The rival Broncos are a divisional opponent for the Raiders.
But that’s the only thing Raiders coach Josh McDaniels says is significant about their Week 4 matchup Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.
“We’re trying to get ourselves going here at home. First division home game, we’re excited about that,” McDaniels said about the matchup with his former team. “I’ve said this many times, they gave me a great opportunity at a young age, and I’m thankful for that and learned a lot of lessons from that.”
Whatever lessons McDaniels learned are not yet reflective in the Raiders’ record. They’re the only team with an 0-3 record, falling three times by one score to the Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans.
To secure his first win since 2010 on Sunday, McDaniels and the Raiders must beat the Broncos — for whom he was the coach in 2009 and 2010. His tenure in Denver was disastrous, marred by turnover and conflict with players and coaches and concluding with an 11-17 record and losses in 17 of his final 22 games.
But he doesn’t pay that any mind anymore.
“Eager to have the opportunity to compete against them for sure,” said McDaniels, 46.
Then 32, McDaniels was among the hottest commodities in coaching after an eight-year tenure in New England. The Patriots reached four Super Bowls, won three and established several NFL offensive records with McDaniels working as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
The Broncos, meanwhile, were mired in the mediocrity that would ultimately end Mike Shanahan’s 14-year term as their coach. He was beloved in Denver for his two Super Bowl victories, but fired after the 2008 season after finishing 24-24 in his final three seasons.
In his final news conference with the Broncos, Shanahan offered one simple suggestion to his successor.
“Whoever the head coach that comes in (is), if he doesn’t see what the offense did both in the running game and the passing game and the youth, (he) would have to be crazy not to try to keep the people that made it happen,” he said.
To that point, the Broncos finished second in 2008 in total yardage — boasting cornerstones such as 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler and 24-year-old Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates was beloved by Cutler, who in 2008 set franchise records in passing yards, attempts and completions.
McDaniels was hired Jan. 11, 2009, and promptly fired Bates, then traded Cutler three months later to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton amid the failed pursuit of quarterback Matt Cassel, whom he had coached in New England.
He also cut long snapper Mike Leach, a revered veteran within Denver’s organization, replacing him with Lonie Paxton, one of several former Patriots the Broncos would sign.
“Within that building from almost immediately after he was hired, there was no honeymoon period. He kind of came in and disrupted so many things,” said former Broncos beat writer Lindsay Jones, now an NFL editor at The Ringer. “He only saw kind of one way of building a team and how to act as a head coach, and it didn’t really fit. It wasn’t who he was.”
When the Broncos finally congregated, McDaniels told the players “don’t worry about the QB situation, I can turn a (high school) QB into an All Pro,” according to former Denver offensive lineman Tyler Polumbus, who shared the sentiment via Twitter.
When contacted by the Review-Journal, Polumbus declined comment — deferring instead to his series of tweets. Several other former Broncos players did not respond to requests for comment, though former Denver offensive lineman Ryan Harris noted that McDaniels “didn’t do any work” to build relationships with players.
“He made football the least fun it ever was,” Harris said.
But the Broncos succeeded anyway, at least in McDaniels’ first six games.
They won all six, and their defense played like one of the NFL’s best, holding their first five opponents to 17 points or fewer. A 20-17 overtime victory over the Patriots in Week 5 triggered an effusive celebration from McDaniels, who uncorked several fist pumps while walking down the sideline moments after a game-winning field goal.
“It was one of those things you shouldn’t act like that in victory,” said Broncos beat writer Mike Klis, who has covered the team since 2005 and writes for Denver’s NBC affiliate. “It was just kind of the (lack of) emotional maturity. … that he thought he had to be ready as a head coach.”
A Week 7 bye preceded Denver’s unraveling, and the Broncos would lose eight of their final 10 games to finish 8-8.
Jones said players were “beat up” and “demoralized,” in part because McDaniels insisted upon padded practices into November, when teams typically attempt to minimize the wear and tear their players are inherently subjected to.
Meetings also routinely ran long and were rather mundane, Harris said — especially on Fridays, when it’s commonplace in the NFL for coaches to dismiss players by 1 p.m. at the latest. Broncos players were often required to stay at the facility until 4 p.m, Harris said.
“It was pretty clear the team wasn’t going in the right direction,” Jones said. “A lot of that was just the way he interacted with people and the players.”
Almost the entire coaching staff was turned over before the 2010 season, but the Broncos went 3-9 anyway — triggering McDaniels’ firing. What’s more was that one of his assistants illegally filmed a San Francisco 49ers’ practice during Week 8 before the teams were to play in London.
The violation was uncovered and investigated by the NFL in 2010, resulting in $50,000 fines for the Broncos and McDaniels.
“He gets his bona fides from one of the most successful coaches in the NFL’s history, and he markets himself well,” said Harris, who started 70 games in nine NFL seasons, including all 16 in 2015 for the Super Bowl champion Broncos coached by Gary Kubiak.
“When he gets in the room with players, you can’t market to players,” Harris added. “You have to lead to win, and you need input from players. The greatest coaches know they’re a part of the team — not that they run the team.”
McDaniels spent the past 11 seasons working as an assistant, including the past 10 under Bill Belichick in New England. When he was hired in January by the Raiders, he addressed his tenure in Denver and acknowledged he “didn’t really know people and how important that aspect of this process and maintaining the culture” were.
“Looking at that experience has been one of the best things in my life in terms of my overall growth as a person, as a coach,” McDaniels said. “What do I need to do different, how do I need to handle my role, if I have another opportunity, and do better at it? I feel like that’s really an area that I’ve tried to grow in.”
Whether the Raiders’ record reflects it or not.