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Air of confidence

McDaniels has the Broncos sky-high at 4-0

By Theresa Smith
Globe Correspondent / October 11, 2009

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DENVER - Representing a one-man goal-line stand, Josh McDaniels withstood an assault from all quarters, standing up to pouting all-pro quarterback Jay Cutler, petulant wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and an outraged fan and media base. Powered by extraordinary self-confidence, the 33-year-old coach of the Denver Broncos assembled a capable staff, installed a 3-4 defensive scheme, set the standard for work ethic and attention to detail, and infected his players with a virulent strain of self-assurance.

Certainly, the challenging part of the Broncos’ schedule awaits, beginning today with a reunion with his mentor, Bill Belichick, yet the rookie head coach could not have started more successfully. Denver is 4-0, one of the NFL’s five undefeated teams, boasting a defense that has allowed only 26 points, fewest in the league.

After weeks of drama, the disgruntled Cutler was traded to Chicago April 3 for quarterback Kyle Orton, two first-round picks, and a third-round pick. Many fans viewed Cutler as the franchise cornerstone, and McDaniels was criticized for not getting enough in return. Marshall also appeared to have Denver in his rear-view mirror after his contract and trade demands were denied. When Marshall made a mockery out of practice, making no effort to catch the ball, McDaniels made a point to the rest of his team, suspending his star for nine days.

Burying himself in meetings, film study, and game planning, McDaniels ignored the gloomy expectations of fans and criticism from the media, who cracked wise on his evasive injury reports and penchant for wearing hooded sweatshirts, a la Belichick.

For almost any other successor to Mike Shanahan, comparisons with the architect of the Broncos’ 1997 and ’98 Super Bowl titles would have been inevitable. But McDaniels owns three rings from his eight seasons in New England, the past three as offensive coordinator, and patterns his approach on Belichick.

“The philosophies about how to win come straight from Bill, most of them, if not all of them,’’ McDaniels said. “The things that they do to try to win games, we are doing many of those things here. We are trying to do many of those things, and not because we are copying some other team, but because they have been successful.’’

Among some Broncos players, the Patriots pedigree afforded McDaniels credibility.

“What he had done in New England, offensively, for the past three years spoke for itself,’’ said backup quarterback Chris Simms. “So guys had to have confidence in that. And then when you start to see how smart he is, and the attention to detail, it can only build confidence.’’

Wide receiver Brandon Stokley knows what it takes to win after playing on Super Bowl title teams in Baltimore and Indianapolis. And McDaniels’s youth does not exclude him from favorable comparisons with the men at the helm of Stokley’s Super Bowl triumphs, Brian Billick and Tony Dungy.

“I never look at him as a young coach because he’s come in with a plan and he has executed it,’’ said Stokley. “Everybody has bought into what he’s selling.’’

Marshall, seemingly the last holdout, gradually came on board after his suspension was lifted.

Following an improved week of practice, he made five catches for 67 yards and a TD in a 23-3 victory over the Raiders. The following week against the Cowboys, he produced four receptions for 91 yards, including the winning 51-yard score in which he made a mid-air adjustment over cornerback Terence Newman and eluded a host of tacklers.

In celebration of what he called his most emotional play since Little League, Marshall wrapped McDaniels in a bear hug.

While Marshall was late to the table, the majority of players bonded via an “us-against-the-world mentality,’’ engendered by McDaniels’s motivational speaking. With each practice, and then each W, it became easier to ignore the pessimism surrounding the team’s prospects.

In the wake of throttling the Raiders, running back LaMont Jordan told reporters, “Hey, if you want to cheer for Jay Cutler, go to Chicago. If you don’t like our head coach, find another team.’’

McDaniels’s blueprint is limiting your own mistakes and trying to take away the opponents’ strengths.

“I have said it before: tough, smart, physical football for 60 minutes,’’ he said. “It sounds redundant. Nobody believes it except the guys inside the building.

“This is how you win in this league because everybody has got good players, everybody has got good coaches. And if your players are tougher, if your players play smarter, and if you execute under pressure better than the other team, you win games.’’

It is now the Broncos’ way, as evidenced by full-pad practices - a departure from Shanahan, who decreased live hitting in practice to prevent injuries.

On Thursday, with a rain/snow mix streaming from the skies in the team’s suburban headquarters, McDaniels eschewed the indoor practice field and ran drills in the same weather expected for today’s game. How better to prepare for numb fingers and slippery footing?

Sharing his teacher’s belief that each opponent requires unique preparation, McDaniels also subscribes to the concept of involving himself in all aspects - offense, defense, and special teams - as does Belichick.

McDaniels’s two years working with the Patriots defense made him a better offensive coordinator, according to Tom Brady. Broncos offensive players also point out that his understanding of how to stop an offense prepared him to exploit the Achilles’ heels in various defenses.

McDaniels also exposes his players to the whole picture.

“We know what the whole team is doing,’’ Simms said. “He lets us in on both sides of the ball. We’re very cohesive together and our games fit together.’’

Simms, who was exposed to a variety of NFL coaches in stops in Tampa Bay and Tennessee, and is the son of Super Bowl MVP quarterback Phil Simms, marvels at McDaniels’s uber-detailed preparation.

“Instead of having 100 pass plays, for example, we maybe have 50, but we are really good at those 50,’’ Simms said. “We study how we want to run those routes against every coverage, so we know what to do.’’

They know what to do. There is no room for doubt.

“Sure, I’d try to get rid of it if I had it, but I don’t have a lot of self-doubt,’’ McDaniels said, smiling.

These days in Denver, it is easy to believe in the Broncos and their precocious leader.

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