A FAST START, AND A DEPRESSING FINISH

Three months after Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach, he stunned the league by trading Jay Cutler to the Bears in exchange for Kyle Orton and draft picks. In one swoop, McDaniels had placed his stamp on the Broncos, believing that Orton could effectively run the offense he had orchestrated with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel in New England.

The overall results of McDaniels’ first season — and the Broncos’ 50th — were promising at first. Although the offense struggled to get going early, it made enough plays to win — none bigger than the 87-yard, tip-drill Orton-to-Brandon Stokley touchdown pass to give the Broncos a 12-7 win at Cincinnati to open the season.

Energized by the win and a revived defense under new coordinator Mike Nolan, the Broncos roared to a 6-0 start that included an overtime win over the Patriots in a game played in throwback uniforms for both teams to commemorate the 50th season of each club’s existence.

But at midseason, the Broncos began crumbling, losing four consecutive games by a combined 80 points. A two-game winning streak followed before the Broncos collapsed entirely in December, dropping four games, including narrow losses to Oakland (20-19) and Philadelphia (30-27). A 44-24 defeat to Kansas City in which Jamaal Charles trampled the defense left the Broncos in the same place they were a year before: 8-8 and out of the postseason.

Without Cutler’s howitzer right arm, the offense declined, falling from second in the league in 2008 to 15th. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was capable of almost anything, from a league-record 21 receptions against the Colts in Week 14 to getting in trouble by punting a ball instead of handing it back to an equipment staffer in the preseason.

Eventually, Marshall would be suspended for the final game of the regular season, and would be traded the following offseason. Nolan departed for Miami after a mutual decision to resign his position, despite the defense’s across-the-board improvement from the previous year.

The optimism of the first six weeks of McDaniels’ regular-season tenure had evaporated, and the Broncos would not be able to reverse the momentum in 2010.

2009 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/13 at cincinnati bengals 12-7
9/20 cleveland browns 27-6
9/27 at oakland raiders 23-3
10/4 dallas cowboys 17-10
10/11 new england patriots 20-17
10/19 at san diego chargers 34-23
11/1 at baltimore ravens 7-30
11/9 pittsburgh steelers 10-28
11/15 at washington redskins 17-27
11/22 san diego chargers 3-32
11/26 new york giants 26-6
12/6 at kansas city chiefs 44-13
12/13 at indianapolis colts 16-28
12/20 oakland raiders 19-20
12/27 at philadelphia eagles 27-30
1/3 kansas city chiefs 24-44

2009 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb kyle orton 15
qb chris simms 1
rb correll buckhaler 7
rb knowshon moreno 9
fb peyton hillis 2
fb spencer larsen 1
wr jabar gaffney 7
wr brandon lloyd 1
wr brandon marshall 13
wr eddie royal 12
wr brandon stokley 2
wr matthew willis 1
te brandon gorin 1
te daniel graham 14
te tony scheffler 9
c casey wiegmann 16
t ryan clady 16
t ryan harris 8
t tyler polumbus 8
g ben hamilton 8
g/te russ hochstein 10
g chris kuper 15

2009 defense

Pos Player Starts
de robert ayers 1
de vonnie holliday 3
de kenny peterson 14
de le kevin smith 2
dl ryan mcbean 14
nt ronald fields 16
lb andra davis 13
lb/de elvis dumervil 14
lb mario haggan 16
lb d.j. williams 16
cb champ bailey 16
cb tony carter 1
cb andré goodman 16
cb ty law 2
s david bruton 1
s brian dawkins 16
s renaldo hill 15

Record: 8-8
Second place, AFC West