The Denver Broncos are a befuddled, bumbling bunch.
Their quarterback is limping on a badly bruised left leg, their offensive line is missing two stalwarts in Tom Nalen and Ben Hamilton, No. 1 receiver Javon Walker is recovering from knee surgery, top tailback Travis Henry is facing a year's suspension for a failed drug test he's fighting in court and team leader Rod Smith's injury hip has ended his season and maybe even his career.
Defensive captains Champ Bailey and John Lynch are banged up, top draft pick Jarvis Moss broke an ankle last week, Simeon Rice is making $3 million mostly to watch games, three new defensive ends were signed this week in a rare midseason roster shake-up and Jim Bates' new scheme seems as foreign as it did during May minicamps.
Denver hit bottom last week in a 44-7 rout by the Lions in Detroit, where the Broncos committed 12 penalties, had four turnovers and dropped six passes. With their fifth loss in six games and their second by at least 37 points they stumbled to the halfway point at 3-5.
So, why is Brandon Marshall smiling?
``I think we did a good job of selling the bad season,'' the wide receiver said. ``We've got some great actors here. You guys are going to see a totally different team for the next couple of Sundays. The past month or so has been an act. You will see a totally different team.''
Marshall's in a jovial mood because, as unfathomable as it sounds, the Broncos could be leading the wacky AFC West by Sunday night.
If they win at Kansas City and Indianapolis wins at San Diego, the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers will all be 4-5 atop the dismal division. And Denver would own the tiebreaker because of a better division record.
Bailey, for one, won't be apologizing.
``It's just one of those years,'' Bailey said. ``We've probably been one of the best divisions in the AFC for the last few years and other teams have kind of gotten better and we have had some tough losses in this division. One thing about it is that if you win the division, you make the playoffs and that is another chance to redeem yourself.''
That's what the Broncos are hanging their helmets on.
``Heck, the season's only half over. We're right in the middle of the fight,'' Bates said. ``And there isn't a team 8-0, 7-1 in our division.''
The Broncos have been last in the league in stopping the run all season but thought they had turned things around in a win over Pittsburgh last month. Then, their terrific tandem at cornerback cost them a win over Green Bay when Brett Favre threw touchdown passes of 78 and 82 yards, burning both Bailey and Dre' Bly, who have 10 trips to the Pro Bowl between them.
Their secondary was again embarrassed last week when the Lions posted a two-play, 95-yard drive capped by John Kitna's 49-yard scoring pass.
Bates has blamed youth on the team's inability to master his teachings but in the past two weeks the Broncos have had trouble just getting the proper personnel on the field.
The crux of the team's troubles is this: They have just a handful of starters still in place from last season.
On offense, that's quarterback Jay Cutler who didn't start until December and left tackle Matt Lepsis, who missed the second half of the season with a knee injury.
On defense, weakside linebacker Ian Gold, Bailey at left cornerback and strong safety Nick Ferguson remain, although Ferguson also injured a knee last year and missed the stretch run. John Lynch could return to the lineup Sunday if his neck injury allows.
Still, coach Mike Shanahan, who signed a contract extension in the offseason and is the longest tenured coach in the NFL aside from Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, is adamant that the Broncos aren't in rebuilding mode.
``My mind-set is never to play for next year,'' he said. ``Never will be.''
Shanahan has had just one losing season in his 13 years in Denver, and that came in 1999 after Terrell Davis injured a knee and John Elway retired after leading the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl wins.
``Obviously it's tough,'' Shanahan said. ``(But) it's not over with yet.''
So, how do they fix things? They've already adjusted their schemes on both sides of the ball, but they're limited in what they can do with eight players they were counting on out for the season.
Bly said it's time to single out players who aren't getting it done, at least in meetings.
Shanahan said the only way to turn things around is to ``work on the things you do poorly.''
``There's not a magic formula. You go back and work on the things you haven't been doing very good, like red zones, penalties, third downs, running game, passing game, strengthen our defense and strengthen our passing game.''
That's a long list.
``You never know how a season's going to go,'' Shanahan said. ``There have been teams that were 8-1 and that have not made playoffs there are teams that were 1-5 going to the championship. That's just the nature of this game. Even our Super Bowl wins we had a couple losses and we got blown out and people said we didn't belong. You just have to take it day-by-day.
``We know what we're doing poorly. We've got a long ways to go, we're not there yet, but we're going to work on getting there.''
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