipped to Detroit for a reserve tight end on cut day in September.
McDaniels also has jettisoned two running backs from Shanahan’s final draft class in Denver -- Peyton Hillis and Ryan Torain. Both youngsters are playing well elsewhere while Denver has the NFL’s worst-ranked run offense. Days after tackle Tyler Polumbus was cut and claimed by Detroit this summer, the Lions flipped him to Seattle for a draft pick.
Moves such as these have all made observers question if the task is too big for McDaniels at this point of his career.
Cons of firing McDaniels
Passing offense: There’s no denying McDaniels’ ability to coach offense, especially in the passing game. He has made quarterback Kyle Orton -- a throw-in in the Cutler trade -- a legitimate standout quarterback.
Receiver Brandon Lloyd has enjoyed career resurgence under McDaniels, and receiver Demaryius Thomas looks to have a future in the NFL. Denver could be explosive under McDaniels, who was the architect New England’s record-breaking offense in 2007.
Rash of injuries: Prior to the Oakland game, it was fairly impressive that the Broncos had been competitive in three of their four losses because all of the injuries the Broncos have endured.
The injuries started early in camp. The biggest blow was when Pro Bowl linebacker Elvis Dumervil was lost for the season with a pectoral injury a week into camp. Dumervil is Denver’s best defensive player and he led the NFL with 17 sacks last year.
Several players, including starter Knowshon Moreno, have dealt with injuries. It seems every week the Broncos have been dealing with a significant injury. Yes, that is part of life in the NFL, but perhaps McDaniels will buy some time because of the onslaught of injuries.
Tebow Factor: McDaniels' decision to draft Tim Tebow could end up being a reason to fire him. Or it could end up being a reason to keep him. McDaniels should get a chance to develop Tebow, whom McDaniels took at No. 25 in April after dealing three picks for the former Florida quarterback.
While Tebow was a polarizing draft figure, McDaniels had no reservations. He thinks Tebow can be a star. But it may take time for him to develop. Orton was given a one-year contract extension during the summer, so Tebow probably won’t get a chance to start until 2012.
I’m not sure Denver’s brass will want to fire McDaniels before he proves he can make Tebow a franchise quarterback, and McDaniels’ track record working with quarterbacks is intriguing. There’s no guarantee any coach who replaces McDaniels would be a believer in Tebow.
Conclusion: I generally think an NFL coach deserves three seasons to build a program, and I think that is the case with McDaniels. I do know Denver’s ownership really likes McDaniels and trusts him. There has been silence from the top in Denver in the days since the Oakland debacle, but that is to be expected.
I think he is safe, unless, of course, there are a few more humiliations like the Oakland loss in Denver’s final 10 games. McDaniels didn’t do himself any favors with this loss, but talk of his demise may be premature at this point.