Ask Broncos fans to name the most hated team figure of the last fifteen years and nearly everybody will automatically answer, "Josh McDaniels." To be certain, the Broncos were dismal under his watch. He orchestrated some much maligned trades, made a plethora of questionable draft picks and, most unforgivable of all, he set the table for the worst Broncos season since 1982.
The Broncos crumbled under McDaniels. That's a given. But just two years later, look how far the Broncos have come. In professional, draft-based sports, it's often easier to rise from the ashes than from mediocrity -- and were it not for Josh McDaniel's tenure in Denver, the Broncos would not be a legitimate Super Bowl contender today.
To begin, let's look at the things McDaniels unquestionably did right, few though they may be. Despite poor production at first, and with the help of Peyton Manning, his 2010 draft has turned out to be more than good. The pair of wide receivers taken under McDaniels are both putting up top ten numbers, with Demaryius Thomas fourth in receiving yards ahead of such dynamos as Wes Welker, A.J. Green and Roddy White. Eric Decker is tied for third in touchdowns with Brandon Marshall, Victor Cruz and Rob Gronkowski. Both are in the top fifteen for receptions -- impressive considering Peyton Manning is an equal-opportunity quarterback. If you're open, he'll find you, which means both Decker and Thomas have done an excellent job getting open.
Maybe you're saying, "But Manning made these receivers." Partially true. But Demaryius began his dominant streak in the second half of 2011, under none other than Tim Tebow. And we'll get to Manning in a bit.
The other three of 2010's first five picks were Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton and the infamous Tim Tebow. Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton are both better than average starters at their positions. The two helped Tebow and the Broncos lead the league in rushing in 2011 and, though Walton is out for the season with an injury, Beadles remains an integral part of the Broncos top-three offense.
So the only really bad pick of the 2010 draft for the Broncos was Tebow, who helped restore the fans' enthusiasm in the franchise. And hate him though you might, the Broncos would not have made the playoffs last year without him.
Now let's talk about the moves that got McDaniels fired. The worst of them was losing Brandon Marshall, who is playing better this year than ever. If the Broncos had Marshall on one end, Thomas on the other and Decker as the slot receiver, with Willis McGahee providing power running, executing draws and setting up play-action, the Broncos would probably have the top offense in the league.
Granted, the Broncos probably would not have gambled on Thomas were Marshall still around. But the team could have then used that pick on the safety that the Broncos so desperately need.
McDaniel's next worst showing was the horrendous 2009 draft that produced precisely zero regular starters despite two first round opportunities. These facts are indefensible.
The other decisions which Broncos fans repeatedly point to, however, have turned out way better than they first seemed.
By entertaining trade discussions for Jay Cutler, McDaniels alienated his star QB, forcing him to deal for the lesser Kyle Orton and first round picks that eventually became Robert Ayers and (after more trades) Demaryius Thomas.
At the time, Denver was pretty outraged by this transaction, but taking a look at it now, the Broncos actually came out way better. Cutler is 23rd in total passing yards with a twelve-to-eight touchdown-to-interception ratio with the Chicago Bears this season. Not good. In Cutler's 41 games with the Bears since the trade, his average QB rating has been 82.4 -- not terrible, but definitely not great. In Orton's 34 games with the Broncos, his QB rating was 85.4, a full three points higher -- and if that stat doesn't fully represent their play, remember that the Broncos got Demaryius, too.
The two other oft-cited position players McDaniels traded away are Peyton Hillis and Tony Scheffler. While it's true the Broncos got very little in return for either of them, neither is playing well at all and the Broncos don't miss them. Hillis had one great season with the Browns, then was disappointing last year -- and in 2012, the current member of the Kansas City Chiefs is putting up terrible numbers: 175 total yards from scrimmage and no touchdowns. Scheffler is doing a little better, with 220 receiving yards, but no touchdowns -- and touchdowns are what tight ends are for. Both of Denver's tight ends are outperforming Scheffler. More importantly, if Hillis had broken out with the Broncos, there's no way the team would have picked up another power back in Willis McGahee, who is playing infinitely better for less money.
Now let's examine McDaniels's ultimate trespass: the season where he sent the Broncos to the second worst record in the league. It was a dark time in Denver, no doubt, and we all had to live through that ugly season. For our suffering, though, the Broncos got Von Miller, who after just a season and a half out of Texas A&M is clearly a superstar in the making. He is tied for second in the league in sacks, made the Pro Bowl his rookie year and, more tellingly, Denver went from the worst defensive team in the league to a solid unit.
Remember the ESPN analysts trying to explain Denver's success in spite during Tebow time: It's the defense! It's the kicker!
Some of the credit for the Broncos' defensive renaissance goes to the return of Elvis Dumervil and the arrival of defensive-minded coach John Fox. But Miller added strength and athleticism the team desperately needed last season, and he's even better this year.
Of couse, we need to give credit where credit is due and recognize the number one reason the Broncos are a legitimate Super Bowl contender: Peyton Manning. While it would be ridiculous to give Josh McDaniels credit for bringing the future Hall of Famer to Denver, there's no doubt that we wouldn't have Manning without him.
Remember that at the beginning of the season, the Broncos giving Manning so much money was considered a big gamble. But you don't take a $96 million gamble on a quarterback with a questionable future when you already have one as talented as Cutler, no matter how great Manning was or inconsistent Cutler is. It's too big a risk. And without that offer, without Demaryius Thomas lining up on the outside, without the Broncos' run to the second round of the playoffs last year, and without Von Miller anchoring an improving defense, do you really think Peyton Manning would have come to Denver even if the team had made a big offer to him? No way.
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Jay Cutler is a decent quarterback, but if he can't win a Super Bowl with the Bears' awesome defense (and even if he can), there's no chance he could do so with the Broncos' defense, much improved though it is. Even if McDaniels had made decent drafts and kept Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler and Peyton Hillis, the Broncos still wouldn't be a Super Bowl contender.
Broncos fans should be thanking God, Tebow or whatever deity they believe in that McDaniels stumbled his way through Denver -- because without his bumbling self, Denver wouldn't have a shot at going all the way this season. So show McDaniels a little love -- at least until the Broncs head to a playoff match-up against the New England Patriots, where he's currently coaching. Then we can go back to hating him.
More from our Sports archive: "Peyton Manning exorcises Tim Tebow once and for all in Saints blow-out."