Mike Shanahan took responsibility for the Denver Broncos' 7-9 season - as coach, but not as personnel man.
Shanahan suggested that Denver had the talent to win at least 10 games before injuries on offense, an inability to digest a new defensive scheme and inconsistent special teams play condemned the Broncos to their first losing season since 1999.
Shanahan parted ways this week with defensive boss Jim Bates, who refused a demotion to linebackers coach and resigned after one forgettable season and was replaced by secondary coach Bob Slowik.
Now, he's looking at where he can tweak the roster, facing, among other big decisions, what to do about Travis Henry and Javon Walker, who carry big price tags coming off injury-riddled seasons.
The Broncos had designs on a Super Bowl after retooling the roster and shuffling the coaching staff last offseason. But they allowed their most points in 40 years, lost stalwarts Rod Smith, Tom Nalen and Ben Hamilton on offense and had little to brag about on special teams other than kicker Jason Elam, their all-time leading scorer and soon-to-be free agent.
Hamilton (concussion) and Nalen (biceps) say they'll return, but Smith just underwent another hip surgery that likely will spell the end of his spectacular career.
Pressed if it was the scheme or the players that doomed Denver's defense under Bates, Shanahan said: "Well, I'm just going back to me. I'm in charge of this thing and I just think if I would have done a decent job coaching, we would have won 10 games or more. And so it goes back to me."
What about as personnel man? Doesn't he share blame for the season's failed expectations? After all, linebacker D.J. Williams is the only one of the 28 players selected in the drafts of 2002-04 still on the team, and he's arguably playing out of position in the middle.
True, those drafts didn't bear much fruit, Shanahan said, "but I think you have to average it out through the years. The bottom line, you look at wins and losses. And that's how you judge everybody."
Shanahan is 138-83 in 13 seasons in Denver.
"I could throw stats at you - you want to talk about wins and you want to talk about those type of things? The bottom line is we were 7-9. How do we correct it?"
In addressing the media for the first time since the season ended, Shanahan praised team owner Pat Bowlen for understanding the big picture but didn't take exception when asked if he felt fortunate he wasn't working for another team where he'd be feeling more heat after missing the playoffs in two straight seasons.
"Well, nobody could put more heat on me than me," Shanahan retorted. "What kind of heat am I feeling? It's not financial. It's winning. Hey, that's how you last in the game. And when you don't win it's pretty tough with the time we put in it. But when you say we don't feel heat, that's easy for you to say."
Although Slowik is hailed as a top-notch position coach - Bailey calls him the best he's had - Slowik's track record as coordinator is spotty. His teams have finished 22nd or worse in points allowed in five of his eight seasons in charge of the defense in Chicago (1993-98), Cleveland (1999) and Green Bay (2004), and those teams reached the playoffs only twice.
What makes Shanahan think it will be different in Denver?
"No. 1, he understands offenses very good. He's very flexible with his scheme and depending on what a team's doing he has the ability to attack that offense," Shanahan said. "He's been with me for a number of years and he knows how I like to operate."
In discussing the four other defensive coordinators who have worked for him in Denver, Shanahan threw out that Larry Coyer's firing last year "had nothing to do with football" although he declined to specify the reasons and added that Ray Rhodes departure in 2003 was based strictly on health issues.
The Broncos ditched the hallmarks of Bates' system after allowing nearly 200 yards rushing per game through the first month of the season. They replaced beefy interior linemen with smaller, quicker tackles and moved safety John Lynch into the box as an eighth defender.
Shanahan said he was pleased with his offense considering that starters missed a combined 62 games, which contributed to season-long troubles in the red zone.
The Broncos are pinning their hopes for a turnaround on their outstanding 2006 draft class that includes Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler and Elvis Dumervil.
"I think you always have the personnel to win 10-plus games," Shanahan said. "We've got to get a little bit luckier than we did this year health-wise."
The Broncos sorely missed captain and leading tackler Al Wilson, who hurt his neck in 2006 and was released last summer but was cleared by his doctor this week to resume his career. He'll be a free agent, but Shanahan declined to say whether he'd be interested in bringing him back.
Notes: Shanahan said: LT Matt Lepsis, who retired this month, should have retired a year ago "because he was never into it mentally." ... He said Walker will probably need microfracture knee surgery in the next few years, RB Selvin Young needs a knee scoped, DE Ebenezer Ekuban, who missed all season with a torn Achilles', should be back by mid-May or June. ... Shanahan said he doesn't want Stokley to serve as the No. 2 receiver because he'll wear down and doesn't think Young can be a workhorse running back for the same reason. ... Shanahan said he expects Lynch to make a decision on his future in the next month. He also said that if Smith's playing career is over, he'd like him to work for the Broncos in some capacity. ... Shanahan swapped linebackers coach Joe Baker and offensive assistant Jim Ryan.
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