Josh McDaniels went right to work today figuring out how to fix the dreadful Denver defense that was Mike Shanahan's undoing.
His first order of business: luring former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan to the cause. Nolan agreed late today to become the Broncos' fourth defensive coordinator in four years.
The 49-year-old Nolan served as defensive coordinator with the Ravens, Jets, Redskins and Giants before getting his first head coaching job in San Francisco, where he was fired midway through his fourth season last year.
He got his start in the NFL as a special teams and linebackers coach on Dan Reeves' staff in Denver from 1987-92. Team owner Pat Bowlen said yesterday that he was excited at the prospect of Nolan's return.
Bowlen also would like to see McDaniels keep some of Shanahan's offensive coaches around but he's not going to insist on it.
"I think it would be a mistake for me to say, 'You've got to do this,' because then if it doesn't work out, it's my fault," Bowlen said. "But I think there are some coaches here I'd like to see remain. If the head coach decides he can't do that, then that's going to be his decision."
That sounds like a step toward giving McDaniels a least a sliver of the kind of power Shanahan enjoyed.
"He's the head football coach, that's his job," Bowlen said. "There's no line. I'm going to let him do his job."
On his way out the door, Shanahan suggested the next coach "would have to be crazy" to break up the offensive staff that guided Denver to the No. 2 ranking in the league this year and includes well-renowned assistants Bobby Turner, who has worked with the Broncos running backs for 14 seasons, and wide receivers coach Jedd Fisch.
Jay Cutler publicly criticized Shanahan's firing and begged Bowlen to keep quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, who called the plays last year when Cutler set several franchise passing records and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Even though he has three years left on his contract, Bates' status was thrown into question with the hiring of McDaniels, a fellow 32-year-old offensive whiz kid, as his new boss.
McDaniels is the one calling the shots and the plays around here now.
He said he also wouldn't mind luring Dom Capers over from his job on New England's staff to help repair the Broncos' defense.
As for any holdover assistants from Shanahan's staff, McDaniels said he knows only a couple of them informally but will have "no preconceived notion" on the future of those coaches as he begins assembling his team of advisers.
The Broncos' new coach also began taking a look at the roster Shanahan left behind when he was fired last month after a 14-year run that included two Super Bowls in the 1990s but ended with the team mired in mediocrity.
Although McDaniels is moving from one potent offense to another, one that needs only a bit of tweaking, his toughest task is in repairing a defense that will have its fourth coordinator in four seasons.
That means a new playbook to study, a new scheme to learn, new terminology to memorize.
Now seems like the perfect time for the Broncos, who are built around a 4-3 alignment, to switch to the 3-4 with sprinkles of the 4-3, the same style that McDaniels and Nolan are accustomed to. That would require significant changes in personnel, however, particularly up front.
"Once the coordinator is named we will discuss the personnel that we have here and the direction that we want to go," McDaniels said before he hired Nolan.
But really, there's nobody they need to build around on defense, no star that dictates what their style should be.
Last season, Denver finished 29th in yards allowed. They couldn't stop the run or pressure the passer, and Champ Bailey questioned their hearts after a 41-7 loss to the Patriots and McDaniels' high-powered offensive scheme at midseason.
It never got much better, and they allowed 52 points in their season finale at San Diego, where a win would have put them into the playoffs and perhaps saved Shanahan's job.
The Broncos managed 13 takeaways in 2008, the second-lowest total in the 30 years since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule, and they surrendered a league-worst 448 points. They went through six starting free safeties and a half-dozen linebackers, but Niko Koutouvides, last season's heralded free agent acquisition, wasn't one of them.
Most games, defensive linemen Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, members of Shanahan's 2007 draft class, were sideline spectators, unable to push a pedestrian line for playing time.
It was these types of miscalculations in the draft and free agency that led to Denver's downfall -- a 24-24 record since reaching the 2005 AFC title game -- and, ultimately, to Shanahan's dismissal.
With all these problems on defense, Bowlen gave serious thought to hiring a defensive mind as Shanahan's successor, and he interviewed the Giants' Steve Spagnuolo, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier before plucking McDaniels from Bill Belichick's staff.
"I looked at that possibility. But the chance to get this young man was very intriguing to me," Bowlen said. "I think he's going to be a great, great coach. I think he can fix our defense."