ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It had to be nice for John Elway to see a familiar face after New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams became the third candidate to spurn the Denver Broncos.
Rick Dennison, who spent almost a quarter century with the Broncos as a linebacker and an assistant coach, arrived at Dove Valley on Tuesday to interview for Denver's head coaching vacancy shortly after Williams withdrew his name from consideration just 24 hours after agreeing to interview for the job.
That marked the third time a candidate brushed off the Broncos and Elway, their new executive vice president of football operations. Elway is leading the search and has said the next coach should be as big a believer in Tim Tebow's promise as he is.
Last week, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey canceled his interview and Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers without granting Elway an audience.
New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and Broncos interim coach Eric Studesville, who went 1-3 after Josh McDaniels' firing Dec. 6, stated their cases Sunday, and former Carolina coach John Fox gets his chance Wednesday.
Dennison's interview on another bitterly cold day in Denver was followed by that of Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's pitch.
Koetter, who golfs on the same course in Jacksonville as Tebow does, said he sees a bright future for the hardworking but raw rookie left-hander who supplanted Kyle Orton as the Broncos' starting quarterback last month.
"He's a tremendous football player; Tim's definitely in the developmental phase," Koetter said, echoing Elway's remarks over the last week. "It's very difficult to step in from the type of offense he ran in college and move into an NFL-style offense. But if anybody can get it done, I'd never sell Tim Tebow short."
Unlike Koetter, Dennison didn't have to introduce himself to Broncos brass. He knew his way around the building and exchanged plenty of greetings with his former co-workers.
Dennison and Elway were teammates from 1983-90 and Dennison was on the Broncos' coaching staff when Elway and Terrell Davis led the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl titles in the late 1990s.
With Dennison having spent 24 years in Denver, many consider him the front-runner.
He was a linebacker and special teams stalwart for the Broncos from 1982-90 and then joined Mike Shanahan's staff in 1995. He stayed on for one season under McDaniels before becoming Gary Kubiak's offensive coordinator in Houston last year.
Dennison is the only candidate who lacks the NFL head coaching experience Elway said was a must, but his deep organizational knowledge would seem to make up for that.
"I don't know if it's an advantage or disadvantage," Dennison said of his strong ties to the team. "I've been around the Broncos forever. ... How can I not be excited? I'm orange and blue all the way, but I work for Houston now."
Kubiak, who also has deep roots in Denver, said he'd miss Dennison but wouldn't mind losing him back to the Broncos.
"He deserves the opportunity," Kubiak said. "He's done a good job in this league and I know it's a big day for him, so we wish him all the best; and if he gets it, we're happy for him, and if not, we're lucky he's back."
Dennison also interviewed for the Broncos' job two years ago when McDaniels was hired.
"I've got an open mind coming in," Dennison said. "I've got some ideas and either they like them or they don't. Whatever's best for the organization, they're going to do."
One of Dennison's ideas is an old one: returning to the zone blocking, one-cut scheme that paved the way for the Broncos' dominant ground games of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Denver's league-worst defense is a major point of emphasis with the search committee that includes Elway, general manager Brian Xanders and team president Joe Ellis.
"There's a lot of work to be had, and I'll leave it at that," Dennison said. "We'll have to get it fixed if that's the opportunity. Somebody has to do something."
The Broncos will get pass-rushing star Elvis Dumervil back next season. He missed all of 2010 with a torn chest muscle one year after leading the league in sacks. But star cornerback Champ Bailey could leave.
Koetter wouldn't share his plan to fix the defense with reporters after he arrived at Denver International Airport, but did say, "It's tough to be a (top) defense in this league when your best pass rusher is out all year. What a difference that guy makes."
Dennison would potentially bring both benefits and baggage back to the Broncos, who need a major makeover following a franchise-worst 4-12 season, Denver's fifth straight without a playoff berth.
He's spent his coaching career with three head coaches who are offense-minded, and fixing the Broncos' deficient defense, which ranked last in the league, is the team's top priority.
He's spent a dozen years as an offensive coach and those offenses have ranked eighth on average. With Alex Gibbs retired, he's the top teacher of the zone blocking scheme. But he wasn't the primary play-caller in his four seasons as offensive coordinator.
And he's an unknown commodity when it comes to how he'd serve as the face of a franchise. He maintained the much-derided code of silence during his years coaching the Broncos' offensive line and the team is emphasizing transparency following McDaniels' alienation of the fan base.