Then, he went out and fixed it—first by hiring John Elway, who remembered how things worked when the Broncos were one of the NFL's premier organizations, then by bringing on John Fox as coach and, eventually, Peyton Manning to play quarterback.
On Monday, the day after the Broncos closed out a 13-3 regular season and wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the team distributed a different kind of memo, a five-page list titled "Denver Broncos 2012 Regular-Season Superlatives"—quite a fitting symbol for a franchise that has transformed itself from a punch line with a 4-12 record to a Super Bowl favorite in the span of two years.
How to explain a turnaround that came ahead of schedule?
"You look at Pat Bowlen and his career as owner of the Denver Broncos. He's amassed an unbelievable record. That doesn't just fall out of the sky," Fox said of his owner, who has brought two Super Bowl and 10 division titles to Denver since he became owner in 1984. "John coming back to the organization, his background. Just his commitment to being successful, doesn't matter what that was, whether it was football or business. I knew what kind of competitor he was.
"And I've done it before. In Carolina. It was just a good fit and I'm happy it worked out."
Back with the Broncos and running their front office, Elway signed Fox, citing his positive attitude and the quick-turnaround ability he showed in taking Carolina from 1-15 to the Super Bowl over the course of two years. Elway drafted Von Miller, who finished the season with a franchise-high 18 1/2 sacks. And Elway, of course, signed Manning while also jettisoning Tim Tebow, whose success in Denver created a confusing, emotional mix that might have made it difficult for a less-beloved figure to sort out.
"I don't look so much at who was here, who wasn't here, who gets credit," Fox said. "It's more what that one guy in 53 can bring to the team and bring to winning a world championship."
Of Denver's 53 guys, Manning, of course, is No. 1. The quarterback is in the hunt for his fifth Most Valuable Player award. Nearly an entire page of the five-page handout from the Broncos is dedicated to listing his achievements this season.
—Single-season franchise records for completions (400), yards (4,659), completion percentage (68.6), touchdowns (37) and passer rating (105.8).
—Tied a personal best and set a team record with nine 300-yard games.
—Became first quarterback to make a Pro Bowl after missing the previous year due to injury.
—Led Denver to 11 straight wins by at least seven points, tied for the second-longest streak of all time.
"I had no real expectations for what this year would be like, so I don't know if you can exceed expectations if you never really had any," Manning said after Denver wrapped up home-field advantage with a 38-3 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. "Some things were really kind of wait-and-see for me, but it's been a gratifying regular season and very humbling. I have to admit that."
Fox is using the bye week to stay sharp, calling for short, crisp practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and a mandatory weightlifting session Saturday, mainly to keep the team "focused, not concerned with flights to other states and those type of things, especially close states." (Think, Nevada.)
After the weekend, the Broncos will know who their next opponent is—either Cincinnati, Baltimore or Manning's old team, the Indianapolis Colts.
The playoff game is scheduled for Jan. 12—two years minus one day to the date Fox came to the Broncos, who were a mess at the time, reeling from an embarrassing videotaping scandal, a midseason coaching change, a league-worst defense and the presence of Tebow, who was drafted by a coach who wouldn't put him in the lineup. That coach was Josh McDaniels, now offensive coordinator for the Patriots, whose name still raises hackles in Denver.
In so many ways, however, his departure feels like longer than two years ago.
"It's a lot of people with a commitment to work hard to make it happen," Fox said. "It's a big commitment. Not just a little bit of interest. It's a commitment to being world champions and we've been working on it for two years. We get that opportunity again to get in the tournament and see what happens."
Notes: Barring a change in the NFL schedule, either the Broncos or Raiders will play a Thanksgiving game at Dallas in 2013, which hosts an AFC team in the traditional holiday contest next year. Denver will also travel to Houston and New England while hosting the Washington Redskins and former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. ... The Broncos outscored opponents 299-138 in the second halves of games this season, the third-highest second-half scoring differential since the 1970 merger. ... Broncos gave up fewest sacks in NFL (21) this season while sharing the league lead in sacks on defense (52). ... Denver finished fourth in total offense and second in total defense, marking fourth time in team history finishing in top five in both categories. ... The team said the 5,000 playoff tickets it put on sale Monday sold out in nine minutes.