by Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
October 8, 2009

The 3-1 Patriots head to Denver this Sunday to face off against the surprising 4-0 Broncos. I have to ask. Are they really that surprising? Last year the Broncos were certainly not a great team, but they were 8-8 and probably one bad Ed Hochuli call from being division champs. There’s no doubt that by the end of the year they were beat up, had given up on defense and seemed rudderless and turnover prone on offense. But there was still talent on the roster.

In comes new head coach Josh McDaniels, the former offensive coordinator for the Patriots, and he makes some smart free agent acquisitions, hires a competent defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan and trades away the talented, but mistake-prone head case of a quarterback for a game manager quarterback who avoids mistakes. Add in some good draft choices (Knowshon Moreno at running back, Alphonso Smith and Darcel McBath in the secondary), provide good coaching to some reclamation projects (Jarvis Moss) and voila! You’re 4-0.

It doesn’t hurt that they’ve played an incredibly weak schedule thus far (including probably the two worst teams in the NFL in Oakland and Cleveland), had divine intervention in beating Cincinnati and matched up with mediocre, undisciplined and poorly coached Dallas at home. But still, this team isn’t bad. I don’t know what Denver fans were screaming about all off-season, when they seemed panic stricken at the McDaniels hire and the trade of an egomaniacal, never-been-to-the playoffs QB.

The Broncos may or may not hold on to make the playoffs this year. Their schedule is about to get much tougher. But they’re also clearly going in the right direction and it likely won’t be long until they’re back in their traditional role as one of the best teams in the AFC, particularly in that they’ve stockpiled future draft picks much like the Patriots have. Perhaps this is a preview of numerous playoff battles to come down the road.

Head Coach Josh McDaniels

Of course McDaniels’ connections to the Patriots are well documented. There is a sense amongst Patriots fans, and I believe within the organization as well, that McDaniels did it the right way in taking over his own team, as opposed to the black sheep of the Patriots, Browns Coach Eric Mangini. McDaniels was the coordinator for essentially four full years. Mangini bolted in the division after his mediocre debut as coordinator in 2005. McDaniels seemed to improve as he went along. He did wonders last year despite losing the NFL MVP in game one at quarterback. He left with class and didn’t burn bridges. Mangini allegedly disregarded his mentor Bill Belichick’s advice to wait a little longer and get more experience, tried to steal other employees and eventually helped cause a PR disaster for the Patriots in the so-called “Spygate” episode. He did so by exposing a practice that he participated in and enhanced his resume with. In some ways, it seems to me the coaching profession isn’t that much different than “real world” jobs. When leaving one organization, it’s usually desirable not to burn bridges. Keep the contacts open. You never know what can come up down the road. It’s probably happened to almost everyone in their professional lives that at least one job departure doesn’t go smoothly at the end. There are hard feelings, bad blood and the bridge is burned. The fact McDaniels didn’t do that and Mangini did I think is at least some indication what kind of head coach each will be. Not to mention their comparative success, or lack thereof, as coordinators. So to me, it’s no surprise McDaniels is off to a good start in Denver while his former colleague Mangini struggles in Cleveland. On and off the field, McDaniels has transformed Denver into a better team. Their schedule has been weak, but they’re 4-0 and have played smart, disciplined football. They traded the problem child QB and have a game manager now. The problem child wide receiver has come into line and is back being productive. McDaniels has established a culture already; it’s either his way or no way. The players are starting to buy in, and you can see from afar that McDaniels has a bright future as a head coach. I’m sure most Patriot fans wish him well, just not this week.

Quarterback Kyle Orton

Orton of course came to the Mile High City in the much ballyhood trade of “Franchise” quarterback Jay Cutler who just couldn’t seem to get along with new coach McDaniels. Denver fans screamed. Denver fans predicted disaster. They cried for their Pro Bowl QB back and this young, know-nothing coach to leave. I’m sure they’re having second thoughts now. While Cutler occasionally puts up great games and flashes phenomenal skills, he also had bad games where he sulks and things snowball out of control. In Denver, he forced things at times, tried to do too much, and committed costly turnovers. Orton, on the other hand, is nowhere near as athletically gifted as Cutler, but he’s smart, conservative and doesn’t do anything stupid. In fact, he has yet to throw an interception this season. Denver has become more balanced with him at the helm and more likely to control the clock. It’s helped the defense as well. Turnovers have yet to cost any games. Orton is due some credit there. He isn’t a great quarterback and lacks the pure arm strength, vision or accuracy to ever be one. But he is solid and smart. He can win on a good all-around team. So far, that is exactly what he is doing.

