Broncos: great offense but a mess on defense |

Broncos: great offense but a mess on defense

Arnie Stapleton
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. ” Construction continues on Mike Shanahan’s Denver steakhouse and also his 35,000-square-foot mansion complete with a bowling alley, four-bedroom basement and six-car garage.

Reconstruction of the Denver Broncos’ dreary defense is up to his successor following Shanahan’s surprising dismissal by owner Pat Bowlen, who wants fresh faces running a franchise that remains one of the NFL’s crown jewels but has been mired in mediocrity.

The first three candidates to interview for the Broncos’ coaching vacancy are New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary coach Raheem Morris and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

The Broncos expect to speak with Spagnuolo on Saturday, McDaniels on Sunday and Morris on Monday.

The team also is reaching out to other coaches at the pro and college ranks to gauge interest in one of the prime jobs in sports, one Shanahan held for 14 seasons, winning two Super Bowls in the 1990s but just one playoff game in the decade since John Elway’s retirement.

High atop the wish list is believed to be Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who is preparing his second-ranked Sooners to face No. 1 Florida in the BCS championship game in Miami on Thursday.

Shanahan’s successor will inherit an explosive offense that might be one healthy running back away from greatness. He’ll also take over a dreadful defense that needs yet another overhaul.

Shanahan’s long run as Broncos boss came to an end ” with three years and about $21 million left on his contract ” after the team went 24-24 over the last three seasons, failing to reach the playoffs since losing to Pittsburgh in the 2005 AFC title game at Invesco Field.

While the offense is stocked with rising stars such as Jay Cutler, Tony Scheffler, Brandon Marshall, Ryan Clady, Ryan Harris and Eddie Royal, the defense has been left bare by a series of personnel mistakes and dismal drafts.

Despite losing an astonishing seven tailbacks to injured reserve in 2008, the Broncos’ offense ranked second in the NFL in yardage as Cutler set several franchise passing records in his third pro season.

The defense, on the other hand, ranked 29th, allowed an NFL-high 448 points and managed a measly 13 takeaways under Bob Slowik, Denver’s third defensive boss in three years.

The result was an 8-8 record and a colossal collapse. Just a month ago, Shanahan was earning praise for keeping his team together despite putting 16 players on injured reserve and playing 14 rookies. But the Broncos missed the playoffs by becoming the first team in league history to blow a three-game division lead with three weeks left.

When Shanahan and Bowlen held tearful back-to-back news conferences on New Year’s Eve to talk about their divorce, both spoke proudly of the Broncos’ high-octane offense and its bright future. They also spoke of Denver’s desperate need to refurbish a defense that’s been the franchise’s Achilles’ heel for way too long.

The Broncos’ new boss will need to get right to work addressing needs along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary, where the Broncos started a half-dozen free safeties last season and star Champ Bailey missed most of the year with a torn groin.

Only five players from the 2001-05 drafts remain on the roster, and two from the four-man draft of 2007, defensive linemen Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, were inactive more often than not this season. The list of unproductive free agents is nearly as long as the list of draft busts.

Bowlen said he didn’t want to give his next coach total control of football operations the way he did Shanahan: “I don’t anticipate the next coach will have both jobs,” Bowlen said.

And Bowlen said he wanted to focus on hiring a coach, then a general manager, an approach that could eliminate some potential candidates such as Scott Pioli, Bill Cowher or Bill Parcells.

Bowlen said the current front office trio of Jim Goodman, Brian Xanders and Jeff Goodman would stay in place and that he’ll consult with chief operating officer Joe Ellis in selecting the next coach. The owner also said most of Shanahan’s 19 assistants will be fired.

Cutler wants quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates to stick around. He just signed a contract extension and has a budding relationship with the third-year pro who earned his first Pro Bowl nod this season.

Keeping Bates would soothe Cutler, who publicly criticized Bowlen’s firing of Shanahan. Bowlen said he would keep Cutler in the loop on the coaching search out of respect for his star.

Shanahan wants to coach elsewhere but he’s going to keep ties in Denver, where he recently broke ground on his steakhouse and is putting the finishing touches on a sprawling ranch home that is rising just a short distance from Bowlen’s house in Cherry Hills Village.

“I love Denver, so hopefully we will be living here for the rest of our lives,” Shanahan said.

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