Peyton’s place wasn’t in Denver

Josh McDaniels has never been shy about shedding some of the

players he inherited from Mike Shanahan’s star-studded offense.

With Kyle Orton leading the league in passing and a half-dozen

of his targets already in double digits in catches, there doesn’t

seem to be a lot of angst among Denver Broncos fans over the

departures of Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler, no

matter how well they’re playing for their current teams.

Given the Broncos’ woeful running game, however, McDaniels is

drawing plenty of scrutiny for his decision to trade backup

tailback Peyton Hillis to Cleveland this spring.

Hillis has the Browns’ ground game in high gear while the

Broncos are ranked last in the NFL in rushing, making what was a

rather minor trade one of the hottest topics in the league at the

quarter pole.

Twenty-three running backs have run for more yards than Denver’s

220, including Hillis, who has 322 yards and four touchdowns. His

two 100-yard games are as many as the Broncos running backs have

managed in 20 games under McDaniels.

Hillis also leads the league in third-and-short conversions at

5-for-5, something the Broncos have had trouble with ever since

McDaniels made oft-injured Knowshon Moreno his first-ever draft

pick last year.

Hillis is averaging 85 yards a game on the ground and the

Broncos 55.

So, was the answer to the Broncos’ running woes right under

their noses all along?

Not a chance, McDaniels insists.

Denver’s ground game woes go way beyond the guy carrying the

ball. The injury-riddled and inexperienced offensive line has had

trouble clearing the line of scrimmage between the tackles, and the

few times there have been lanes, the banged-up backs haven’t hit

the holes fast enough.

As offensive coordinator Mike McCoy suggests, it’s all 11

players on offense plus their coaches who bear both the blame and

burden to fix it.

McDaniels won’t look back with regrets over sending Hillis to

the Browns, either.

”We’ve talked a lot about that. Again, Peyton was a good

person, a good player and he’s in another place right now and, you

know, whether he would be effective here or not, that would be

speculation on our part and everybody else’s,” McDaniels said

Thursday. ”And I wish him the best, but we’ve got to focus on what

we’ve got here.”

Which is quite a mess.

The Broncos gained just 19 yards on 20 carries at Tennessee last

week, their worst per-carry average in 38 years. Correll Buckhalter

and Laurence Maroney combined for just 8 yards rushing and Orton’s

three scrambles for 11 yards produced the team’s most effective

runs for the second straight week.

For his part, Hillis has Denver in his rearview mirror. He said

Thursday he hopes McDaniels doesn’t keep getting bashed for trading

him to the Browns.

”They’re 2-2. I love being a Cleveland Brown,” Hillis said.

”Hopefully, he doesn’t take too much heat because he’s a good

coach and he’s doing a great job for that organization.”

Hillis quickly fell out of favor with McDaniels, carrying just

13 times for 54 yards and a TD last year.

The 240-pound bone-rattler energized the Broncos in 2008 when he

emerged during an injury epidemic among the team’s tailbacks and

ran for a team-high 343 yards and scored six touchdowns before

tearing his right hamstring against Kansas City in December.

The Broncos sorely missed his toughness and production as they

lost their last three games to miss the playoffs, which led to the

coaching change at Dove Valley and a new career path for

Hillis.

Hillis’ rugged running style that gave the Broncos’ struggling

offense a nasty aura in ’08 also earned him legions of fans who

were befuddled by his lack of carries last year when McDaniels

ignored him in short-yardage situations, even though Moreno kept

coming up short.

Finally, McDaniels shipped him to the Browns for quarterback

Brady Quinn, closing the book, if not the debate, on Hillis’ short

stay in Denver.

McDaniels told Sports Radio 104.3 The Fan in Denver last week

that while the Broncos felt Hillis could be successful in the NFL,

”I think ultimately it wasn’t a great fit.”

McDaniels believes in spreading the ball around to a bevy of

backs, so nobody’s going to get 25 carries a game in his offense

like Hillis is doing now in Cleveland, where injuries have forced

him into a more prominent role.

”I think he’s found a place that’s maybe a better fit for

him,” McDaniels told the radio station. ”Our offense wasn’t

really centered around that type of style.”

Last week, McDaniels labeled ”ridiculous” the notion that

handing the ball to rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, whose bruising

running style helped Florida win two national titles, could be the

salve for the short-yardage, red-zone runs that keep getting

stuffed.

Moreno hasn’t played since straining his left hamstring on Sept.

23. He returned to practice Wednesday but McDaniels held him out

Thursday.

Newcomer Andre Brown doesn’t yet have the coaches’ confidence in

pass protection, McDaniels said. That’s a big issue given the

pounding Orton took last week at Tennessee, when he was sacked six

times.

Despite being one-dimensional, the Broncos are 2-2 thanks to

Orton, whose 1,419 yards passing through four games is second in

league annals to Kurt Warner’s 1,557 yards for St. Louis in

2000.

”I’d definitely trade in passing yards for offensive balance,”

McDaniels said.

That’s one trade that wouldn’t draw any debate.