Don't expect Bronco miracles 

Two weeks later, and Mike Shanahan is gone from the Colorado sports landscape.

Two weeks later, and Bronco Nation has its new lead architect even if he looks like he'll need his ID in bars and liquor stores for years to come.

Two weeks later, and Josh McDaniels is the new savior of the Denver Broncos, inheriting expectations that range from unfair to outrageous.

Sure, even at 32, McDaniels might be the perfect fit for Denver and especially for quarterback Jay Cutler. If the rumors have any substance, he will fill out his staff with respected coaching veterans, especially on defense (new coordinator Mike Nolan, for example).

But before everyone starts anointing the Broncos as next season's version of Baltimore, Atlanta or Miami, all of whom made the 2008 playoffs with first-year head coaches, it would be smart to look closely at another piece of recent news.

Thanks to the NFL office, we've learned Denver's opponents for the 2009 season. Here they are, listed in order of Fear Factor.

Home: Pittsburgh, Dallas, New York Giants, New England, San Diego, Cleveland, Oakland and Kansas City.

Road: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Diego, Washington, Cincinnati, Oakland and Kansas City.

Look at that formidable list, look at Denver's roster as it stands today, and tell me realistically what the Broncos should expect in 2009. If you say anything better than 8-8, come back after those hallucinogens have worn off and try again.

Those opponents merely include three of the four teams playing Sunday in the conference championship games, plus the past three Super Bowl champions (Giants, Colts and Patriots), not counting Dallas (which might yet have Shanahan in charge), San Diego (which has won the AFC West two straight years), Washington (probably much better in Jim Zorn's second year) and Cleveland (now with Eric Mangini in command). Oakland and Kansas City should be better, too.

Sorry, but that looks like no better than 7-9 from here, unless McDaniels truly can work miracles. He's walking into a team without a proven No. 1 running back or playmaking linebackers, and with a too-small defensive line, an aging secondary, uncertain kicking and poor special teams. That's also nowhere near the cast McDaniels and quarterback Matt Cassel had in leading New England to an 11-5 season in 2008 after superstar Tom Brady went down in the season opener.

Hiring McDaniels very well might turn out to be the smartest move Denver owner Pat Bowlen has made since hiring Shanahan in 1995. But it's simply not realistic to assume the Broncos will make a quantum leap this year. They have too many holes, too many needs and, clearly, too tough a schedule, no matter what the order of opponents winds up being.

Actually, by taking this approach and hiring a rookie head coach who'll share the power with the personnel side, Bowlen is asking Denver fans to be patient. Not for long, but at least one year. Then, after another draft and more dealings, the big jump could come in 2010.

What Denver should provide this year is more explosiveness on offense, more enthusiasm all around, more consistency from Cutler, more competition at nearly every position and a few glimpses of what might be on the horizon.

Then again, you have to assume even Cutler's future is less than certain. If he responds to McDaniels and progresses accordingly, fine. But if, in his fourth NFL season, Cutler doesn't prove ready to take Denver to much greater heights, rest assured the new regime will look elsewhere for the next on-field leader.

There is nothing sacred in this franchise now, other than perhaps the return of John Elway in some capacity. Heck, even McDaniels has to know he has three years at most to lead the Broncos deep into the playoffs, or he'll be out.

When you've just fired Mike Shanahan, it should be obvious that Bowlen's not putting up with stagnation anymore. Such is life now, almost everywhere in the NFL. At least the Broncos, starting with Bowlen, have joined the 21st century.

It's their best chance to reach the top again.



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