- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 14, 2009

Champ Bailey sure didn’t see this coming.

The Denver Broncos got off to their best start this season since they won the Super Bowl more than a decade ago - a wave of success that caught even the eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback by surprise.

“At the beginning of every year, I expect us to be in the running to go to the playoffs,” said Bailey, a former Washington Redskins standout now in his sixth season with the Broncos. “Now if there was a season that I could not have been so optimistic, it was probably this year.”

Bailey had good reason for modest expectations. The Broncos lost their final three games last year, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to blow a three-game lead in the final three weeks and costing coach Mike Shanahan his job after 14 seasons.

The collapse also capped an extended run of disappointment: The Broncos haven’t made the playoffs since 2005 and have won only one postseason game since they beat Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII at the end of the 1998 season. In 2005, they missed the playoffs despite a 7-2 start. The following season, they lost four of their last six games.

During a tumultuous offseason after last year’s collapse, the club replaced Shanahan with a 33-year-old rookie, Josh McDaniels.

Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler demanded a trade in February, and in April he got it.

And the 30th-ranked defense underwent a thorough overhaul in personnel and scheme, getting new coordinator Mike Nolan, adding five starters and promoting two backups.

“In order to change the culture, in order to change what hasn’t been good in a couple of years, it isn’t just one person coming in and saying it’s going to change,” said Nolan, who imported the 3-4 scheme he ran in three-plus seasons as the coach in San Francisco.

Said McDaniels: “We acquired a number of very talented players… many of whom had played in this kind of a system in terms of a 3-4. We felt like we got a group that can work well together, which is what they’ve done for the most part.”

Bailey bought into the new defensive system as well as the overall program of McDaniels, who earned his reputation running the record-setting offense of 2007 AFC champion New England. But the club’s belief in its new system and success has been shaken the past two weeks.

The Broncos suffered back-to-back, one-sided losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. What was a 3 1/2-game lead on San Diego in the AFC West is now down to one. The Broncos face a far easier test Sunday, when they meet the struggling Redskins at FedEx Field. Still, the doubts linger: Were those defeats an aberration or a sign of things to come?

“It’s a little bit of who we played and a little bit of what we didn’t do,” Bailey said. “There were a lot of plays that we could have made the past two weeks that could have changed the game, and we didn’t make ‘em. We were making those the previous six weeks.”

Cerebral but unspectacular quarterback Kyle Orton, acquired from Chicago for the more talented but less coachable Cutler, threw three of his four interceptions in Monday’s loss to the Steelers.

The Broncos’ running attack crashed in the two losses, plummeting from 133 yards a game to 47. The total offensive output fell from an average of 368 yards to 221.

The third-ranked defense fared no better. The Broncos stopped opponents on 72 percent of third downs during the 6-0 start but only 40 percent of the time in the two losses. And, after recording 21 sacks and forcing 12 turnovers in the first six games, they posted five sacks and forced two turnovers in the defeats.

Safety Brian Dawkins, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection with Philadelphia who signed with the Broncos in February, is unruffled by the sudden downturn.

“If I’m walking around panicking, pouting, then that’s what I’m going to preach,” Dawkins said. “If I’m working [and] I’m diligent in my study in the classroom… and if I’m busting my hump in practice, then that’s the sermon that I’m going to preach. We’ve said what we needed to say. We know what we need to do. It’s just about doing it now.”

The remaining schedule certainly is favorable for the Broncos to get back to the playoffs: They play four games against some of the league’s worst teams: the Redskins, Kansas City (twice) and Oakland.

The Broncos should get to 10 wins even if they lose to the more formidable Eagles, Chargers, Indianapolis and New York Giants. But nothing is taken for granted these days in Denver, where poor finishes have dashed playoff hopes the past three seasons.

“You’re happy to start with wins and we were, but [we’re] not content,” McDaniels said. “We haven’t accomplished anything.”

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