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McDaniels in spotlight as changes are implemented in Denver

ENGLEWOOD, Col. -- Dispatches from the Broncos training camp at their suburban Denver team complex, where rookie head coach Josh McDaniels is undeniably the big story in this football-crazed part of the world ...

After a Broncos offseason that included more than a little calamity -- I'm sure you remember -- here's what McDaniels endured in his first seven days of training camp:

Brandon Marshall, the team's leading receiver (and leading malcontent), hurt his leg/hip on Denver's third day of camp, after looking great the first couple of days. He remains out with an undisclosed injury that's either a left hamstring problem, or a tweaking of his surgically repaired left hip.

• Third-year veteran Jarvis Moss, the team's first-round pick in 2007, left camp for a few days while reportedly mulling over retirement. Moss, trying to make the switch from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker this season, is back, but he's also looking a bit lost at his new position and remains fairly well buried on the depth chart at this point.

• Veteran safety Brian Dawkins, the team's centerpiece acquisition in free agency, reportedly suffered a broken right hand in practice on Tuesday, and underwent surgery shortly thereafter. The best-case scenario seems to call for Dawkins to return in two weeks, but rumors have swirled that he could be out considerably longer.

• At an intra-squad scrimmage that drew a team-practice record crowd of more than 13,000 fans to Invesco Field Thursday night, new starting quarterback Kyle Orton was booed after throwing a pair of interceptions and looking ragged in the two-minute drill, and kicker Matt Prater was treated even rougher by the home fans after a pair of 43-yard field goal misses. Ah, yes, it's football season again in Denver.

• All of this played out amid a backdrop that included first-round pick Knowshon Moreno remaining unsigned and absent for the first week of camp, missing 12 practices and the scrimmage. In a rare bit of good news for the Broncos so far, the ex-Georgia running back agreed to terms Saturday on a five-year, $23 million contract and is expected to join the team when it resumes work on Sunday. Who knows, maybe things are starting to look up for the Broncos?

That's a lot of first-week challenges for any coach, let alone a first-time NFL head coach, and I couldn't help but wonder how McDaniels manages to catch his breath before another Rocky Mountain avalanche comes along and plows him under once more. Not that the 33-year-old former Patriots offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach looked particularly fazed by any of these early body blows when I sat down with him for a few minutes after Friday afternoon's two-and-a-half-hour practice.

"Nothing surprises me, not any more," said McDaniels, of the Broncos' eventful first week in camp. "I expect there will be more things that come up at some point here. You're right, there's been some different things. But I think the biggest thing is we haven't let those distract our team. We've come out here and practiced well I would say, the way we want to practice. They've stayed focused on what we're trying to accomplish here."

Having already visited three other camps of teams that feature rookie NFL head coaches -- the Chiefs, Colts and Rams -- I can unequivocally say that the Broncos' McDaniels is the only one of those four who is starting his program without the benefit of a honeymoon. Denver fans are still plenty riled up about how the Jay Cutler melodrama unfolded, and it seems to have robbed McDaniels of any grace period as he goes about remaking a Broncos team that had been stuck in the status quo under Mike Shanahan.

The thought that keeps coming back to me is this: I believe McDaniels will make a good head coach in this league some day, but will it be in Denver, or somewhere else? Will people here show enough patience with McDaniels to find out what kind of coach he can be, or will the unusual set of circumstances that unfolded as he began his tenure -- and the rabid nature of Denver's fan base -- conspire to rob him of the time to develop his head coaching talents?

Or as one astute Broncos observer said to me Friday: Maybe we're watching Bill Belichick in Cleveland all over again. Maybe the team that will benefit most is the one that hires McDaniels after Denver. We're not trying to predict his demise before he has ever coached a game with the Broncos, but I think it's an intriguing question to ponder given the level of creeping impatience with McDaniels that already seems to be present.

After having Shanahan and Cutler, the Broncos suddenly are led by McDaniels and Orton. Will they be given much of a chance if early success doesn't follow? I'm skeptical.

"Well, the truth is I'm not going to have a whole lot of patience," McDaniels said. "I'm not looking to win two or three years from now. Honestly, I know everyone sits there and looks at me like I'm nuts. But Kyle Orton will play fine. There's no doubt in my mind he'll play fine and our offense is going to play well. Our defense is going to keep getting better, and hey, if people don't believe that, that's why we play the games in September. I'm just not concerned about that."

McDaniels clearly doesn't lack for confidence, and it's a good thing because he really needs the courage of his convictions about now. He's making big, big changes in Denver, with a new offense, new starting quarterback and whole new approach to defense in the transition to a 3-4 formation. But all that change was on display in the scrimmage the other night at Invesco, and at times it wasn't pretty. Thus, the boos that rained down on Orton and Prater in particular.

"You want your fans to be passionate," Orton said. "It wasn't any different from Chicago. There's nobody patient in this league. That's just how it is. Especially at my position. We all know it's a big year for me and a big year for our team."