Running Back Lamont Jordan

With Broncos running back Correll Buckhalter banged up with a sprained ankle and possibly out this week, former Patriot Jordan could step into a more important role in this game. If so, he’ll undoubtedly split time with speedy rookie Knowshon Moreno. That could mesh well with Jordan’s hard-running, physical style. Last year, Jordan played his only season with the Patriots and injuries held him to only 8 games. The one-time Raiders 1,000 yard rusher, who checks in at a big 230 lbs., did have his moments with New England. In Matt Cassel’s first start against the Jets, he ran particularly effectively and helped win that game. Towards the end of the year when he came back from injuries, he broke off big runs in a win against his old Raiders squad and helped win the final game of the year with tough running in bad conditions at Buffalo. This year he has only gained 50 yards, but is still capable of hard, effective running if the Patriots allow him to get into a groove. McDaniels has labeled him a “four minute back” because he is at his best running out the clock with a lead. Hopefully for the Patriots, he doesn’t get that chance against his old teammates.

Wide Receiver Jabar Gaffney

Gaffney is another former Patriot player who followed McDaniels to Denver and has been missed around Foxboro this season. Not speedy or shifty, Gaffney was a reliable third or fourth receiver in his years in New England. He showed solid hands most of the time, smart route running and adjustments, physical play, position versatility and good blocking. He was just a solid all-around contributor at the same receiver spot the Patriots have struggled to fill in his absence. With Denver, Gaffney is showing much of the same, and while not a primary receiver, he has slid right into their regular receiver rotation. Gaffney comes from a very football-oriented family. His dad Derrick played at the University of Florida (like Jabar) and also played receiver for eight years with the Jets. He had three brothers also play at Florida and an uncle who played with the Atlanta Falcons. His cousin, Lito Sheppard, who he also went to high school and college with, plays with the Jets now.

Tight End Daniel Graham

Graham is another former Patriot, though he bolted to Denver several years ago following the 2006 season and was not part of the McDaniels exodus. With the Patriots, Graham helped win two Super Bowls with superior blocking and occasional contributions in the passing game. He was a good, solid player who worked hard and remains one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Graham, who appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, was often an integral part of the Patriots protection of Tom Brady and he does much of the same for Denver. He helps out by not only being able to block comparably to a tackle, but also by slipping out into a route effectively when you least expect it. While Graham may not have left New England on the most pleasant terms, years of reflection allow us to look back on his years here and recognize his important contributions to those great 2003 and 2004 Patriot teams. He hasn’t changed much as a player with the Broncos. Last year, he scored the only touchdown the Broncos got against the Patriots in a 41-7 loss. This year, the Patriots improved safety play will have to be on the lookout to prevent that from happening again.

Defensive End LeKevin Smith

Before the Richard Seymour trade of defensive linemen by the Patriots, there was the LeKevin Smith trade. Smith was traded during training camp to Denver after three years with the Patriots. In Denver, Smith has not yet moved into a starting role but is part of their rotation in a base 3-4 defense. Last week Smith got his most action so far this year against Dallas and is seemingly becoming more familiar with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s version of the 3-4. Last season, he showed some promise with the Patriots after mostly sitting on the bench for two years and it’ll be interesting to see how he does with more of a chance in Denver. He always seemed to have some real talent, but was just stuck behind one of the better starting groups in the NFL.

Linebacker Elvis Dumervil

The fireplug 25 year old Dumervil leads the NFL in sacks so far in 2009 with 8. Standing a mere 5’11”, the extremely quick Dumervil is excellent getting around much larger tackles who have trouble sinking their shoulders into his short frame. He’s been the master of the sack since high school, holding the Florida high school record with 78 career sacks. In college at Louisville he continued, adding another 32 there. Now in the pros, he hasn’t stopped harassing quarterbacks and it’ll be a big test of the Patriots to find a way to slow him down. The Broncos move him around, making it even harder to account for where he’ll be.

Champ Bailey

All Patriots fans remember that January night in 2006 when the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots were marching towards the Denver end zone with a second half lead when Bailey made a remarkable play that turned the game around, taking a Tom Brady interception the entire length of the field the other way for a touchdown for a 14-point swing. It essentially ended the Patriots reign as champion. Bailey is still capable of a play like that at any time, and the Patriots know it better than anyone else. Bailey had an injury riddled 2008, getting injured against the Patriots in fact, but seems to be rounding back into his All-Pro form, gathering 8 tackles and an interception against Dallas last week. If Bailey is able to shut down Randy Moss (who never had a 100 yard game against him while in Oakland), the Patriots will have to win with their other receivers, who have struggled so far.

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