Peyton's place wasn't in Denver

October 7, 2010

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.