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McDaniels sealed his own fate, but Bowlen shouldn't escape blame

Josh McDaniels is out as coach of the Broncos. Is anyone really surprised?

In one-plus seasons McDaniels looked lost in the draft room, alienated assistants and tarnished the Broncos' iconic shield by failing to immediately report that his video director had illegally recorded an opponent's walkthrough practice. He lost not only 17 of his final 22 games, but also the benefit of the doubt with an insanely loyal fan base.

"My decision to relieve Josh McDaniels as head coach was not taken lightly," owner Pat Bowlen said in a statement. "I will always be appreciative of his passion, enthusiasm and hard work, and I thank him for his efforts. In the end I was not satisfied with the results and the direction this team was headed. The decision to make a change was extremely difficult but one that needed to be made for this organization and our fans."

It would easy at this point to dump on McDaniels, who provided his critics with more dirt and shovels than necessary. But doing so would miss the larger point that Bowlen is equally culpable in this mess. He's the one who fired two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan and made McDaniels the league's youngest head coach, then entrusted him with full control of football operations with virtually no safeguards. That's like putting an underage driver behind the wheel of a Maserati and turning him loose on an open highway. You're asking for disaster.

With no checks and balances, McDaniels could run wild. He did things like trade cornerback Alphonso Smith to the Lions one year after dealing a future No. 1 pick to draft him in the second round. He sent running back Peyton Hillis, who ranks 10th in the league in rushing, to Cleveland for a couple of late-round draft picks and third-string QB Brady Quinn. He dealt up in the first round last April to draft QB Tim Tebow, who could take years to develop, if he develops at all. There also were the trades of Pro Bowlers Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, although their departures have been minimized by the strong play of Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd.

Still, you can't help but wonder whether things would have been different if McDaniels had been required to answer to someone else. As it were, he basically was shielded from the outside by a tightly-woven cocoon of family and friends he hired on staff. A couple of his former colleagues from New England shook their heads earlier this year when mentioning how they had to go through channels to reach McDaniels by phone. The primary gatekeeper was Mark Thewes, a fiercely protective buddy who caught a playoff-winning 46-yard touchdown pass from McDaniels at Canton (Ohio) McKinley High.

There will be no such protection around Eric Studesville, the Broncos' running backs coach who has been named interim coach. But what of McDaniels' eventual successor? If Bowlen is wise, he won't make the same mistake and give total power to one person. The only perceptible difference between McDaniels and Shanahan was that McDaniels did not have the blank check to sign players. A source says he had to get contract parameters from Joe Ellis, the team's COO, before working out a deal. But the call on whom to draft, whom to cut, and whom to sign as a free agent ultimately rested with him.

The early list of prospective replacements for McDaniels includes Texans coach Gary Kubiak, a former Broncos player and assistant who could be in trouble in Houston; Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA coach who was wide receivers coach with the Broncos in 2002 and '03,; and Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who might want a change of scenery after 17 years in Tennessee. The bigger the name, the more control that person is going to want.

Question is, will Bowlen acquiesce? The answer could go a long way toward determining the fate of his franchise.

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