- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos train in an area known as Dove Valley, but there has been little peace this offseason.
A 9-7 record in 2006 simply wasn't good enough for Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. So, after his team's struggles down the stretch caused it to miss the playoffs, Shanahan turned the Broncos into the NFL's version of "Extreme Makeover."
A defense that dropped to 12th in the league in 2006 -- after finishing in the top four in both 2004 and 2005 -- will look much different this season. Shanahan changed defensive coordinators and remade the unit along the line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
On the offensive side of the ball, the coach changed running backs, spent $6 million a year for tight end Daniel Graham and opened up the right-guard position.
If this were New York, Shanahan would be called Steinbrenner and the roster intrigue would be bannered across the back page of tabloids.
"When you end up 9-7, you try to improve," Shanahan said. "Hopefully, we can."
Where do you start when you look at the 2007 version of the Broncos? Defensive tackle, at which the team got bigger in terms of both size and name recognition.
Shanahan has gone from the Lake Erie castoffs of the Browns to a who's who of formerly touted first-round defensive tackles. The Broncos have added wide-bodies Sam Adams, Jimmy Kennedy and Marcus Thomas, a fourth-round rookie with
first-round skills, to a group anchored by Gerard Warren. (Shanahan also added Alvin McKinley to maintain his equal-opportunity stance for former Browns.) The rest of the laundry list of defensive line imports includes rookies Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder and Steven Harris.
The idea to get bigger at defensive tackle comes from new defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Other than new Cardinals offensive-line coach Russ Grimm, Bates might make the most impact of any assistant hired in the league this season. Bates is a master motivator and defensive playcaller. He's turned around defenses in Dallas, Miami and Green Bay.
"When you are thick up the middle, you can hold gaps and play with power," Bates said. "It just makes is so much easier for the whole defense. In Miami, we were also able to survive with the bigger guys. The lighter guys get knocked out of there."
Bates' other big philosophical adjustment comes in the secondary. Bates also asks a lot from his cornerbacks. He'll play a little more man-to-man than other defensive coordinators, but he's not afraid to have smart, skilled corners play some zone to grab a few interceptions.
Bates loves to have the ability to switch into man-to-man matchups against opposing wide receivers, so it certainly helps having elite cornerbacks. Bailey and Bly have the ability to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, but the Broncos have been playing around with a lot of zone concepts, which allow Bly and Bailey to look at the quarterback as he throws and create interception opportunities.
"They complement each other," Bates said. "They have a knack for being all over the ball. When the ball is off, they can make interceptions. We'll mix man and zones. Champ is the most complete cornerback I've been around, and I've been around a lot of great corners. People don't realize how good a tackler Champ is. We just got to cut down his number of tackles. We don't want him making 90 tackles."
Shanahan sets the standards high on defense, and his offensive system is a gold mine to a defensive coordinator. Shanahan's offense thrives on possessing the ball. He's the game's best coordinator when it comes to a running attack. Since the mid-1990s, Shanahan and Mike Holmgren have been the best in football at grabbing first-quarter leads and letting defensive ends tee up for sacks when opposing teams try to come from behind.
Never satisfied with anything less than Super Bowl-level numbers, Shanahan has completely made over the offensive personnel in the past year. Jay Cutler has replaced Jake Plummer at quarterback. Travis Henry gives the Broncos their best pure-power runner since Terrell Davis. Javon Walker has moved into the No. 1 wide receiver role while Rod Smith, recovering from hip surgery, is being phased into the No. 3 receiver position. Graham was brought in to bolster the tight end spot.
Cutler did well as a rookie, but he should have. He landed on a team with playoff talent, allowing him to mature faster than other young quarterbacks. On bad teams, first-round quarterbacks are asked to carry the offense. Cutler is just asked to manage the offense because he's surrounded by better players, which allowed him to be a 59 percent thrower as a rookie.
Shanahan thinks completion percentage is an overrated number in football. He didn't care when Plummer was a 50 percent thrower because he managed the game well enough to be a 60 percent winner. Ultimately, Shanahan thinks Cutler will be in the 62 percent range, and he loves his quarterback's strong arm and leadership ability.
"Jay has had a great offseason and he's worked on everything," Shanahan said. "He developed a good relationship with the offensive guys. He's worked hard."
The biggest transition for Cutler is staying patient. Now that he's the full-time starter, he has to realize the importance of not rushing things. If the first couple options aren't open, he has to be able to check down to the running back or receiver near the line of scrimmage. Cutler has to be able to throw the ball away if pressure comes too close.
Cutler also has to adjust to the scrutiny of being a quarterback in John Elway's city. Eventually, that caught up to Plummer.
"I'm getting more comfortable," Cutler said. "Football is one of the biggest professions here in Colorado. Everyone knows who you are and expects big things from you after Elway. But this team has so much talent and so much experience, all I have to do is work hard and everything will take care of itself."
It better. The standards are high here because of Shanahan -- anything less than a Super Bowl is not acceptable. Shanahan plays to the extremes and if things fall short, expect another makeover.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
12hEric D. Williams
19hDan Graziano and Adam Caplan