The Denver Broncos kicked Josh McDaniels out of a job. They're not going to throw him under the bus.
Speaking on behalf of team owner Pat Bowlen, chief operating officer Joe Ellis said Tuesday the organization was at fault for giving McDaniels too much power at too young an age with so little experience.
"I think the responsibilities that he was burdened with, it's fair to say that we probably burdened him with too much of that and we were unfair to him in that respect," Ellis said. "And we certainly need to assess that and look at that moving forward."
Ellis said that while a new front office structure isn't even in the blueprint stages yet, the next coach probably won't have as much say in personnel matters as McDaniels did.
McDaniels, 34, was fired Monday amid the team's worst slide in four decades, an 11-17 record, and a host of off-the-field troubles, including a series of personnel decisions that backfired and the Spygate II videotaping scandal that tarnished the franchise.
McDaniels was replaced on an interim basis by running backs coach Eric Studesville, 43, who will get a crack at the full-time job when the Broncos begin their search for the franchise's 14th head coach next month.
"Surprised and humbled and honored," Studesville said of his sudden ascension.
After determining that two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan had amassed too much power, the Broncos pledged they wouldn't give McDaniels the same amount of responsibility when they hired him as Shanahan's replacement in January 2009.
Yet, that's exactly what they did.
"I think it kind of evolved and grew into that and as I said, I take some responsibility on behalf of Pat for allowing that to happen," Ellis said. "... And it's very likely that the plan will not empower the next head coach with the kind of authority that Josh was probably unfairly put upon him. And it's also fair to say that we'll stick to that plan."
McDaniels, who was 32 when he was hired, had no head coaching experience at any level and had never made personnel decisions when he was handed the keys to the franchise. A few months later, he was allowed to hire videographer Steve Scarnecchia, whose secret tape of the San Francisco 49ers' practice in London got McDaniels in hot water and would weigh heavily in his dismissal five weeks later.
Ellis said he told McDaniels upon his firing Monday afternoon that he still believes in him.
"I said, 'I'm disappointed that it didn't work out for you but you're going to be a good coach. Unfortunately, it's going to be somewhere else,'" Ellis recounted. "I think he'll grow from this and learn from it and you know his intellectual mind when it comes to football is ... superior, it's terrific."
The Broncos (3-9) lost 17 of their last 22 games under McDaniels and he sent some talented players packing, most notably Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Peyton Hillis. He also traded away several draft picks in deals that backfired, resulting in a run-of-the-mill roster whose lone star, cornerback Champ Bailey, is probably playing his final month in Denver.
Bowlen still owes Shanahan $3.5 million next season and McDaniels is owed $6.7 million over the next two years, although the Broncos could try to reduce that amount by contending McDaniels was fired for cause, something Ellis declined to comment on. McDaniels' agent, Bob LaMonte, didn't return messages Tuesday.
The Broncos don't have a timetable for hiring a new coach, they haven't begun a search and they're not even sure who will do the hiring. It could be a general manager will be hired first and he'll make the call.
Ellis said he still thinks the Broncos' head coaching position is a plum job in the NFL, and Studesville will be the first one lined up for an interview.
"Eric's got a four-week audition," Ellis said.
While names such as Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher are being bandied about, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, a former assistant on Shanahan's staff who could burnish the team's tattered image, said Tuesday he has no plans to leave the Academy.
The Broncos initially stuck by McDaniels, who was fined $50,000 for failing to notify the league that his videographer had broken NFL rules by taping an opponent's practice. The team and the league determined that Scarnecchia, who was fired, had acted alone. But much of the public didn't buy that, leading to widespread accusations that the Broncos were cheaters.
Bowlen gave McDaniels a vote of confidence on Nov. 29 but quickly tempered his remarks with a statement saying a decision would be made on McDaniels' future at season's end.
After the Broncos' 10-6 loss at Kansas City on Sunday, Bowlen decided he'd seen enough.
"There were a bunch of factors that went into Mr. Bowlen's decision and if you add them all up it was just too overwhelming for Josh and the organization to overcome and so the decision was made," Ellis said, adding: "And there wasn't any point at that point delaying it."
So, McDaniels was summoned to the owner's office as the team finished up a conditioning run. Several hours later, he drove off in his silver Range Rover with a honk and a wave.
The Broncos were left trying to restore the franchise's integrity and battered image.
"We've got a long way to go," Ellis said. "We've got a LONG way to go."
One way the organization could start winning back the fans is to expand John Elway's consulting role, perhaps by making him the team's top football executive.
"The conversations that we've had with John clearly indicate one thing, and that is he loves the Broncos and he loves Denver and he wants to help if he can," Ellis said. "I don't know where that's going to go, if anywhere."
McDaniels' ouster leaves the future of several players in doubt, most notably raw rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, the 25th pick in the draft.
Shortly before he was fired, McDaniels said he was reticent to turn to the former Florida star with Kyle Orton having such a good season and Tebow lacking seasoning.
Ellis said Bowlen has no opinion on Tebow's playing time.
"Pat's never made a decision like that or asked a coach to play a certain player and I don't think he's going to ask that of Eric," Ellis said.
Ellis said he was speaking on Bowlen's behalf because the owner has entrusted him with all the day-to-day operations for the organization, "and there have been a lot of things that have happened to our organization that are not good and I feel partially — if not close to totally — responsible for, on his behalf."
McDaniels is the fourth disciple of New England coach Bill Belichick to get fired from his first head coaching job, joining Romeo Crennel with Cleveland, Eric Mangini with the Jets and Charlie Weis with Notre Dame.
"I was disappointed to see that for Josh. Unfortunately, I know what it feels like," said Belichick, who was fired from his first job, in Cleveland.
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman contributed.