Fresh Attitudes Paying Dividends for Denver Broncos

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IOctober 4, 2008

ENGLEWOOD, CO—There was a telling juxtaposition Friday at the Denver Broncos' headquarters.

During his post-practice news conference, coach Mike Shanahan said he expects former Broncos running back Travis Henry will spend "a number of years in prison" following this week's arrest on federal drug-trafficking charges.

In a separate interview being conducted nearby, at the same time, Broncos tight end Daniel Graham was referencing Henry's offseason release and other roster changes as the main reason Denver enters Sunday's home game against Tampa Bay much improved from 2007.

"We have new people here," said Graham, whose team is off to a 3-1 start. "The work they've done this year is much better than last year...With (Shanahan) bringing in good character guys and getting rid of the guys we didn't need, it's made his job easier. He's brought in better players who want to be here, who (act) like professionals."

Shanahan downplayed the character issue during a later interview with FOXSports, instead citing the emergence of quarterback Jay Cutler and better player health as bigger factors in Denver's turnaround. But the most accomplished veteran on the Broncos' roster believes Graham's claim is valid.

"We don't have anybody that just thinks he's better than everybody else," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection. "We don't have a guy that everybody talks about behind their back. I feel I could talk to anybody in this locker room about anything. That's great for this team because we've had some bad apples come through the past few years."

Henry, whose 15 months with Denver were marred by other drug issues and failure to participate in offseason workouts, wasn't the only Broncos player with a rotten core.

"I was a fan of some of the guys that aren't here anymore but they weren't necessarily good for the team," said wide receiver Nate Jackson, a six-year Broncos veteran. "They're good guys, but it didn't mix.

"It was like a chemistry set. Sometimes you're trying to put things together and boom!—it explodes."

Like Jackson, Bailey wouldn't cite specific names. But he said the situation grew worse as the 2007 Broncos stumbled to a 7-9 record.

"When you lose games, some guys react differently," Bailey said. "That's when those apples got bad—really bad. You saw the true colors.

"When you're winning, everything is good. But when you lose, that's when we started falling off. Guys were pointing fingers and not being respectful to the coaches. You can't have that and win."

Since winning two Super Bowls in the 1990s, Shanahan's poor personnel decisions have overshadowed his exceptional coaching. Some big-money veteran acquisitions didn't earn their keep. Denver's drafts were even worse.

After finishing last season with his worst record since 1999, Shanahan fired General Manager Ted Sundquist and overhauled his team's front office.

"I don't go into detail on how we do things," said Shanahan, who has enjoyed final say on all roster moves since his 1995 hiring. "But what I wanted to do is get somebody in the personnel business who wants to put in the same amount of hours and work as hard as I do from the football side. Someone who takes as much pride in the personnel as you do in the (coaching). If you have people like that, you're hoping you don't make as many mistakes as you would the other way."

While not dipping as heavily into the free-agent market as usual, the restructured Broncos struck gold on their first two picks in this year's draft. Left tackle Ryan Clady, whom Shanahan touts as a future Pro Bowl selection, and wide receiver Eddie Royal are already starting on the NFL's top scoring offense.

Cutler has blossomed in his third season and forms one of the league's top quarterback-wide receiver tandems with Brandon Marshall, who team officials hope can overcome his own series of arrests and off-field issues. Cutler is playing so well that Shanahan has relied less on his vaunted rushing attack.

"Jay has gotten so much better," Bailey said. "The offense is a lot of the reason why we're winning right now."

But for Denver to remain atop the AFC West, Bailey knows defensive improvement is needed. The Broncos were gouged for 213 rushing yards in last Sunday's 33-19 road loss against previously winless Kansas City. Denver's pass defense isn't much better.

The problems have stemmed from poor execution, a lack of talent at certain spots, and growing pains under first-year defensive coordinator Bob Slowik.

"It's a little bit of everything," Bailey said. "A lot of guys are learning on the run. Right now, we're not close to where we want to be. I expect us to be better down the road."

It's a path the Broncos are traveling—together.

"It's been tough, especially last year," Shanahan said. "We were pretty s***** in every area—offense, defense, special teams. But I'll be really disappointed if we don't go to the playoffs this year. Even though we're really young, I think we're good enough."

This article originally published on FOXSports.

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