Panic Time for Bronco Nation

Sam RobinsonCorrespondent IMarch 2, 2009

The following elements don’t usually appear in a voiceover script for Sports Illustrated’s Super Bowl Champions DVD boxed set that comes out every February:

- Incoming head coach attempts to trade franchise quarterback for career backup, sending shockwaves through the NFL and alienating the entire fanbase

- Said quarterback does everything short of challenging that coach to an Aaron Burr-style duel in the city's newspaper due to the sheer level of outrage he felt upon learning of the trade

- Superstar wide receiver lands on 13th police report in the last five years, leading to certain suspension

- All this coming after the team sets a modern-day record for number of B-team free-agent signings in one weekend

And all of this chaos went down in a mere 72 hours.

New coach Josh McDaniels started off the weekend by attempting to fix the Broncos’ worst rushing attack of the decade by signing the NFL’s version of Rudy Ruettiger: Correll Buckhalter.

That’s right, his first order of free-agent business was to bring in fresh talent to repair a running back arsenal that had seven guys go on injured reserve last season.

No problem. Except the guy he brought in to replace them happens to be the most injury-prone running back in the game.

Yes, Fred Taylor gets all the headlines for his health issues but pound-for-pound, Buckhalter’s the undisputed champ. The 30-year-old missed three entire seasons due to knee injuries, yet still found himself as a legitimate player in the 2009 market despite never being a regular starter in his career.

That was going to be the focus of this column, the amazing fact that a career backup running back is still in the league after missing three years in his 20s, making him possibly the most improbable 30-year-old starter since The Beerman Michael Lewis.

This was before the fit hit the shan, however.

That signing and the many others on Friday became afterthoughts when I woke up on Saturday and found out Jay Cutler was nearly traded.

This news was way worse than when Jake Plummer (Broncos man-crush No. 1) was traded or when Tatum Bell (No. 2) was caught stealing Rudi Johnson’s luggage; Cutler IS the offense.

Aside from Peyton Manning, he was the most indispensable player on an NFL roster last season. If his injury against the Pats was serious and Darrell Hackney was forced to see action the rest of the way, Denver goes 4-12. No question about it.

Cutler was the only thing that held the patchwork backfield and worst defense in franchise history together. And McDaniels was this close to letting him go for Matt Cassel.

I’m now going to be worried about every decision McDaniels makes if he could seriously think about pulling the trigger on this trade.

There’s a reason Tampa Bay was offering a No. 1 and a No. 3 for him: He’s on the verge of being a Top-five QB. Cassel, on the other hand, was the bold print on McDaniels’ resume due to his remarkable 2008 season after not starting a game since the Clinton administration.

The guy had a great season and could be a nice fit on the miserable Chiefs (though with their current situation, his career might take the David Carr route), but he is not in Cutler’s league. Cassel had the most physically talented wide receiver ever at his disposal and a defense that didn’t surrender roughly 66 points a game last year.

Cassel's far too much of an unproven commodity to surrender the guy the Broncos are built around.

Cutler is on another level just because of the tools he possesses, what he's had to work with and how he compares to the greats after their first two seasons as starters.

Jay can usually be counted on for a candid response and he, understandably, was extremely upset with McDaniels for even entertaining such an offer.

Now I know how the players in Madden feel when I’m constantly including them in outlandish trade proposals and their morale news reads “Why does this team shop players all the time?”

I shudder to think what Jay’s current facebook status is.

It might take a while for him to get over this and with good reason. 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterbacks don’t usually go through this sort of public humiliation. It's just unfathomable that the guy with the strongest arm in the league could be dealt for a player just because the new coach has worked with him before.

We're already becoming Patriots West; Isn't it enough we already got their old long-snapper?

What’s worse is the news that the Pats, not the Broncos, nixed the deal, which McDaniels denies.

This part of the story makes no sense.

New England instead shipped Cassel to KC for a second-rounder when it could’ve acquired a first from Denver? Unless the Pats are worried about spending money on two first-round picks, there is no logical explanation for this unless there was some sort of under-the-table agreement with Scott Pioli.

Which is fine; anything to prevent this nightmare from becoming a reality is aces in my book.

But before this happened, Bronco Nation was eagerly anticipating Cutler tossing 35 TDs and 4,800 yards in the Pats’ offense. But apparently the new coach does not believe he can grasp the system that transformed Tom Brady from Top-three QB on a great team to first-ballot Hall of Famer.

That must be a knock on Cutler's intellect or his dedication because there’s no way he cannot be Cassel on speed in that system, physically.

While we now have to wait until Draft day for this crisis to fully disappear, Cutler’s top target, Brandon Marshall, is sure to be suspended for at least September after a disorderly conduct arrest, Saturday night.

You’ve gotta be kidding me! This guy has been given more chances than Colin Farrell and still screws it up? He already has serious problems with allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend (which commissioner Roger Goodell apparently didn’t take too seriously since he reduced Marshall’s suspension to one game from three).

But I’m fairly certain he’ll take this arrest very seriously, as it’s about strike six for the immensely talented wideout.

Marshall was hoping to get a new contract after consecutive 100-catch seasons, but this comes nearly a year after his unfortunate encounter with a McDonald’s bag (later found out to be a fight with his brother), damaging arteries in his arm.

This led to him playing the whole season on a not-yet-healed arm and dropping many more balls in the process.

If he played in New York or Boston, Marshall would be enduring Plaxico Burress-esque scrutiny, but thankfully he plays in one of the markets the mainstream media rarely ventures to.

But this is still unacceptable for a guy who is on pace to become a super-charged version of Terrell Owens on the field.

Off the field, the team-killing Owens is a saint compared to Marshall.

So to recap, Denver’s two best offensive players and the best receiving combination since Elway and Sharpe in the mid-90s’ future is in doubt. One feels more betrayed than video-store employee Vincent after Elaine rented Weekend at Bernie’s II on Seinfeld and the other is on the verge of becoming the poor man’s Pacman Jones.

An absolutely fantastic start to the offseason. McDaniels and Marshall doing their best to screw up one of the game’s most explosive offenses with each risking permanent damage to their relationship to Cutler.

If the headlines in the weeks to come include any combination of the following words: Cutler…traded…picks or Marshall……suspension, then the Broncos’ bandwagon is going to lose more fans than it did during the Brian Griese era.


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