The dominoes started to fall in Denver when Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe mishandled an onside kick against San Diego on Dec. 14 that would have secured a playoff spot for the Broncos.
The usually sure-handed Bowe let the ball slip through his grasp, and two weeks later, the Broncos watched their first postseason trip since 2005 slip through theirs.
Owner Pat Bowlen summoned Mike Shanahan, his "coach for life," into his office and fired the two-time Super Bowl winner who had managed to win just one playoff game in the decade after John Elway retired.
With a dreadful defense to renovate, Bowlen gave serious thought to hiring a defensive mind, and he interviewed the New York Giants' Steve Spagnuolo, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier before plucking 32-year-old offensive wunderkind Josh McDaniels from Bill Belichick's staff.
The drama had only just begun.
McDaniels soon found himself in a colossal clash with Pro Bowl passer Jay Cutler, who didn't appreciate McDaniels entertaining the notion of bringing quarterback Matt Cassel with him from New England.
Cassel was traded to Kansas City instead, yet the seeds of discontent were flourishing at Dove Valley.
McDaniels was willing to let the feud play out, but when Cutler ignored calls from Bowlen, the owner again put his foot down and ordered his new coach to trade away his franchise quarterback.
In a move that may very well define his coaching career, McDaniels sent Cutler to Chicago for Kyle Orton and a bevy of draft picks on April 2.
The two saw each other again last month in an exhibition game at Invesco Field, where Cutler got the last laugh. While he led the Bears on a beautiful 98-yard scoring drive that highlighted Chicago's 27-17 win, Orton's memorable moment was flashing his bloodied right index finger to the Broncos' bench after the dislocated knuckle poked through his skin.
Orton still has stitches and might have to play the opener at Cincinnati on Sunday with a glove on his throwing hand, something he never did before, even in Chicago's brutal winters.
The Broncos' other superstar, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, asked for his own ticket out of town after the team rejected his request for a new contract this offseason.
Marshall is due $2.2 million this season, a salary he contends isn't befitting his status as an elite receiver who has back-to-back 100-catch seasons and is coming off his first Pro Bowl berth.
The Broncos, though, want proof he can work hard on the field, stay out of trouble off it, and show that his hip injury didn't rob him of any of his spectacular skills.
By all accounts, that's just what he's doing - finally.
Marshall, who skipped all offseason workouts while rehabbing from his hip surgery and then protesting his contract, had hoped his acquittal last month on charges he beat up his then-girlfriend 18 months ago would give him leverage for a new deal. His agent met with the Broncos after the verdict. Again, the Broncos didn't budge.
Marshall grew increasingly defiant and on Aug. 28, he was suspended for the remainder of the preseason for detrimental conduct stemming from insubordinate actions during practice.
McDaniels said he'd entertain an escalating scale of discipline for Marshall if his misbehavior continued, but coaches and teammates say Marshall has had a good attitude and solid work ethic since his reinstatement this week.
Despite his lack of work this offseason, Marshall is expected to play a major role in McDaniels' offense, perhaps as early as Sunday.
"Look, we all know what he can do as a football player," McDaniels said.
His teammates said they welcomed back their muscular playmaker and are willing to let his selfish actions last month slide if he can stay focused on team goals and not his own agenda.
"There's not too many receivers that look like he does in the league," backup quarterback Chris Simms said. "He can bring confidence to an offense in a hurry. He's a special athlete."
Bringing confidence to the Broncos' defense is safety Brian Dawkins, the cornerstone of Denver's rebuilding efforts.
Dawkins, who joined the Broncos after 13 seasons in Philadelphia, brings not only his hard-hitting style but his leadership to a locker room where Shanahan's imprint fades by the day.
The Broncos were the most active team in free agency as McDaniels found a half- dozen new defensive starters, plus running backs Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan to go with top draft pick Knowshon Moreno in a refurbished offensive backfield.
The Broncos are shifting from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, but they don't really have the ideal personnel up front for such a switch. So they'll be counting on solid play from the linebackers and the seasoned secondary. Joining Champ Bailey, 31, in the team's retooled defensive backfield are free agents Dawkins, 35, Andre' Goodman, 31, and Renaldo Hill, 30.
The four thirtysomethings are being counted on to lead the revival of a Denver defense that was nothing short of dismal last year, when Bailey missed half the season with injuries.
"On paper we look pretty good," Goodman said. "We also look old."
If the Broncos have as woeful a season as so many are predicting, they might lament their decision on draft day to send their first-round pick in 2010 to Seattle to move up this year and take defensive back Alphonso Smith in the middle of the second round.
Because the Broncos own Chicago's top pick next year thanks to the Cutler trade, they could have offered the Seahawks the lesser of their two first-round picks instead.
McDaniels said the decision wasn't financial. So, by sending away the Broncos' own pick, he signaled a confidence he can step into his first head coaching job at any level and win right away without a franchise quarterback.
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