ENGLEWOOD, Colo. The Denver Broncos underwent an extreme makeover this winter.
After posting their first losing season since 1999 and missing out on the playoffs for a second straight season, coach Mike Shanahan retooled the roster, juggled his coaching staff and shook up the front office.
Sent packing were general manager Ted Sundquist, defensive coordinator Jim Bates, recalcitrant receiver Javon Walker and troubled tailback Travis Henry, among others.
But the biggest change for the franchise came when quarterback Jay Cutler finally got some answers for his fade in 2007, and it wasn't the pressure of taking over the offense in football fanatical Denver, as both he and the team had suspected.
Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes this spring after he inexplicably lost 35 pounds last season, then could hardly get out of bed for offseason workouts.
Thanks to synthetic insulin and a drastic change in diet, Cutler's blood sugars are down, his weight and spirits are up, his stamina and strength are back and so are his famous fastballs, as evidenced by his receivers' incessantly sore hands.
He's the picture of fitness.
And he aims to restore the Broncos to health this season, too.
When the Dallas Cowboys held joint workouts at Dove Valley this summer, Cutler huddled with Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, who spent 14 years in the NFL managing both offenses and diabetes.
"He's dealt with it for a long time, said it was manageable, just like I've been trying to do the last four or five months," Cutler said. "He went through his career with it, and I don't see any reason why I can't."
Cutler, the 11th pick in the 2006 draft, threw for nearly 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns last season even though he was losing sleep and pounds at an alarming rate.
In the weight room, he couldn't lift as much, and when he and teammates Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler, fellow members of the Broncos' heralded 2006 draft class, gathered in Atlanta over the winter to work out together, Cutler was so exhausted it was all he could do to just hit the snooze button.
"He couldn't get out of bed for workouts," Scheffler recalled. "I think it was more relief than anything that he's finally got it taken care of and he's on top of it, and I think it's going to make him a better player."
Cutler has a revamped group of receivers to work with this season, although the star of the show, Marshall, will miss the first game for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
When he returns, he'll start opposite rookie Reggie Royal, a second-round draft pick who quickly surpassed free agents Darrell Jackson, Keary Colbert and Samie Parker for the starting job in training camp.
Shanahan felt so good about this year's team that he went on the radio and broke custom to predict a playoff appearance, something that's usually the domain of rookies who don't know better.
Shanahan backpedaled a bit on the podium later that day, adding the caveat: "if we stay healthy."
The words still hung in the air a few days later when rookie running back Ryan Torain, an imposing 6-foot-1, 225-pound ball carrier from Arizona State, somersaulted out of the Broncos' backfield with a broken elbow, requiring surgery and a three-month recovery and putting a serious damper on Denver's mood.
"It's a big loss. A big loss," a somber Shanahan said that day. "I thought he had a chance to compete to be a starting running back. One of the most gifted running backs that I've been around for a long time. Very similar to Terrell Davis when he came in."
Without Torain, the Broncos will rely on young backs Selvin Young, Andre Hall and Anthony Alridge, and they'll be running behind a revamped offensive line that could include five new starters if center Tom Nalen's surgically repaired knee continues to bark.
Among the newcomers are left tackle Ryan Clady, the 12th overall pick in the draft out of Boise State, who is charged with protecting Cutler's blind side.
On defense, there's a new boss in town for the third straight season.
This time, it's Bob Slowik, and he's going back to the eight men in the box concept with quicker linemen who can pressure the passer better.
The Broncos shuffled their linebackers, moving D.J. Williams from the middle to the weak side, his natural position, and signing free agents Boss Bailey and Niko Koutouvides, who is manning the middle with Nate Webster.
They also signed two veteran safeties, Marlon McCree and Marquand Manuel, whose presence led nine-time Pro Bowler John Lynch to request his release. He later signed with New England.
Lynch is the second vocal locker room leader to leave the defense in two summers, following linebacker Al Harris last year. So, there's a big void that cornerback Champ Bailey said he'll do his best to fill.
Rod Smith retired this summer because of a chronically bad hip, but he promised to continue serving as Marshall's mentor.
Jason Elam, the team's career leading scorer, bolted for Atlanta in free agency, leaving the Broncos with an unknown Matt Prater at kicker for the first time since 1993.
Elam's 395 field goals rank fifth on the career list and are 394 more than Prater has.
But Elam's leg strength waned in recent years, forcing the Broncos to either keep an extra specialist or turn to punter Todd Sauerbrun, who wore out his welcome in Denver last December and also was jettisoned.
In stepped Prater, whose forte is kickoffs because of a powerful right leg that reminds many of a young Elam. But it's his reliability between the uprights that will draw the real comparisons this season.
"No one's going to be able to replace Jason. He did such a great job for so long," Prater said. "I'm just hoping to come out and do the best I can do and see what that amounts to."