Mike Shanahan churned the Broncos' roster again in search of a Super Bowl return, but he's farther away than ever
For most of the last seven seasons, Denver coach Mike Shanahan has acted like an impatient fantasy league owner, quickly turning over the starting lineup when things didn't go well. In five of those seasons he opened with at least eight starters who weren't in the lineup the previous September, including a league-high 14 this year. Such moves might have arched some eyebrows in past seasons but didn't elicit widespread second-guessing because Denver did relatively well on the field.
Things could be different this year, now that the Broncos (2--3) have lost three straight and are off to their worst start since 2000. Equally troubling is that each week the defense has allowed more yards and points than it did the previous game. At times in Sunday's 41--3 pounding by the Chargers at Invesco Field—Denver's worst home loss since 1966—there appeared to be a lack of urgency in some players. "I don't know if I've ever been more embarrassed," Shanahan said of the loss.
Some players echoed that sentiment. "Coming into this year we had great expectations," said veteran safety John Lynch. "We felt like we had a squad that could compete for a championship. When you go through a game like this, a stretch like this, that type of mentality can be broken."
Since winning their second of back-to-back Super Bowls under Shanahan in January 1999, the Broncos have a 1--4 postseason record. More often than not, Shanahan took a broom to the roster after each year. There were only four changes in 2006, largely because the Broncos were coming off a 13--3 record and an AFC Championship Game appearance.
After last year's 9--7 season, the turnover was radical: eight new starters on offense and six on defense (including cornerback Dre' Bly, replacing the late Darrent Williams). In addition D.J. Williams moved from starting outside linebacker to the middle. Overseeing the D is new assistant head coach Jim Bates, formerly coordinator in Green Bay and Miami. "We're always trying to upgrade our team," Shanahan said before the loss to San Diego. "That is quite a few guys [this year], but I thought it gives us the best chance to win a championship."
It's apparent, however, that even with the new players the defense lacks the right personnel for Bates's schemes. He requires big, physical tackles who can occupy blockers and allow the linebackers to flow freely to the ball. But free-agent tackle Sam Adams hasn't played up to expectations, and Williams is still feeling his way in the middle.
The inability to play opponents straight-up has caused Bates to take chances. On Sunday he put linebacker Ian Gold on slot receiver Vincent Jackson on second-and-33 from the San Diego 39. Jackson quickly got behind Gold for a 45-yard reception. Afterward, Chargers back LaDainian Tomlinson told a Broncos defender, "That's not right. You guys need to talk to your coaches."
This year's moves are drawing attention not only because of the Broncos' struggles but also because of the backgrounds of some of the new players. Shanahan never has been afraid to take chances on guys who have had troubles off the field ( Dale Carter, Daryl Gardener, Maurice Clarett, Todd Sauerbrun) or underperformed on it ( Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown, Ron Dayne). But this year's crop might represent Shanahan's biggest roll of the dice. He traded up to draft defensive linemen Marcus Thomas and Jarvis Moss, each of whom failed drug tests at Florida, and signed a free-agent running back, Travis Henry, who was one positive drug test from a one-year suspension. While Thomas and Moss have had no issues, Henry has since allegedly tested positive for marijuana; he's contesting the result in court, and if he loses, he'd be gone for the rest of the year.