ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For a brief time, Josh McDaniels was a celebrity in Denver and he played the part with gusto — running to the corner of the stadium after his first signature win and pumping his fists at the crowd to celebrate.
"This doesn't mean a whole lot unless you can share it with somebody," McDaniels said that day. "Sometimes, you're allowed to have fun."
The fun ended almost as quickly as it began.
And less than five years after that big win over New England vaulted the Broncos to an unexpected 5-0 record, the name "Josh McDaniels" stirs up far more angst and anger in Denver than those of the men he beat that day, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
"I ain't got nothing to say about him," says Broncos defensive lineman Robert Ayers, a first-round draft pick during the two-year McDaniels era that Broncos fans would love to forget.
The man who gave the Broncos a videotaping scandal and a league-worst defense, who alienated fans and left the franchise holding the bag on the Tim Tebow experiment, returns Sunday to try to deliver another dagger to Denver.
He's now working as New England's offensive coordinator and will try to devise the game plan to send the Patriots to the Super Bowl and keep his old team, the Broncos, out of it.
A 33-year-old coach with a thin resume and a lot to prove, McDaniels got another victory after the New England win in 2009 to extend his tenure-opening winning streak to six games. He followed that with 17 losses over the next 22 games and got fired with four weeks left in the 2010 season.
"Obviously, his time here was a little shorter than he probably hoped or expected, but that's in the past," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, a third-round pick in McDaniels' second draft in Denver.
The presence of Decker, Ayers, Demaryius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno and left guard Zane Beadles — all key cogs in the Broncos' current success — adds a layer of complexity to the discussion about what, exactly, McDaniels left behind in Denver. Sure, he turned out to be a callow leader, not near ready to guide an NFL franchise. But he didn't completely whiff on every choice.
"He's been vilified, but he's a bright, young coach and you see what he's done in going back to New England and being their offensive coordinator," said John Elway, who was brought back to the Broncos to clean up the McDaniels mess. "I don't know why it didn't work out, other than the fact he didn't win enough games."
But it was more than that.
It was the cheating — the Broncos got caught in an embarrassing videotaping scandal that transpired while they were practicing to play the 49ers in London.
It was the secrecy — he created an environment of mistrust, not only with the media, but with fans, who never felt they were getting the full story. Shortly after firing him, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen sent an apology to ticketholders: "You deserve more from this franchise than what we saw in 2010, and you have my word that I will restore the culture of winning, trust and integrity within the Broncos," he wrote.
And it was the roster — successes aside, there were also a number of mistakes: The botched handling of Jay Cutler's ouster. (Not that all Broncos fans disagreed with the move itself.) The out-of-nowhere trade of the popular and effective Peyton Hillis. And, the move that symbolized it all — McDaniels' decision to run counter to the opinion of every other NFL front office and use a first-round pick on Tebow, and then, just as inexplicably, to leave him wallowing on the bench.
Elway hired John Fox in part because Fox had a sunshiny disposition the franchise sorely needed after 22 months of being beaten down by the man they called "McHoodie." Fox made things work with Tebow for a year and actually coaxed the Broncos to a playoff victory. Then, they went to New England and lost 45-10 in the 2011 divisional playoffs.
"It was a pretty good indicator of how far we had to get moving," Fox said, speaking of the roster he inherited.
Elway's decision to jettison Tebow in favor of Peyton Manning made things right very quickly in Denver.
Now, the story comes full circle.
It will be Manning trying to decipher the Belichick defense, while McDaniels calls a Patriots offense that has shined this season, even after replacing key playmakers Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski with a far-less-accomplished group including Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount.
McDaniels was not asked about his time in Denver during an interview with Patriots beat writers earlier this week, though he has never offered much when asked about it previously.
Brady, who finds himself a win shy of his sixth Super Bowl in part because his offensive coordinator has done a masterful job getting more out of less this season, said if McDaniels is extra motivated to beat Denver, he hasn't let on.
"He's always focused like he is every week," Brady said. "He's one of the best coaches that I've ever been around and why I love being coached by him because he brings it every day."