If nothing else, the scrimmage served as an initiation of sorts for Orton and McDaniels. If they didn't before, now they know they're in Denver, one of the NFL's longtime hotbeds. Of course, coming from Chicago and New England respectively, it's not as if Denver's level of interest in its team is completely foreign to the Broncos coach and quarterback.

"It's just the National Football League," McDaniels said. "When you do well, the place goes nuts, and when you don't, they want better. They want to win and we want to win. We're all hoping and trying for the same thing. I know that none of the players love to get booed and I don't want our players to get booed. But sometimes it's going to happen. It's part of the game, and it's part of this climate out here. It's a football-crazed town. It's like the Red Sox in New England. But I'd much rather have it happen now (the booing) than in the regular season."

McDaniels, Orton and the Broncos have to endure the side show of the Bears and Cutler coming to town Aug. 30 for the third preseason game, but that's not going to tell the story of Denver's season. The defining stretch that everybody has circled starts in Week 4, with a visit from the Cowboys. From Week 4 to Week 12, the Broncos play eight games and take their bye, and they come off the board this way: Dallas, New England, at San Diego, bye, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh, at Washington, San Diego, New York Giants. That's all of October and November right there, and what a daunting sight it makes for from this vantage point.

If Denver struggles and gets off to a poor start in September -- at Cincinnati, Cleveland, at Oakland -- things could get real ugly, real soon for McDaniels and his Broncos as the weather turns cooler.

"Only time will tell really," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Once the games start, we'll see what we can do. He (McDaniels) wants to win. I understand that. Everybody's job is on the line. Everybody's. Speaking for myself, I'm definitely on board. I know if we don't get on board, we won't win. I respect what he's trying to get done here."

• As intense as McDaniels has made training camp, and the Broncos have hit in full pads almost daily so far, an unheard of occurrence in the Shanahan era, he's trying to make time for some fun, too. The day I was at practice, McDaniels concluded the workout by telling his players they would cancel their team meeting that night, and their curfew, if two defensive linemen -- one veteran, one rookie -- could successfully field punts on their first try.

Kenny Peterson came through for the veterans, and Chris Baker responded in kind for the rookies, albeit after getting more than one crack at it. On another day, McDaniels had a "slip and slide" for the rookies, with a strip of grass watered down to the point of a muddy mess before practice, so that the rooks had to practice with mud-soaked uniforms. The Broncos also blast loud music at the start of practice, with different position segments being allowed to pick the playlists from their own iPods.

• One guy who is going to be busy in the Broncos offense is slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who gets to play the Wes Welker role in the offense that McDaniels brought with him from the Patriots. Someone told me Stokley caught about 25 passes at the scrimmage the other night, and the Broncos are going to use plenty of those receiver screens that New England is so well known for.

• If there's a key to the success of the Broncos new 3-4 defense, it's fifth-year nose tackle Ronald Fields, who came over from San Francisco in free agency. The 6-2, 314 pound Fields hasn't started since opening a career-high nine games for the 49ers in 2006, but he was a major contributor in San Francisco the past two seasons, where he played for current Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Denver seems to have confidence that he can hold the point of attack, and he's by far their most experienced option at the nose.

• Has there ever been a secondary in the NFL where all four starters were 30 or older? Don't know, but that's the plan in Denver, where Dawkins, 35, Bailey, 31, Andre Goodman, 31, and Renaldo Hill, 30, are slated to be the starting foursome.

"I think we all have a lot left," Bailey said. "We have a lot of experience. We've all seen a lot. There's nothing they could say to me that I haven't seen before, and nothing I could say to them that they haven't seen."

But with Dawkins already dealing with a health issue in that broken hand, the Broncos might be dipping into their less experienced depth at defensive back for a while.

• The Broncos say their offense under Orton will have enough verticality to stretch the field and keep opposing defenses honest. But Orton clearly doesn't have Cutler's gun, and some believe Denver will struggle to complete much over 30 yards. That could result in more a dink-and-dunk style of passing game than we've seen from Denver under Shanahan, who always liked the long ball.

"I've been impressed with Kyle's arm," second-year receiver Eddie Royal said. "He's overthrown me a couple times in practice. I think his arm is strong enough for what we're trying to do."

• It's too early to declare that Moss can't play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he's not getting any inside rush, and he's not strong enough to do anything but get pushed wide by the Broncos offensive tackles when he comes from the outside. To have much impact at all this season, he's going to have to fight his way up the team's depth chart from where he currently resides, getting second- and third-team snaps.

• Chatted up backup quarterback Chris Simms, who is loving his Denver experience so far, even if he's not yet pushing Orton for the starting job.

"If had you asked me a year-and-a-half ago if I thought I'd ever be in this good of a spot again, I might have doubted if I would ever play football again," said Simms, of the long recovery from his ruptured spleen, suffered in 2006 in Tampa Bay. "Sometimes I have to just keep things in perspective and say that I've got to be grateful that I'm out here, having fun, and still knocking on the door. I know my chance is going to come again, and when I get that chance, I've just got to make it work."

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