ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - Josh McDaniels. The mere mention of his name brings back bitter, embarrassing memories in Denver.
Yet only a year after he was unceremoniously booted out of Broncos headquarters, labeled as the callow coach who ran a once-proud franchise into the ground, it might be time to rethink McDaniels' role in turning the Broncos into AFC West contenders. The coach who believed in Tim Tebow also brought in a solid core of players who have been key to the team's five-game winning streak.
Eric Decker, a third-round draft pick in 2010, leads the team in receiving.
Demaryius Thomas, picked in the first round in 2010 ahead of Tebow, caught two touchdowns last week in a win over Minnesota.
Two of the linemen anchoring the NFL's top rushing attack: Those would be Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton, another pair of McDaniels draft choices.
Cornerback Andre' Goodman, he of game-changing interceptions against the Jets and again last week against the Vikings - he was a free-agent signing during the McDaniels era. So was veteran safety Brian Dawkins, a team leader whose decision to come to Denver looks like it may afford him a chance to contend for a title after all.
"You can really see the guys who are still here and what they're doing," Dawkins said. "I think that says a lot about what we actually had here. You just couldn't really see us play before because of some of the stuff that was going on. But all that stuff is old."
McDaniels is suffering through a 2-10 season in St. Louis as the Rams offensive coordinator. Citing team policy that makes coordinators available only once a week, the Rams did not permit him to be interviewed for this story.
That his offense in St. Louis is ranked second-to-last in the NFL doesn't break many hearts in Denver, where he did, in fact, come by his reputation honestly. He will never be loved in the Mile High City and his firing, last Dec. 6, was widely viewed as the end of one of the darkest chapters in the franchise's history.
After a 6-0 start, he went 5-17. He came off as a know-it-all who wore the Bill Belichick hoodie but had none of his mentor's experience, success or rapport with players.
He drafted Tebow but refused to play him, a one-two punch that confused people last year and looks even sillier now - though it was McDaniels' intent on turning Tebow into a prototypical pocket passer, not revamping his offense to fit the quarterback, as John Fox has done.
At the tail end of his 23 months with the Broncos, McDaniels got caught in an embarrassing videotaping scandal - the Broncos were fined $100,000 for taping parts of San Francisco's practice before a game against the 49ers. In a letter to season ticket holders sent after McDaniels' ouster, owner Pat Bowlen acknowledged how far things had fallen for a franchise that had once been viewed as one of the best in pro sports: "You have my word that I will restore the culture of winning, trust and integrity within the Broncos," Bowlen wrote.
McDaniels also took heat for his clumsy handling of trade talks involving Jay Cutler that created an atmosphere of distrust and ultimately led to the quarterback's departure. He also was no huge backer of two of the team's most productive players, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Marshall, both of whom were traded away.
But, for the record:
Cutler, though prospering in Chicago, is injured and won't be playing when the Bears visit Denver on Sunday. While his relationship with Bears fans has improved greatly this season, his first two seasons were almost as rocky as his time in Denver, where every quarterback is compared to John Elway.
After a good first season in Cleveland, Hillis has been dealing with injuries all of this year and has run for only 321 yards. Meanwhile, his ongoing contract issues - he wants an extension and the Browns haven't given him one - have been a distraction.
Speaking of distractions, Marshall has had a productive season (63 catches, 910 yards) for a mediocre team in Miami but, as was the case in Denver, he has made headlines off the field. The Broncos, meanwhile, received two second-round picks for Marshall, one of which was packaged to move up in the draft to pick Tebow, the other used this year for starting right tackle Orlando Franklin.
"He (Marshall) wanted a contract we weren't going to pay," said Broncos general manager Brian Xanders, who was on hand for the McDaniels era. "Two secondrounders was more than fair for what we thought the conversation would be. We feel great about the picks we got. That's what happens sometimes."
Of course, the Broncos' fate - at least for the time being - appears tied to Tebow, who has a 7-3 record as a starter and has helped the Broncos into an improbable first-place tie with Oakland in the AFC West.
So, it must be said McDaniels was the coach who thought highly enough of the quarterback to risk a first-round pick on him.
The coach was widely lambasted for the move, and though Tebow's path to success isn't what McDaniels may have envisioned, every win furthers the case that McD was right to take that chance.
"You don't judge players or a draft class or a situation by one game," said Broncos linebacker Mario Haggan, who came to Denver during Mike Shanahan's last season but gives McDaniels credit for "kickstarting' his career. "You judge it over time. I don't think that you spend time bashing Josh. I just think you give coach Fox credit, for coming in with guys that he didn't draft and using the personnel that he had and making the best of it."